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30 Jun 2020 | Blog

The urban poor and the COVID-19 pandemic in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

Amina Maharjan & Surendra Raj Joshi

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Amina Maharjan & Surendra Raj Joshi

The urban poor and the COVID-19 pandemic in the Hindu Kush Himalaya
The urban poor of the Hindu Kush Himalaya

Urbanization – a global trend – has rapidly increased in South Asia in the last decade. The region is home to the world’s most populous cities, with several hosting over 10 million people. This urban growth trend is also reflected in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region, where the urban population growth rate is substantially higher than the total population growth rate.

In Nepal, for instance, the urban population jumped from 14% of the total population in 2001 to 39% in 2016. Such rapid growth of urban settlements in the HKH region can be attributed to the re-stratification of rural areas – as in the case of Nepal, where areas that were formerly Village Development Committees are now categorized as nagarpalikas (urban municipalities) – and rural–urban migration, as well as to the natural growth of populations in urban areas. Among these, rural–urban migration is a phenomenon of particular interest for this blog due to its linkages with urban poverty. Increases in urban growth put severe strain on the capacity of cities to deliver services. In Yangon, Myanmar, for example, only 33% of the city’s population have access to piped water, and traffic congestion, solid waste production, flooding, and pollution levels are ever-increasing. There is also a rise in the number of informal settlements cropping up as new migrants are unable to afford existing housing options at the rates on offer.

Rural migrants to urban centres make their journeys with the aim of improving their lives. Employment is a big push factor. In Nepal, for instance, the majority (64%) of the population of working age resides in urban areas.

Rural–urban migrants can be categorized broadly into two groups: (i) the relatively well-off – civil servants, development workers, bureaucrats, politicians, business persons, and highly skilled professionals – who migrate from rural areas and settle into urban centres because education, health, and other services are better in the cities, which also offer better reach to high-level decision makers, and (ii) the poor and disadvantaged who migrate to urban areas seeking jobs – either with their entire families, a few family members or co-workers, mostly men, in search of work opportunities.

The second group of migrant workers are the interest of this blog. This group consists of seasonal/circular and temporary migrants, as well as permanent migrants. Seasonal/circular migration is of particular importance to mountain communities who employ it as a strategy to not just survive, but flourish in harsh mountain topography. However, a lack of tailored registration mechanisms means this segment of the population is often left out of government statistics and not covered by its programmes and policies. While rural migrants working in urban centres reside in the cities they work in, they are still, for all official purposes, inhabitants of their home villages.

In the HKH, the rise in urban population is accompanied by a corresponding growth in urban poverty. Inadequate drainage and sewerage facilities, air pollution, and traffic congestion, as well as the rise of slums and squatter settlements are ubiquitous problems. According to one estimate, there are 9 million urban poor in Bangladesh alone.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the newest challenge faced by already marginalized urban dwellers. Although its spread in the region may be attributable to those travelling from foreign destinations – and initially, mostly those with enough money to be able to afford air travel, the virus has spread amongst the urban poor, for whom it has had catastrophic consequences. The virus and the lockdowns imposed in various HKH countries has distressed lives and livelihoods. The inadequate coping capacity of the urban poor – their housing conditions, limited exposure and skills, the nature of their work, and limited access to basic services and social protection nets – makes them highly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of the pandemic and renders their situation extremely challenging.

Poor housing

Costs of accommodation in urban areas are high, which means decent living conditions are beyond the reach of the urban poor. Their living conditions and environment are characterized by compact and densely populated areas with congested rooms, and poor drinking water and sanitation facilities. For instance, records from 2011 show that 65 million Indians resided in slums, a large proportion of them migrant workers. A large number of people have multigenerational family members sharing dwellings in close proximity. In the context of the current pandemic, such living conditions mean that prescribed physical distancing norms are impossible to adhere to. This increased exposure and risk of being infected by the contagion coupled with limited access to health care makes the urban poor highly vulnerable to COVID -19.

Limited exposure and skills

A majority of the workforce in the HKH region has low qualifications, inadequate skills, and exposure. In Bhutan, for instance, 52% of the employed workforce does not have educational qualifications; 11% of those employed have ‘primary’, 10% ‘middle secondary’, and 7% ‘higher secondary’ levels of education. Only 6.2% of those employed have Bachelor’s degrees and 1% have Master’s or higher qualifications. All others have religious and/or non-formal qualifications.

The urban poor almost exclusively perform blue-collar work, which involves something being physically built or maintained. ‘Work from home’, is therefore out of the question for them. Moreover, due to a lack of awareness and access, the urban poor have difficulty in accessing public response schemes, subsidies, and other packages.

