Grand Tamasha

Amitabh Behar on How Coronavirus Aggravates Inequality in India

Episode Notes

India is in the middle of an unprecedented 21-day countrywide lockdown as it tries to contain the growing threat of Coronavirus. This virus has wrought so much fresh destruction but it also has the potential to exacerbate pre-existing inequalities in Indian society.

This week on the show, Milan speaks with Amitabh Behar, the Chief Executive Officer of Oxfam India. For seven decades, Oxfam India has been providing humanitarian and development assistance across India in an effort to address gaps in service delivery, gender equity, injustice, and livelihoods.

Amitabh and Milan discuss India’s response to the crisis, the precarious lives of India’s urban poor and migrant labor, the pandemic’s particular effects on women, and the connection between entrenched social norms and violence against women.

Episode Transcription

Intro 0:00 

“Unabashed” “the most unpredictable” “becomes a headline” “the most volatile” “outrageous behavior” “unsubstantiated narratives” “a battle of personalities.”

Milan Vaishnav  00:11

Welcome to Grand Tamasha. I'm your host Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. We're recording this podcast on Friday, April 10. And India's in the middle of an unprecedented 21-day country-wide lockdown as it tries to contain the growing threat of coronavirus. This virus has brought so much fresh destruction, but it also has the potential to exacerbate pre-existing inequalities in Indian society. Joining me on the phone from New Delhi to discuss the COVID-19 outbreak, inequality, and gender is Amitabh Behar. Amitabh is the chief executive officer of Oxfam India. For almost seven decades, Oxfam India has been providing humanitarian and development assistance across India in an effort to address gaps in service delivery, gender equity injustice, and livelihoods. Amitabh Welcome to the podcast and thanks for taking the time.

Amitabh Behar  00:58

Thank you. Thank you.

Milan Vaishnav  00:59

So first of all, before we get into the real meat of the discussion, I hope you and your family are safe and healthy and doing okay. Let me just start by asking about your own situation today in the nation's capital. What is life like where you're living? Can you help sort of paint a picture for our listeners of the situation on the ground?

Amitabh Behar  01:19

So life here is obviously completely disrupted. We are under total lockdown, which essentially means that I cannot go beyond 200-300 meters. I can just go and get my groceries and we need to stay inside our homes. The police is pretty much everywhere ensuring that the lockdown is respected. So at one level, I would say, you know, there is a silver lining, we see a blue sky in this city. I've been here for decades, but I've never seen a blue sky for more than three decades here. But you do see a blue sky, birds chirping - that's on the bright side. But it is also on the back of this fact that there are millions and millions of people who are actually going hungry now. Who have been migrating back to the source villages where they've come from. It's an extremely difficult context in the country with the kind of population we have, with the poverty we have. Hopefully we'll talk a little more about it. But it is very frustrating. It's tragic to think about what's happening outside, particularly for someone like me, who has my colleagues actually working on the ground. But as a health response, I think we're doing fairly well. We still have only around 5000 cases, but it is an unfolding economic tragedy.

Milan Vaishnav  02:57

So I want to actually ask you about your colleagues on the ground, we know that this pandemic is responsible for both the direct human calamity as well as indirect economic and social devastation. How is Oxfam India mobilizing to address this crisis? You know, if you could tell us sort of what are your top two or three priorities as you look out at the landscape.


So I think it's very important for your audience to appreciate that in this country, we have almost 90 to 93% of our workforce in the informal sector. And when we say informal sector, it really means that most of them are daily wages, and they do not have any social security. And let me also add that most of them actually live with almost extreme poverty like conditions or certainly in poverty. So at this moment, with the lockdown, people do not have now access to their livelihood. And these are the informal sector workers, these are construction workers, these are daily wages. And when they do not have access to their daily livelihood, they do not have money to actually get enough food on the table.

