Power In Organising: How SEWA Delhi Worked Through Riots And The COVID-19 Pandemic To Reach 47,000 Women Workers

Power In Organising: How SEWA Delhi Worked Through Riots And The COVID-19 Pandemic To Reach 47,000 Women Workers

25 Aug 2020

New Delhi – India’s capital – is battling a particularly rough 2020. In February, 2020, riots broke out in large parts of the city. And just while the capital was limping back to normalcy, COVID-19 followed. At the time of publishing, Delhi is one of the worst-affected by the pandemic, in India.

Needless to say, it is the lower-income communities of Delhi that have had to bear the cruel burden of the riots and the rapidly spreading pandemic. During the politically-charged riots, several neighbourhoods in north-eastern Delhi, that is home to large swathes of the vulnerable population, lived under a cloud of terror. Reports have indicated that over 50 have lost their lives and many have been forced into makeshift camps – having lost their homes and their livelihoods.

With COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdowns, informal workers – including home-based workers – have lost access to work and to basic survival essentials, including, food and sanitary necessities. In this scenario, SEWA Delhi has been working relentlessly to ensure that its membership of over 40,000 women informal workers stay afloat. In an interview with HNSA, Namita Malik – Head, Home-Based Workers Campaign, SEWA Delhi – spoke about the organisation’s strategies and the communication tools it has used to reach its membership during this hour of crisis.

Our Aagewaans – Our Frontline Workers

Even as the blistering embers of the riots cooled down, SEWA Delhi swung into action. In Rajivnagar, a neighbourhood that saw the worst of the riots, SEWA Delhi adopted a relief camp and undertook the task of serving breakfast, each morning, to those who were affected by the riots.

The organisation also relied heavily on field workers, from the affected areas, to shape its interventions and put them into action. The aagewaans - field workers – from SEWA Delhi reached out to its members who were in makeshift camps and spoke to them about their needs. With the information gathered here, SEWA Delhi was able to distribute much-needed sanitary kits to women in the camps through staff contributions.

With COVID-19, despite the restrictions on mobility, community leaders have led the way. “Our members and leaders have proved to be our strength at this time,” says Namita Malik, “they have come forward and have continued their mobilising efforts.” Even with lockdowns, community leaders, protected by masks and other safety gear, have continued to visit local government offices to lobby for women informal workers, including home-based workers, in communities, to access government relief efforts. Organisers from SEWA Delhi have also been part of the local government’s SOS team and lobbied for the distribution of E-Coupons to those who cannot not access the government’s food ration programmes because they do not have the mandated ration card.

Another important exercise that the leaders carried out has been to gather data on workers and their families. With the information gathered, SEWA Delhi has been able to provide 47,000 families with food rations for three months along with protective masks. It has achieved this by approaching private funders as well as individuals. But, remarkably, in a gesture of solidarity each staff from SEWA Delhi also contributed a day’s salary towards ensuring that their informal worker sisters and their families do not go hungry in the time of the pandemic.

Undoubtedly, it is SEWA’s stellar capacity for organising that have made these efforts successful. Malik confirms, “Workers are now realising the power of organisation and organising. And we are going to continue strengthening our database so that we can ensure that workers access the government programmes available to them.”

Going Digital

Along with its efforts on the ground, SEWA Delhi has recognised the need to enhance its digital initiatives. Recognising that the first step to containing the spread of COVID-19, in Delhi’s packed informal settlements, would be to spread awareness on the disease, SEWA Delhi started off by training its master trainers and aagewaans on COVID-19 on online meeting platforms. These trainings have further been imparted in communities on online forums. SEWA Delhi also shared information on COVID-19 and how it can be tackled through voice SMS and digital posters.

Through telecommunications, organisers at SEWA Delhi have also been educating the membership on OSH issues that can be brought up due to the onset of coronavirus. Members have been advised to wear masks outside of their homes and during the hours of their work. And they have been made aware of the need to stay active and healthy during the lockdown periods. SEWA Delhi has also begun conducting organising meetings through digital platforms. And has been collecting data on how many of its members have access to smartphones so that it can plan and implement initiatives through digital mediums.

Organising A Future

While it has seen a huge swell in membership and informal workers have been able to access the benefits of being a part of a trade union at this critical time, SEWA Delhi knows that challenging times are ahead. As the COVID-19 spreads through the city of Delhi, on-ground mobilisation is only getting tougher and the organisation will have to continue to innovate to keep in touch with its membership.

Additionally, the needs of workers continue to shift. During lockdowns, keeping workers and their families afloat with food rations and sanitary kits was the priority. But now as India opens up, relaxing its lockdown rules, members are now left to grapple with new realities. Home-based workers, for example, have little hope of accessing work even though markets have reopened. Orders within domestic and international supply chains is low as consumer demand remains close to a naught. While SEWA Delhi is linking its member home-based workers to PPE production initiatives taken up by its sister concern, Ruaab, helping a large number of workers access work over the next year will test SEWA Delhi’s organising mettle. However, through continuous organising of its membership and engagement with the local government and other key stakeholders, SEWA Delhi remains hopeful that it will turn the tide.

This blog has been produced under the Comic Relief-supported, Empowering Women Home-Based Workers, project.