The Commune: Inequality and a New Social Contract

Dear Friends,

A few weeks ago, K who works as a domestic worker in two homes in my neighbourhood had a family emergency—her husband who had a stroke in 2019 had a relapse. Rushing to a hospital, she had to turn back as she did not have Rs. 7000 she was asked to pay for a procedure to drain blood clots. Already reeling from the impact of the lockdown which saw her income halve when her employment in one home ended abruptly, she was now doubly affected and compelled to take a loan against the deposit made for the room she rents in a basti for her family of four.

As I listened to her, I was reminded of the fragility of surviving the pandemic and its continued impact. An existence so tenuous that a medical situation leads to debt. Or where the loss of income of parents losing jobs has meant children dropping out of school to work or being married off. In K’s case, it has meant battling one insecurity after the other every day even as she continues to look for additional work that is difficult to come by. It’s a reality for millions of India’s informal and daily wage workers whose lives the pandemic and subsequent lockdown upended.  

Yet, even as we’re coming up to a year since the lockdown was announced in India in March 2020, a recent Oxfam report, Time to Care, has a different story to tell about the fortunes of the wealthy and how they were affected. The report states that the 1,000 richest people worldwide recovered their losses from the pandemic within nine months as opposed to the world’s poorest who might take a decade to limp back to their pre-pandemic standing. The Inequality Virus Report further finds that Indian billionaires increased their wealth by 35% during the lockdown. This, while ‘Eighty-four percent of the households suffered a loss in income in April 2020 and 170,000 people lost their jobs every hour in the month of April 2020’. Unemployment of women also rose by 15% from a pre-lockdown level of 18%. The report also found that women who were employed before the lockdown were also 23.5 percentage points less likely to be re-employed compared to men in the post lockdown phase. For an already vulnerable group, this only increases everyday uncertainties.

Inequality was deeply entrenched even before the pandemic. It is now amplified by this inequality crisis that enables the elite to accumulate more wealth at the expense of groups like women and girls who continue to put in 3.26 billion hours of unpaid care work every day. It led me to revisit one of TCC’s podcasts during the lockdown, The Invisible Work of Care, which explored women’s invisible and often unrecognised labour through the lens of two women. The impact of a crisis is never gender neutral as the one we continue to live with indicates. The Oxfam report also points to how a mere 0.5% extra taxation for the rich over the next 10 years could equal the investment needed to create 117 million jobs in sectors such as elderly and childcare, education and health. 

Where amidst these statistics then, you might ask, do we as individuals and communities have a role to play in addressing these gross inequalities? On the heels of the budget that was just announced by the government for the financial year 2021-22, the Ministry of Women and Child Development saw its allocation shrink to 0.7% from 0.98% last year, as per reports. HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, in its analysis of the budget observed that children received the lowest share in the last ten years. This, despite evidence pointing to the need for higher investment for groups that are most marginalised. 

As I grapple with what this means for the year ahead, I wonder if a starting point is to look more closely at the inequalities that exist around us, to make room to have these conversations and to demand more of those elected to govern. It feels more important than ever as we look at inequality gaps that have risen to levels last seen when we were colonised. 

We would love to hear from you on where and how you see inequalities play out in your everyday and the conversations you hope to begin with to change what it looks like.


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