Amitabh Behar  04:21

So, you know, at this moment as Oxfam, that's really the first thing we are responding to, is to ensure that people, you know, don't die of hunger. And we are providing dry ration and also hot cooked meal to a lot of people. In addition to this, we are also providing sanitary kits to particularly the poor. And then so that's one bucket of our work. The second bucket of our work is to actually work with the health system. And again, in India, even in a city like Delhi, which is obviously the capital city, I know of doctors who do not have their own protective gear. And if you just go slightly outside Delhi, pretty much from every state capitol, I'm getting stories of doctors, paramedics, they do not have access to protective care. So that's the big piece that we are trying to do, which is to provide whatever little we can do in terms of the personal protective equipment. And the third cluster is which, which I think is also critical is to train a lot of frontline health workers to train the not for profit workers. We're trying to now provide support in this time of crisis, about how to work in these difficult conditions. What does really covid mean, and what's the way of working at it. And fourth and finally, which I think is also very critical and a lot of governments are reaching out to us for that - different state governments - and that is to work with communities and helping them understand what is this idea of social distancing, you know, what is covid? Though, let me just say that we don't call it social distancing. We are saying it's physical distancing with social solidarity. But helping people understand that there should be no stigma as in there are these horror stories where people walk hundreds of kilometres to go back to their village, and in their villages, the villages didn't let these people come back from the metro towns, feeling very apprehensive about if these people are getting covid back to the villages. You know that that kind of stigma should not be there. So we're helping even at the village level, how do they prepare their small quarantine zones, but also understand that this is a pandemic with which all of us need to deal collectively.

Milan Vaishnav  06:54

So you highlighted the issue of migrants and I just want to ask you a follow up on that. You know, one of the issues with the current crisis - and it's captured headlines, not just in India but around the world. You know, I'm sitting here in Washington, DC, and we've been seeing it literally on the front page of The Washington Post - is this issue of migrants, we've all now seen the heartbreaking scenes of millions, perhaps tens of millions of seasonal migrants who are trying to leave urban areas where they are working and travel back to their hometowns, and to their home villages. You know, give us a sense of the scale or the magnitude of the issue. And what do you think the government's priorities should be for this segment? You know, it seemed at first that they were going to work with the states to facilitate transport back home. Then within 24 hours, they seem to have a reverse course, saying that the spread of the virus could be could be worsened by this. What is it that that is going on, and what is it that you think governments should be doing?

Amitabh Behar  07:57

So I would just say that, you know, the migrant workers are a major group, but there are also many others the urban poor, the daily wages. So the problem is is all pervasive. And in terms of the government's response, unfortunately, they took the right decision of the lockdown early on. So government of India was prompt in doing that. However, you know, after taking the decision, they started seeing this as a law and order problem instead of seeing this as a pandemic where you actually need to support people. So the first two days were horrendous. I'm sure you would have seen pictures of that where police is beating people who are trying to just go back to their villages. After that, I would say that we've still not had a structured response either from the government or the local bodies. In some places, they were, after two days, they were helped in through public transport, so that they could reach their own villages. But in some places they've been stopped. They have been put up in camps, where food is being provided. I keep getting stories that the food is inadequate, the water sanitation conditions are really sad in those camps but this problem is also going to be long term. So, again, the government has taken some initiatives of ensuring some kind of financial relief, some form of direct cash transfer, but that is extremely limited in terms of the size of the the magnitude of the problem that we are seeing, particularly for these migrant labor and the daily wages, the informal sector workers. What we got from the government is still very, very inadequate. It's just talking of, say, a transfer of thousand rupees for three months. And that to only to the people who have bank accounts. And again, in India, there's still a significant population, which particularly say poor 50% of the women don't have a bank accounts. So that's the level of people not having access to banking facilities, and, therefore, they will not be able to even access the the government support that's there. So, at the moment, I would say the government does need to think through of absolute immediate relief by providing food and shelter. It also then needs to look at slightly short, slightly medium term, but it would just be two weeks to four weeks to seven weeks is ensuring direct financial relief. But then really the big battle now of ensuring their re entry into the workforce, for ensuring that they get some livelihood. It's going to be able to long hard battle for all of us.

Milan Vaishnav  11:10

So I want to slightly transition this conversation from talking about the current crisis to Oxfam's ongoing work on women and gender issues. It's, you know, hard to believe there was a time before COVID-19. But when I had originally reached out to you, it was on the basis of some excellent work that your organization had done, but as a kind of a segue: are there ways in which the current health crisis the current pandemic is, especially or disproportionately affecting India's women? What are the gender specific issues we might want to pay attention to in the context of this crisis?

