Domestic workers are amongst the most exploited in India's unorganised sector. Performing poorly paid and laborious work with little recognition from their employers, who often refer to them as ‘help’, and with no benefits from the state, they have suffered immensely during the series of lockdowns. Many were not paid salaries, lost jobs or faced reduced incomes. Increased precarity has translated into food insecurity and inability to meet basic needs such as making payment for rent and children’s education.
Amidst this, the announcement by the Karnataka government to disburse a one-time payment of Rs 2,000 to 11 categories of unorganised workers, including domestic workers, under the Seva Sindhu Scheme appeared to be a welcome move. The reality of its implementation has, however, been disastrous, making a mockery of the scheme’s intentions.
Domestic workers were initially told to register themselves for a smart card under the Ambedkar Karmika Sahaya Hastha Scheme of the Karnataka State Unorganised Worker Social Security Board under the Unorganised Sector Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008.
A PIL had already been filed in 2020 by the Domestic Workers Rights Union in the Karnataka High Court demanding that 3,000 domestic workers who had registered under the Act be issued smart cards. During the pendency of the case, however, the government on June 10, 2021 withdrew the Ambedkar Karmika Sahaya Hastha Scheme without explanation and instead instructed workers to register under the Seva Sindhu Scheme.
The catch was that only below poverty line (BPL) card holders belonging to 11 occupational categories could avail of the scheme. Further, the only available method was an online application. However, many domestic workers don’t have smartphones or computers on which to access this form, much less follow the elaborate instructions that accompany it. The scheme requires workers to obtain an “employment certificate” from their employers, which needs to be attested by a gazetted officer. Finding such an officer is not straightforward, which means middlemen enter the equation and, in turn, take a cut of the cash transfer to facilitate the process.
The form asks if the worker is self-employed or employed by an establishment. While this may work for other occupational categories, for domestic workers, a third category was needed — employment by individual employers. Once workers got the employment certificate, at a point in time, several documents had to be uploaded, including their proof of date of birth and address, as well as a passport size photo onto the portal. As if the process is not already cumbersome enough, the content of the form has been changing on a day-to-day basis, making it impossible to prepare to fill the form.
Frustratingly, the scheme’s portal is functional for only about 50% of the time. Thus, it recently took four volunteers from an apartment complex in North Bengaluru a total of 16 hours altogether to register seven applications on behalf of their domestic workers. To make matters worse, there is no communication of a deadline for registrations under the scheme leaving room for rumours. Tellingly, domestic workers and their families are desperate enough for the payment of Rs 2,000 to attempt this onerous process and attendant frustrations.
The refusal to issue smart cards to domestic workers pre-pandemic, the continued exclusion of BPL workers outside of the 11 specified categories from the Seva Sindhu Scheme and the atrociously poor implementation of the scheme even for BPL card holders make one wonder whether announcing Covid relief schemes was merely a cynical ploy to garner political capital when in fact the state is actively working to deny workers the cash that they desperately need. Why else do workers eligible for relief find their accounts force-deducted for interest due on existing government loans rather than obtain a complete release of the intended benefit? Why else is the state using the pandemic as a spring-cleaning platform to drop 85,000 workers from the rolls of BPL holders? Is it so that they do not put themselves through the trial-by-fire that applying to the Seva Sindhu Scheme has turned out to be?
The state’s callousness is a lesson in how not to disburse Covid relief in the midst of a pandemic which has already put 230 million Indians below the poverty line. If the government wants to come to the aid of vulnerable groups like domestic workers, it must simplify the process (the employment certificate by the employer should suffice and have the Bangalore One centres facilitate the online applications).
The state must also dispense funds expeditiously for their immediate needs while also retaining registration information from the Seva Sindhu Scheme for all future welfare schemes for the unorganised sector. Otherwise, by constantly moving the goalpost, placing obstacles where none are necessary and by disqualifying those in need from state support, the government is actively leading the already vulnerable workers further down the path to penury.
(Prabha Kotiswaran is Professor of Law at King’s College London. Aditi Chanchani is a researcher working in the area of sustainable tourism)