The recent Oxfam report ‘Time to Care’ states that the top 10% of India’s population hold 77% of the country’s total wealth. The report also says that the richest have cornered a huge part of the wealth through crony capitalism and inheritance.
We are aware that historically privileged social groups, i. e. Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, inherit the ancestral property (access to land was denied to untouchables) and means of production. These groups of people occupy higher positions in all sectors and exploit the remaining majority of the population. Exploitation of this population is largely connected with the regressive social structure of caste system that exists in our country.
The caste system is 2000 years old, imposing social hierarchy in Indian subcontinent. Caste system categorises society into four varnas i. e. Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. A fifth category falls outside the varna system known as ‘untouchables’ or ‘Dalits’. Shudra and untouchables were denied education and upward mobility. In 1948, the caste system was abolished by law. However, it continues to prevail, and rampantly so, in our everyday lives.
Affirmative action policies, such as reservations in schools, colleges, and the legislature helped many overcome centuries of economic deprivation and social oppression. Affirmative action minimised social inequality but it did not abolish the caste system and also did not help in shifting the economic resources. The means of production continue to remain in the hands of upper caste groups. Social inequalities can often determine everything from social interactions to economic opportunities. Today, in the time of the coronavirus pandemic, social inequality has only become more visible.
The coronavirus pandemic is a global crisis, which had destroyed livelihoods across the world. Many big countries failed to handle the critical situation created by the virus. India was also one of the worst affected countries. Health infrastructure in India is very weak as the country spends only 1.2 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on healthcare. Indian public health care service ranks among the lowest in the world. Naturally, this mainly affects Dalit, Adivasi, women and other minority groups which are socially oppressed.
Coronavirus pandemic revealed a highly unequal distribution of resources. Availability and affordability of various services during this time such as healthcare, education, technology, leisure, etc. are based on income level, employment status, gender, caste and religion.
On March 24, 2020 the central government announced a three week nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus in the country. We witnessed the migrant workers’ crisis immediately after the lockdown. Millions of workers were sent home, forced to work remotely by lockdown and social distancing rules. Nearly 200 migrant labourers and their family members died while walking back to their homes due to accidents, violence and starvation. The workers who died were those working in the informal sector without social and employment security.
According to the Oxfam study, in India, Dalits, tribal groups and Muslims are highly underrepresented in better paid and higher status jobs. They are mostly engaged in lower paid jobs in the informal sector. The total workforce of India working in the informal sector is around 90-92% (about 450 million).
The migrant crisis also exposed social evils such as the level of starvation and extreme poverty existing amongst these groups. Poverty has increased in India post the coronavirus pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that about 400 million people will slip into poverty due to the impact of the pandemic. These will mostly be workers in the informal sector.
We saw how school education switched to online learning post lockdown. In India, about 50% of the population does not have access to the internet. Students from rural and marginalised backgrounds face difficulties in attending online classes conducted by schools and colleges because of the lack of social facilities. Twenty-seven crore students have been affected since the lockdown was imposed, according to the Oxfam India report. The impact of the pandemic on students was in terms of access to education, modes of education delivery and education entitlement in private and government schools.
Girls are more likely to lose out as boys are more likely to have access to the Internet than girls. Students have died by suicide out of the pressure to attend online lectures when they didn’t have access to mobile phones.
Children from Adivasi and Dalit communities are at high risk of malnutrition due to their dependence on the mid-day meals. The Oxfam India survey estimates that many students will not return to school once they reopen. This can increase the risk of child labour and child marriage amongst the underprivileged communities.
Women suffer from a wide gender gap in employment, wages and education. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2020 ranks India 112th of 153 countries in offering equal opportunities to women and men. The burden of domestic responsibilities keeps many women away from work.
Care work in the family has increased in the pandemic. Women in the labour force is mostly engaged in the informal work such as domestic work, sex work, and agriculture. Lockdown has exacerbated the marginalisation of women, especially the poor women. Lack of digital access also makes them more vulnerable in the job market. In the pandemic, more jobs are shifting online, and the digital divide might worsen the job market inequality.
The surge in violence post pandemic affected millions of women. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in every three women across the globe experiences physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. There was a twofold rise in complaints of domestic violence since the lockdown began in India. Men either don’t go to work or have lost jobs during this time leading to increased poverty, frustration and violence.
Sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, atrocity against Dalits, Muslims and minority groups rose in the pandemic. Government’s decisions about dilution of labour laws, privatisation of public sector units, Environment Impact Assessment Act, National Education Policy, Farmers’ bills, etc are evidently affecting various groups badly, especially the poor and the marginalised, clearly indicating the incumbent leaders’ lack of concern towards Dalits, Muslims, Adivasi and other marginalised groups.
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