Amitabh Behar  11:48

Absolutely. So so there is a very strong gender dimension to this pandemic and the crisis that we see. Let me just flag three very critical ones. The first is that the Indian health force is primarily constituted of women. And it's almost 70% of the paramedics, the nurses, the AM's, the frontline health workers, and they obviously are therefore have a disproportionate burden of facing this crisis. That's one major one. The second is the whole question of unpaid care work. Again, with the lockdown. The unpaid care work burden has actually grown for women. So it's interesting, even in informal conversations, even in middle class families, it's the men who are saying, Oh, we are bored. What do we do? Let's watch films. But women are actually taking on much more responsibility and have to do much more of the care what And the third is there are several studies, some informal studies, which even our own partners have done, that violence against women has actually increased. And their studies where globally we have seen that in such conditions, violence against women actually increases and that's something that we are also seeing in this country. So all these are big, big areas of work. Clearly a gendered look at the covid crisis is also critical as we move ahead.

Milan Vaishnav  13:35

So earlier this year, Oxfam India published its flagship India inequality report, and the 2020 edition focused on women in gender inequality, and it was titled "On Women's Backs." And what I found to be absolutely startling was a statistic that opened the report, which is that according to the International Labor Organization, the ILO, in 2018, women in India spent 312 minutes per day in urban areas, and about 290 minutes per day in rural areas on unpaid care work. And contrast this with the men who spent around 30 minutes, slightly less in urban areas slightly more in rural in unpaid work, especially for some of our international listeners, help us understand that disparity you know, that 300 or so minutes of unpaid work per day that women are performing? How do we think about its constituent pieces, you know, if you were to kind of unpack that what what are the major elements of that unpaid work?

Amitabh Behar  14:34

Sure. So you know, let me give you a very specific example and I've been quoting her example. This is a person called Buchoo Devi from a district Madhubani in Bihar. Her day starts at 4am and it starts with cleaning the household and getting water - and it's almost a three kilometer walk for her to get water for the entire family - tending to cattle, getting firewood for the family, taking care of the children, doing breakfast in the morning, sending school children to the school, cleaning of the house. Then she herself goes out to work where anyway she's underpaid. Then taking care of the lunch, dinner, and taking care of an elderly person in the family whos unwell. And her day ends around 10 or 11 in the night. So you know, that's the kind of work and then she actually said in Hindi "mujhe marane ke lie samay nahin hai," which means that I don't even have the time to die. And this Butchu Devi is just not One person, you know, from that village to across the country, there are thousands and thousands and millions of Buchoo Devis who are working through the day and and doing unpaid care work. So it is it's a huge burden. And as you said, men unfortunately, pretty much do not contribute to this. And you'll find them sitting playing cards, just having, you know, chai tea together, and so on.

Milan Vaishnav  16:33

One of the interesting and central pieces of this Oxfam report you put out is that, you know, there is a direct causal linkage between unpaid care work and violence against women. And you mentioned that perhaps violence against women has in fact been exacerbated or intensified during the covid crisis. How does this this connection work? This connection between the absurd amounts of unpaid care work that women have to perform and the risk of violence against them in the household?

Amitabh Behar  17:05

Sure, so in our report is actually saying that it's not a direct relationship, but it triggers violence against women. And this is essentially about gendered social norms. And and what is, you know, the gendered roles that one sees in the household. So this violence could be about men actually beating their wife saying that the food that's been made has not been cooked well. It could be about not being polite to her in-laws. And there are different forms of violence you would see, but in essence, it is really about the gendered social norms and where the women are seen to perform those duties and men assert their right over women by using violence as a means of ensuring their authority and control over them.

Milan Vaishnav  18:09

You know, the report finds and one of the small case studies that you have done that, in one particular case, as many as a third of men interviewed admitted that they've been violent to their wives. Many of these cases, of course, of physical violence go unreported. But what's even more startling is what women say about this violence. So 37% of Indian women believe their husband is justified in beating them if they disrespect her in-laws. Again, for the uninitiated, why does there seem to be such great acceptance or resignation in terms of women of this kind of domestic violence? You know, what are some of the social norms that help perpetuate these sorts of beliefs that it's okay for men to act and in this manner?

