For 30-year-old Sasi Kumar, an Uber driver in Delhi, owning a car and earning Rs 15,000-20,000 a month was more than enough. It was more money than he had ever earned; it helped his small family of three survive. He also had the flexibility to earn more if he wanted to; more hours meant extra cash.
Life, however, came to a standstill for Kumar this March when the coronavirus pandemic overwhelmed the country. Stuck at home, his earnings abruptly halted, he has been at the mercy of the local moneylender for his expenses, of which the EMI (equated monthly instalment) of the car loan he took from an NBFC (non-banking financial company) accounts for a fat chunk. “Uber told me I’d be put on goods delivery duty, but it didn’t work. Getting (police) passes to move around is very difficult,” he says. He has got 20 kilos of wheat-free from the state government, but it isn’t sufficient.
Kumar earns his livelihood in a growing segment of the Indian economy that employs millions of semi-skilled workers, such as drivers and delivery agents, who work in asset-light businesses that do not offer a social security net. He is also among the millions who have been badly hit by the lockdown the country was put under on March 25 to arrest the spread of COVID-19. Indeed, in the 35 days of the lockdown so far, health statistics reveal that the transmission of the novel coronavirus has been slow. While every death is a tragedy for the family, a country of more than 1.3 billion people has counted a relatively low 1,008 deaths as on April 29, compared to, say, 59,284 in the US.
We cannot be sure of the final outcome of the Great Lockdown on the lives of the people. But what we know for sure is the havoc it has wreaked on the livelihoods of those like Kumar. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), a private research organisation, estimates that 120 million Indians have been rendered jobless in the one month of the lockdown. Of the total 406 million people employed in the country, only 20 per cent, or 81.2 million, are in the ‘salaried’ category. While the pandemic won’t spare them either, the future will be bleaker for the remaining 324.8 million, who are either daily wagers, self-employed or small farmers.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in two televised addresses, one shortly after the lockdown, the other almost a month into it, had appealed to businesses not to lay off people and to pay their salaries during the lockdown. The Prime Minister’s Office is also said to be keeping tabs on news items reporting lay-offs and salary cuts. Anecdotal evidence from across the country continues to point toward companies resorting to lay-offs and wage cuts. A recent survey of 200 CEOs conducted by industry body CII (the Confederation of Indian Industry) showed 52 per cent of them foreseeing job losses in their respective businesses.
The tourism and hospitality sector, for instance, is staring at potential job losses of around 38 million, or a whopping 89 per cent of the 42.7 million people directly employed in the sector, a report by advisory firm KPMG said on April 1. The World Travel and Tourism Council, a global forum to raise awareness about the industry, pegs losses in the Indian sector at nine million. The Federation of Indian Export Organisations (FIEO) forecasts that over 15 million jobs could be lost in India’s export sector as half of all orders got cancelled and units are unable to repay loans.
CMIE estimates show that unemployment shot up from 6.7 per cent in mid-March to 23 per cent in the first week of April.
Coming as it did at a time when the Indian economy was already grappling with one of its lowest growth rates in 10 years, the pandemic-induced lockdown will only further bleed the economy. “There is no light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel,” says Manish Sabharwal, co-founder of TeamLease, an executive hiring firm. “We do not even know whether we are in the beginning, middle or end of the pandemic.”