For several years, I have known Rabin as the man supplying cottage cheese to a shop in our neighbourhood. Rabin is from Nuwakot where, in the absence of substantial farmland, his family has relied for their survival on dairy production using the most rudimentary tools.
“Thanks to Khadka ji, I have been able to earn a modest but steady income,” Rabin tells me.
Khadka ji, the owner of a relatively large grocery store in my locality, seems obviously happy with Rabin’s supply of cottage cheese. But Rabin is not sure what the future holds.
“Based on whatever little news I’ve read, things look uncertain,” he tells me.
During the same conversation, Rabin is candid enough to admit that if the lockdown continues, his meagre savings won’t be enough to shield his family. It’s not that he hasn’t tried saving, he tells me. But with such a modest income, a majority of which gets spent on basic needs, there isn’t much left to save anyway. Over the course of the Covid19-induced lockdown, Khadka ji’s shop has been opening for a few hours everyday, but the supply of the Nuwakote paneer has been highly erratic.
In another section of my neighbourhood, Liyakat, a 20-something hawker, sells fruits. My family has been among Liyakat’s regular clients and we have been happy with his services. Although he once told me he was from Rautahat, a neighbour doctor repeatedly reminds me that he is, in fact, from across the border in India, as if this were a very important piece of information. I have never asked my educated neighbour where he got this information, but my sense is that he equates certain ethnicities with interlopers.
Notwithstanding my neighbour’s suspicions about his origins, Liyakat’s life is characterised by ordeals that are strikingly similar to Rabin’s. His typical day begins at 4 am when he visits the Kalimati vegetable market on his bicycle to obtain fruits. Summer or winter, I have never seen him in anything but the same set of chappals. Even after spending the entire day trying to sell fruits, he barely manages to earn enough to send back to his village where his family depends on his income.
“Hawking is becoming increasingly unprofitable,” Liyakat tells me a few days before the lockdown took effect, when the streets were already empty and he was struggling to sell his fruits. “People prefer buying fruits from ‘malls’ nowadays.”
I imagine by ‘malls’ he means the supermarkets and departmental stores across Kathmandu that have begun to line their shelves with fruits and vegetables. Since the lockdown, I have not seen Liyakat. Was he among those who walked back home from Kathmandu on foot? Possibly.
There are many in Kathmandu whose lives are vastly different from those of both Rabin and Liyakat. A major apparel manufacturer who exports to Europe and who I spoke to as the lockdown began said he had suspended production temporarily. I wanted to ask him about his 200 plus workforce, but he cut the conversation short, saying that this is no time for business. The priority now is to save ourselves, according to him. But unlike those with savings and resources, many like his employees are faced with the dual challenge of protecting themselves from the virus while finding new ways to subsist.
While this manufacturer can afford to suspend his business, the same is not true for the vast majority who comprise the working class – daily wage workers, hawkers selling anything between street food, vegetables, clothes to cheap imitation watches – and who fall within the parameters of the informal economy. Scholars like Peter Singer have recently flagged the socio-economic costs of lockdowns in the form of unemployment and exacerbated poverty. Their key argument is that, for many, the costs of the lockdown far outweigh the benefits and that we must look into alternatives to lockdowns to effectively curb the pandemic without hurting the already marginalised. Dr Rathin Roy, an Indian academic, has recently argued that less affected pockets should selectively and cautiously be allowed to resume production and other economic activities whereas the ban on transport must be eased.
Given their high degree of dependence on daily or weekly earnings and minimal savings owing to modest incomes, thousands may become prone to morbidities if not outright mortality in the context of a prolonged lockdown. It is fallacious to think that these workers can simply go back to their jobs post lockdown. The blow to the economy will have a multidimensional and cyclical impact that goes beyond the immediate loss of jobs and incomes. Production systems will take their time to restart. People’s purchasing power will reduce. Economic activities of all kinds will dwindle for a considerable period of time before they rise again.
In order to protect people like Rabin and Liyakat, many countries have announced relief measures, although whether these are sufficient and inclusive still remains questionable. Nevertheless, any hands-on intervention inspires far more confidence compared to televised motivational speeches that only call for social isolation and harmony. Solid steps such as cash transfers to the most vulnerable are essential. As is maintaining a steady supply of essentials.
The Nepal government should reach out to its pool of expert technocrats to help it build more targeted mechanisms, keeping in mind that it is answerable to all sections of society, and not merely businesses and the wealthy lobbying for relief.
It is nothing short of a tragic paradox that a supposedly pro-poor government has fared so terribly in showing commitment to ameliorating the plight of its most vulnerable populace. Making matters worse, the NCP leadership has been mired in a corruption scandal involving the procurement of Covid19-related medical kits and supplies.
The Finance Ministry, according to media reports, has already indicated that while relief measures have been announced, resource constraints and logistical difficulties in getting the needful to the needy throw doubt in its implementability. When the government fails to implement effective emergency measures, it widens the potential for social unrest. And as hundreds of thousands of lives are thrown into precarity, the privileged classes with financial security will have to face the wrath of the underprivileged.