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Delivering Social Protection to Informal Workers: Lessons Learned From COVID-19 Relief Measures in India

Over 80% of India’s workers participate in the informal economy, which means they are subject to income precarity, they operate under non-standard employment contracts, and they enjoy limited labor rights. The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown it necessitated across India – one of the most extensive lockdowns in the world – have shattered these livelihoods. The state has responded by developing a broad range of large-scale relief in the form of food, housing, wages, and repatriation. Additionally, the crisis has brought into sharp focus a population alternatively referred to as “daily wage workers”, “migrant workers,” “the urban poor,” or “casual laborers.” The conditions of informal employment create and shape the nature of relief while also confounding the processes of delivering that relief. Promised entitlements struggle to reach informal workers precisely because the nature of their work makes them hard to track if they are mobile across regions; beyond regulatory frameworks; employed in workplaces that are hard to reach, such as landfills, streets, and private homes; and without access to the usual delivery channels, such as bank accounts and registered employers.
Given these challenges, Dr. Gautam Bhan, recipient of an AXA Research Fund Award at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, investigates with his team how state governments delivered COVID-19 relief to construction workers, domestic workers, home-based workers, waste pickers and street vendors.

Specifically, their research asks three questions: (1) What can be learned from innovations and institutional arrangements set up to delivery relief? (2) Which relief measures can and should be incorporated into a transformed safety net for informal workers in “normal” times? (3) What factors will determine which relief measures can transition into post-crisis social protection systems and what are the policy design, public finance, and institutional requirements that will enable them to do so?

Building on long-standing relationships with worker organizations as well as with state governments, Dr. Bhan and his team assess, model, and document state and non-state relief initiatives in housing, food security, income and wage transfers, and health systems for all informal workers across urban India.

Even before COVID-19, India’s urban social safety net was a patchwork defined more by gaps than coverage. A less understood part of the problem has been the difficulty of actually setting up systems that can deliver entitlements that were already promised to informal workers prior to the pandemic. The nature and conditions of informal work confound easy answers: one cannot assume enforceable contracts, workplaces range from public streets to landfills to private homes, the “employer” is an uncertain category in complex supply chains, workers are mobile, and many are outside formal systems of ID cards and bank accounts that comprise key elements of the usual modes of delivery. The question is, then, how did state and non-state actors get the promised relief to such workers during the crisis? Which systems of beneficiary identification were used? Which geographies were targeted? How was demand measured and located? How was the relief monitored and accountability ensured? What institutional arrangements were set up to transact these models? Were any risk analysis and hedging options leveraged? 

Moreover, informal sector households face a multitude of risks— ranging from medical emergencies and natural disasters to job/income loss and death or injury to their earners. The penetration of insurance in India is generally abysmal, due primarily to affordability and awareness. How can we imagine a medium-term movement towards insurance for the informal sector—one that binds together at least shelter, food, and income—with the goal of enabling greater household financial sufficiency?

In terms of methodology, Dr. Bahn and his team will combine desk reviews with key informant interviews to create delivery model typologies, and then assess replicability and scalability through financial assessments at the program level and the household level, legal and regulatory analysis techniques, and geo-spatial analysis in order to assess coverage geographically. The team seeks to both inform how current relief measures for informal workers can be scaled and continued into cycles of recovery, as well as assess how they can become part of an expanded social safety net post-crisis that will protect workers when the next inevitable crisis occurs, whether it is epidemiological, economic, or natural.



Indian Institute for Human Settlements





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