Livelihoods & the COVID-19 Crisis

Photo by Rajesh Vora

An equally important facet of the right to life is the right to livelihood because no person can live without the means of livelihood.” — Excerpt from the unanimous judgement of The Supreme Court of India in Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation.

The Right to Life written in Article 21 of the Constitution of India, 1950, is undoubtedly the most fundamental of all rights. The other constitutional rights address quality of life, fundamental freedoms, and the adjoining framework of livelihood, but their functioning is dependent on the right to a ‘means of life’. Garima Patel writes that, “the concept of equality before law does not mean absolute equality among human beings which is physically not possible to achieve. It is a concept implying absence of any special privilege by reason of birth, creed or the like in favour of any individual, and also the equal subject of all individuals and classes to the ordinary law of the land”.1

Nagari 2020 looked at adequacy in urban housing. The brief focussed on the United Nations declaration of adequate housing as a Fundamental Human Right, in particular, Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) which also stresses that the right to housing needs to be supplemented by a right to livelihood. Accordingly, India’s Constitution and the Directive Principles of State Policy within it, also focus on the role of the State as a provider of welfare. However, in a society like India, it is important to understand livelihood through various lenses – such as caste, class and politics.

The scope and substance of the framework of livelihood will be determined by the country’s economic growth, but it must encompass fundamental requirements of existence as well as the right to perform livelihood functions in labour and occupation.

According to 2011 statistics from the Asia Development Bank, “a fifth of India’s population (21.9% or approximately 363 million people) live below the poverty line. Of which, the rural poor account for nearly 260 million, and the urban poor for about 103 million”.2 The economic contraction across India caused by the COVID-19 pandemic hit the poor the hardest. Rakesh Kochhar states that, “the number of poor people, with incomes of $2 or less a day, rose by at least 75 million”.3 Mahesh Vyas adds “in the month of April 2020 alone (while the country was in lockdown), it is reported that 122 million lost their jobs. This is a 30% fall in employment from the previous year (2019)”.4

Diagram showing the percentage rise of people in India earning $2 or less daily, in contrast to the total population in 2019 (left) and 2020 (right) after the COVID crisis, respectively. Source: PEW Research Center (refer footnote 3)

The scale of this crisis presents an opportunity to rethink the current means of livelihood, and its effect on the economy.

Families in rural areas find it tough to break out of the cycle of deficiency and poverty, primarily because a majority of Indian agrarian income continues to be dependent on the monsoons. Additionally, due to rapid environmental changes, climate change, land fragmentation, made worse by poor penetration of modern farming methods and supply chains collectively put agrarian income generation capabilities in jeopardy. To develop an equal and empowered society, it is imperative that a country includes the less privileged in its framework of growth.

Photo by Rajesh Vora

Understanding patterns of livelihood in India will allow an inquiry into the structure and history of communities that were unreported and marginalized through the role of labour and inadequacy of social representation. It can present an analysis of the relationship between subaltern and authoritative classes, and thus study the interplay of dominance and subordination in systems and social hierarchies.

Realization of livelihood is embedded within an existing social arrangement, one which is derived from the dogma of predestined division of labour — which is inherently rooted in the caste system. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar wrote that “the caste system is not merely a division of labour, but also a division of labourers, and economic reform cannot take place without a revision of the social arrangement”.5

Considering this, the process of development in India is inherently exclusionary in nature, and views informality as an outcome, due to a lack of ‘appropriate’ growth. The ‘excluded’ population from traditional sectors, both dispossessed of its resources and unabsorbed in the modern formal segment, is then forced to reproduce its conditions of livelihoods in the informal economy – either as petty self-employed producers, or as wage labour, at precariously low levels of subsistence.6 However, the scale of the Covid-19 crisis now presents an opportunity to rethink the current trajectory of the Indian means of livelihood and economy.

Therefore, this subject initiates questions on the possibility of the current development and issues with the growth process to deliver a transformation of the structure of livelihood to a significant proportion of the population.


  1. Garima Parel, Lawyer in the article ‘Right to Equality’ Legal Service India
    (E-Journal) –
  2. According to 2011 statistics from the Asia Development Bank,
  3. Rakesh Kochhar, senior researcher at Pew Research Center, in a paper published March 18, 2021 – ‘In the pandemic, India’s middle class shrinks and poverty spreads while China sees smaller changes’.
  4. Mahesh Vyas is Managing Director and CEO of Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy in a paper published May 04, 2020 – ‘India has a jobs bloodbath as unemployment rate shoots up to 27.1%’.
  5. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, Former Minister of Law and Justice of India, in the book ‘Annihilation of Caste’ 1936.
  6. Surbhi Kesar is an Assistant Professor of Economics at the School of Arts and Sciences at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, in a paper published January 07, 2021 –