Amitabh Behar  18:58

Sure. Patriarchy is not about men. Patriarchy, as we all know, is essentially a social system, which ensures that uneven power distribution, and that's so deeply ingrained in men and women that you do not see any questioning about the unfairness of this patriarchal system. So like I said, it's the gendered social norms, gendered roles that we see where women actually start seeing the unpaid care work they do, as pretty much as part of their identity and they're just not willing to challenge it. As we have instances where we've done workshops and when we say that, okay, let's start talking about the work you do. And they will not want to bring in the unpaid care work into that conversation. Thry say this is us and they even resist, when you start saying that, "okay, let's see how this is. unpaid care work burden can be shared by men and women." So, you know, it's it's so deeply ingrained, that it's extremely difficult for those women to start challenging it.

Milan Vaishnav  20:15

And, you know, what's interesting is when it comes to unpaid work, the report notes that middle or upper class educated women, often who live in cities, they have the choice or the privilege perhaps of outsourcing some of that unpaid care work to other women to household help from poor families. But nevertheless, even in those situations, the woman still carries the most responsibility for the performance or supervision of unpaid work. I'm wondering as India continues to urbanize - and we've all seen the statistics of urbanization, many people believe the census count of who's urban and who's rural is actually a severe undercount - as India embarks on this transformative revolution from rural to urban is there some sense that these social norms are beginning to break down? Or are they in fact becoming entrenched and further consolidated in urban areas?

Amitabh Behar  21:09

So, the response for this, I cannot say that there's one response. Obviously, there are different pieces of the large Indian story. But predominantly, it's fairly clear that yes, say the middle classes or or the more economically affluent families are able to hire, say, domestic help where the burden of the unpaid care work does shift from the woman of the household to the domestic head, but the responsibility does not. And I think that's very critical. So the gender role does not change. It is just finding an aide for your work. So for instance, even today, when the lockdown is happening. If you really go to any middle class household, I'm fairly confident that at least 90% of that unpaid care work would be done by women. So it's clearly seen as the responsibility of women. As in I've seen couples from the most elite, Indian Administrative Service - people who know India would know that this is the most highly paid respected government bureaucracy - and where husband and wife are both doing the same job, precisely the same job. They're going to the same government office together. But when they come home, it's the woman who will go and run to the kitchen and ensure that the dinner is done. She is the one who on a Saturday or Sunday will ensure that the house is getting cleaned. So this this has not changed. And it is extremely entrenched at the moment. I don't think that only urbanization is going to change it. There are some changes happening, but those changes are not happening at a massive scale. And I do feel that a very well organized intervention is needed and just changing of the economic condition will not change the women's burden and the gendered role division that we see.

Milan Vaishnav  23:28

So I want to sort of end by asking you about what comes next about solutions. You know, the Oxfam report says that one clear solution is for countries like India to offer decent local employment, better working conditions, equitable fair pay for women and men, which obviously sounds great, but in a setting, even you know, before covid-19, where formal jobs are too few and far between, how can India actually deliver on this? What are some of the tangible steps you think government can take to try to bring this vision I think most of our listeners would agree upon, bring that into reality?

Amitabh Behar  24:08

Sure. I would say COVID is obviously something which is going to change our world. However that's not going to change our ambition for creating a just society. And I must say, therefore, you know, I would not completely agree in lowering our bar of expectation from the government. So, let me just say, what are the few things that we need to do? The first, and which is absolutely critical, certainly in in a country like India but I feel across the world, is that government needs to ensure high quality social services. In India, we do not have the care for elderly, we do not have the care for children, we do not have a good health system. So you know, all these things are something that the government must ensure. And I would very strongly urge the government that it actually starts investing in the social infrastructure. In fact, I would say this pandemic, actually is telling us that how we should be investing in the health infrastructure, and not in actually the billionaire boom that we see around us. So that's one.

