Lockdown Law Should Not Exempt Domestic Workers. But We Must Ensure Full Pay

The dissonance between a gazette notification and the Bengaluru police chief's 'clarification' has created confusion on a key issue.

A widely covered interaction between citizens and the Police Commissioner of Bengaluru city Kamal Pant hit the local media last week. The most contentious issue seemed to be the question of whether domestic workers are allowed in apartment complexes during the current lockdown. The commissioner unequivocally said that the decision is left to the Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) but correctly hinted at the risks of doing so.

Unfortunately, this answer creates more confusion. The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) too has, at different times, taken ambivalent stands and many residents of different complexes have flaunted different positions quoting the BBMP. In times like this, on matters as serious as public health, it is, therefore, best to go both by the intent, letter and spirit of the law and, on a personal basis, the morality involved in making such decisions.

In my view, it is the duty of all citizens to rally behind the government, even at the cost of personal discomfort, in the battle to break the chain of COVID-19 infections. This is subject to exceptions for medical staff and senior citizens, of course. Thankfully, the notifications in the official gazette of the government signed by the chief secretary under the National Disaster Management Act (NDMA) are crystal clear. It’s a mystery as to why this issue remains contentious even today.

Those in favour of allowing the entry of domestic workers like to flaunt BBMP’s advisory dated April 30, 2021, (post lockdown on April 27, 2021) which clearly stated that RWAs are allowed to take their own decision. However, they fail to recognise that with the rapidly deteriorating situation in the second wave of the pandemic, the government issued a new gazette notification on May 7, 2021, which laid the following points:

First, that the severity of the second wave is far more than originally envisaged.

Second, much more stringent measures are required.

Third, a set of defined, specific exceptions were allowed for movement and apart from which all movements were restricted. The notification, to provide further clarity, specified that all past orders are superseded and BBMP and the police were mandated under the NDMA to enforce these regulations.

Also read: What the State Can Do to Identify and Assist Children Orphaned by COVID-19

Domestic work does not fall under exceptional categories. Neither is it permissible to allow the movement of domestic workers between 6 am and 10 am, which is only for specified purposes. Furthermore, the recent lockdown extension notification dated June 3, 2021, mentions clearly that the only exception to the earlier notification is for certain export-oriented industries and nothing else.

The government is clear on the enactment and it is a trifle surprising that there is any ambiguity in the legal position as far as the police are concerned. When such decisions on containment strategies are taken, a risk assessment is conducted by the government along with inputs from public health specialists amongst others. It is our responsibility as citizens not to second guess the authorities in the outcome of the risk assessment done as we simply do not have enough inputs to make an informed judgement.

Now, we come to the question surrounding the morality of asking, or compelling, domestic workers to come to work during this period. Who will be responsible if there is police action against them whilst they come to work on their vehicles which are likely to be seized? Aren’t they being exposed to the virus as well when they step out of their homes when the risk assessment suggests that the virus is both infectious and contagious and Karnataka continues to be a national hotspot?

Most domestic workers are nowhere close to getting vaccinated as yet whereas most residents in apartments have the safety net of having being vaccinated. Isn’t it a clear case of extreme selfishness on the part of the residents due to this vaccination asymmetry? Are we not exposing other vulnerable residents in the residential complex concerned by in large numbers of this unvaccinated population – many of whom work in multiple flats – during a raging pandemic?

The general secretary of the BAF, Vikram Rai, recently lamented that the issue was polarising residents in different RWAs and advised, sanely in my view, that domestic workers be paid their salaries during the lockdown.

Also read: India’s Large Informal Workforce Must Be Prioritised in Our COVID-19 Vaccine Strategy

Given the risk assessment of the government and the payoff between life and death of such decisions, I would have expected a completely unambiguous position on the issue. Not allowing domestic workers in apartment complexes is both a legally and morally compliant position aligned with the core intent of a lockdown as a containment strategy.

Many RWAs have started allowing the entry of domestic workers following the aforementioned interaction on Saturday with the police commissioner. Since the lockdown continues, an urgent clarification from the government on the two conflicting positions between the chief secretary’s gazette notification and the police commissioner’s public interaction would help all of us in the management of the RWAs. We need to work in favour of public health.

Prabal Basu Roy is a director and an advisor to chairmen of corporate boards.