ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Locked Out at the Margins

The pandemic and lockdown have been particularly hard on those at society’s margins.

The deleterious effects of the pandemic and the strict measures of lockdown have brought immense misery and risks for those who continue to be at the margins and fringes of the Indian society, even during non-COVID-19 times. These marginalised sections include the transgender community, the disabled, street children, sex workers, and others. The imposition of lockdown has not only aggravated precarity in their everyday survival but has also created more odds and obstacles in their efforts to earn their living and lead a “normal” life.

For a large number of these communities, the streets of cities and towns have become their main sites to earn their livelihoods. Begging and selling petty goods are the two main sources, and these have not been chosen by them but have been thrust upon them. Each of these sections is vulnerable in its own way. The disabled hawkers in public transport and on the streets make a living for their entire families. A number of transgender persons, sex workers and the disabled have formed associations and organisations to pressure policymakers and governments to heed their rightful demands. These organi­sations petitioned the courts and governments to ensure access to basic services like food, medicines, etc, during the lockdown. Others, like the street children, have to depend on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to practically help them and plead their case.

In Jharkhand, Telangana and Karnataka, for example, the respective high courts directed the state governments to supply foodgrains, medicines and other basic necessities to the transgender community. The Telangana High Court instructed that there should be no insistence on the production of ration cards to get these supplies. A public interest litigation has also been filed in the Delhi High Court on the behalf of sex workers and the transgender community there.

That these organisations are forced to plead their own case before the high courts and petition the government is illustrative of their struggle for a dignified existence. But more than that, it is also an indictment of the entire society that thinks nothing of excluding, marginalising and even persecuting lakhs of persons who are “not like us.” The Telangana High Court’s directive not to demand the ration card before distributing necessities is also telling of a huge problem that these communities face: lack of documentation, which in many cases, leads to their being virtually treated as non-citizens. Again, except for a few states like Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh that have welfare boards for transgender persons, these sections have to fight for survival every single day. Just how difficult the lockdown is for those who live only by what they manage to beg and earn each day, can be well-imagined.

News reports have recorded how children from a children’s shelter home in Mumbai escaped but were brought back by the police. The child inmates of such custodial institutions have been suffering indescribable emotional distress, according to reports. For those who live on the streets or whose parents are daily wagers and labourers in acute economic distress, being locked down also means physical violence and abuse, if they demand food and necessities that are in scarce supply. Transgender and non-binary persons have pointed out that the lockdown has forced them to stay among their families which are hostile to them. For all these communities, the long lockdown period has also meant great difficulties in accessing even non-COVID-19 medical and health services. As is obvious, even in non-COVID-19 times, major sections from the marginalised have faced stigma and discrimination from health services personnel. The lockdown has only added to their woes. Almost all these sections have had to depend on the charity and voluntary services of NGOs and public-spirited individuals.

The disturbing aspect is that even the potential end of the lockdown will not really improve their access to livelihoods and health services. If anything, the economic slowdown and the impact on services will render them even more vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination. Their access to government welfare programmes is also not an assured one. While cities depend on the labour and services of these sections, it is also a truism that the latter in turn depend on the economic vibrancy of the cities for their living.

In most societies, the so-called privileged sections that are at the centre rarely look out for the well-being of those who are at the margins and fringes. In the case of the communities and sections that we have mentioned, society has not bothered about their welfare; on the contrary, it has sought to stigmatise them. However, it is an encouraging sign that many from the marginalised got together to demand their rights during this critical and painful period. It is now the turn of the policymakers and society at large to realise and help end this entirely human-made misery.

 

Updated On : 29th Jul, 2020

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