Amitabh Behar  25:23

The second is to actually recognize the unpaid care work. That's something that's not being done, both within families, in societies, and at the level of the state. The next is to also redistribute the unpaid care work that we do. So, these are some specific ways of intervening, which are policy level work. But we also feel that it's very, very critical for us to actually work with society, with communities in challenging these gender norms. And that's critical. We, in fact, run a campaign called  Bano Nayi Soch, which essentially means you need to bring in new ideas. So in that we have now been working with young girls, young women, they're playing football in a small town in Bihar. We are working with a lot of young boys - and I think it's very, very critical that you don't focus entirely on women. It's critical to engage men in these conversations of dismantling patriarchy. And we're working with young boys. I was recently in a village in in Chhattisgarh just two hours from Raipur, and it was fascinating to meet young boys who were saying that we are actually contributing to the household work and then they even said how they're being made fun by their own families, but they are working on it. So it will be very critical to start talking of building a new consciousness for people to understand that these are social norms and they can change if we really want to create a just society.

Milan Vaishnav  27:14

You know, the last thing I want to speak about is precisely the changing of the social norms because, as you alluded to earlier, the report really urges governments to initiate gender sensitization behavior change strategies in schools and colleges specifically around the redistribution of care work. And you know, there was a recent paper published by Seema Jayachandran and other economists, which documents and experiment in Haryana, which shows that instituting you know, gender equality discussions in schools can actually have really important, lasting impacts on gender perceptions. And if you start at a young age, hopefully, some of that starts to to change patterns of behavior. So the question I have for for you is this, you know, do you think these kinds of interventions can be scaled up? And furthermore, does this sort of thing require greater demand or grassroots mobilization from the bottom up, from local populations, or is kind of top down, you know, government backing enough to make some headway on this problem?

Amitabh Behar  28:21

I would say that changing social norms cannot be only the responsibility of the government. But I would, on the other hand, not say that it will only be a grassroot response. So it's gonna be a combination of actually strong policy intervention on the one hand, and on the other hand, grassroot demands. So when I'm talking about grassroot demands, it is pretty much the kind of actions that I talked of working with small communities, working in villages, we go and create adolescent clubs and in those adolescent clubs, these are the conversations we have. That why are women responsible for the unpaid care work? How can men contribute? How do we change these roles? On the other hand, I think it's critical for the government, like you talked of, of intervention, or change in syllabus, where you have more gender sensitive curriculum. For example, one of the interesting things that we keep talking of in India, as you know that we still have a significant population dependent on agriculture, but if you ask anybody who's a farmer? They will still, you know, they'll draw a man and that would be a farmer. Whereas enough studies, certainly in India, which have shown that most of the agriculture work is actually done by the women. And that's something that's that's not recognized. How does the government change its own positioning, all its advertisements, government advertisements to policies is essentially, when it talks of a farmer, it is talking of a man, can that be changed? And and the third big piece, I do think, even in the public narrative, as an we have an extremely powerful film industry. And if you just look at most of the Bollywood films, they essentially convert women into consumption items. So that also needs to change and there is some big thing happening. We have worked also with some of the film script writers where we are talking of looking at a more substantive role of fair society. So this change is not going to happen from either top or bottom. It's going to be a collective effort and we do need - it's going to be a Herculean task still - I do feel that that It's a long journey ahead. But I do also see a lot of very, very inspiring stories. So I love going to the communities. And when I when I hear a 14 year old girls saying that I want to become a pilot, some of them say that I want to be a scientist. It's really, really inspiring. And there's a lot of hope with these young girls.

Milan Vaishnav  31:26

My guest on the program today is Amitabh Behar. Amitabh is the chief executive officer of Oxfam India. Oxfam is currently providing literally life saving relief and development assistance to respond to the covid-19 pandemic. To find out more about their work, including how to contribute to the relief efforts, visit their website at Once you're on the site, you can also find that their flagship India Inequality report, the 2020 edition is out now it focused on women and gender issues and it's titled "On Women's Backs." Amitabh, thank you and thank your colleagues for all of the work that you're doing on the ground. Best of luck to you, to your colleagues, your organization, to your partners. Stay safe and stay healthy. And thanks for joining us on the show.

Amitabh Behar  32:10

Thank you, Milan, and thank you for having me with you. We need all your best wishes and then the same to you in the U.S. as well.

Milan Vaishnav  32:20

Grand Tamasha is a coproduction of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Hindustan Times. You can find us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Don't forget to rate and review. It helps others find the show more easily. For more information about the show and to find the writing we referenced on this week's episode, visit our website, Production assistance comes from Megan Maxwell and Rachel Osnos. Tim Martin is our audio engineer and Lauren Dueck is our executive producer. Thanks for listening and see you next week.