Informal and insecure income

The informal economy is the most dominant sector of employment in the HKH region. In India alone, 60 million people are employed in micro and small enterprises, which have been hardest hit by COVID-19. A large number of the urban poor are part of this economy, essentially surviving day-to-day with unreliable income sources. Many urban poor – both native and migrant – work in construction sites or as low skilled workers in industries and hotels, as roadside traders, public vehicle drivers, and cleaners and maids. Such informal sector jobs offer little to no security, and are mostly unprotected by labour laws. They feature odd working hours and low wages, making it difficult for workers to save. Moreover, workers may be easily dismissed during times of recession (or lockdown) or when they incur an injury, with no pension or health benefits. Even short-lived disruptions to their incomes can make it difficult for the urban poor to sustain themselves. In the present context, they are doubly vulnerable – functioning as so called essential workers (cleaners, municipal waste collection/disposal staff), they are forced to work without protective gear, thus increasing their vulnerability to disease, or to losing their jobs without social protection.

Lack of social protection/safety nets and social networks

Social safety net programmes like cash transfers and public works are mostly focused on and designed for rural areas and benefit the rural poor more than urban poor. This leaves many urban poor without a social safety net programme to cushion them from extreme poverty. Even informal social networks are not strong in case of poor urban migrants, who continue to maintain strong social ties with their rural lives. Hence, in the absence of social networks in urban centres, they opt to migrate back to their home communities during times of crisis. However, migrants who have moved with their entire families – with no close links back home – may find themselves in an extremely vulnerable situation where they do not have social networks either in their places of origin or in their destinations.

Right now, governments and civil societies have ramped up efforts to provide food to the urban poor. While these efforts are appreciated, this has also hurt their self-esteem, and they are eager to return to work to earn their living.

Proposed steps to transform life for the urban poor, and build a just and equitable society

Various reports indicate that the urban poor often do not have disposable cash to stockpile food and other essentials. This, potentially, led to their reverse migration back to villages in various HKH countries, including India, Nepal, and Pakistan, during the lockdown. On the one hand, this may have exacerbated the extent of the outbreak, and on the other, it may now exert pressure on the limited resources available back in their villages.

Similarly, there are already early indications of risks of increased inequality in post pandemic societies. The urban poor depend on public health and education. The impacts of an illness in the family have devastating impacts, and school closures can lead to more than psychological pressure on parents. It may lead to a decline in food intake among children who rely on school meal programmes. Online classes, being offered by private schools, are beyond the reach of the urban poor. In the long term, this may widen already existing gaps in human capital development between the rich and the poor. This digital divide can also be seen in the employment sector, with an increase in online shopping and delivery systems.

The urban poor are likely to face higher challenges in recovering from the economic downturn the HKH will have to weather along with the rest of the world as a result of the pandemic. Rates of unemployment will probably be higher, and this group of the population will not have the option of falling back on natural resources that the rural poor might have access to, increasing their likelihood of falling into chronic poverty.

Considering these risks in the face of the COVID 19 crisis, governments need to have customised packages for immediate-, medium-, and long-term responses to cope with the effects of this pandemic, and build back better:

Stage 1 (Immediate) – Immediate response should focus on social protection packages: As an immediate response, governments need to provide cash/assets/goods specifically targeted at the urban poor, so that they remain where they are, reducing the risk of infection and providing a sense of security at a time of helplessness. There is also a need to develop customised communication to raise awareness among them, considering their housing conditions and their inability to access public services.

Stage 2 (Short- to mid-term) – Recovery from negative impacts should focus on the social as well as economic reintegration of the urban poor: Grants/soft loans/subsidies – waiving of rents, compensatory wages, and incentives for employers – can help the urban poor retain jobs or be redirected to new ones.

As preparation for the future, it is important to have data on the urban poor, including the urban migrant force, and include them in social protection plans. Understanding their support needs and designing suitable packages (social protection, insurance) will help build the resilience of this vulnerable group in times of crisis.

Stage 3 (Long-term) – Bounce forward by building a just and equitable society with secure work and life opportunities for the urban poor: The pandemic has highlighted the hidden contributions made by the urban poor, including migrant workers, in the smooth functioning of the urban economy. The contributions of domestic workers, low-skilled service workers (drivers, street side vendors), construction workers (plumbers, electricians) was made more visible by this pandemic, as these services broke down both as a result of national lockdowns, and now, particularly in India, which is gradually beginning to open up, the non-availability of a labour force.

This increased visibility should be used as an opportunity to transform the informal sector labour market from ‘insecure, uncertain, and precarious’ to ‘secure and sustainable’ for building a just and equitable society.

There is also a need to formulate new policies and programmes to better engage the urban poor, including migrant youth and women, in productive sectors by redirecting their skills, knowledge, and energies.  Acts and laws as well as provisions for insurance and bank accounts should be drafted, passed, and implemented.  Lessons from the pandemic can also stimulate innovation among the private sector to develop win-win business models wherein they invest in human capital development for improved productivity.


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