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Fearing loan sharks and slavery, Indian workers ask gov't for cash aid

CHENNAI, India, Oct 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - I nformal workers in India urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a petition on Tuesday to grant emergency financial aid to protect them from loan sharks and labour traffickers as the pandemic erodes their incomes.

India is one of the countries worst affected by coronavirus, and a strict lockdown earlier this year took a heavy toll on informal workers, who represent 90% of the nation’s 450-million-strong workforce.

Tuesday’s petition, signed by 1.5 million people including migrant workers, street vendors and home-based labourers, calls for cash handouts of 6,000 rupees ($81) for at least the next four months to help prevent risky borrowing, human trafficking and child labour.

“This assistance will provide liquidity to the vulnerable families below poverty line,” said P Balamurugan, a member of the Tamil Nadu Alliance - a coalition of 100 charities seeking to improve the conditions of garment industry workers.

The petition, which was initiated by the charity coalition, included signatories from 23 Indian states, the organisers said.

Asked about the appeal, Principal Government Spokesman K.S. Dhatwalia said “a slew of measures for all categories of workers” had been announced since the start of the pandemic.

“These initiatives have been updated along the way to meet the needs of people,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Modi’s administration has pledged to spend 35 billion rupees ($463 million) on food for migrant workers and offer them local jobs under a rural employment scheme.

But many informal workers fear lacking documentation or a bank account will hinder their access to government aid, and labour rights activists say large numbers have turned to informal lenders often charging high rates of interest.

India’s home affairs ministry issued an advisory in July urging state governments to launch anti-trafficking awareness campaigns, amid increasing fears that countless people without work, food or money may fall prey to traffickers.

The petition said the cash aid would act as a “safety net”, minimising hunger and reducing the likelihood of human trafficking, child marriage and child labour among the informal labour force.

"The cash aid will give them access to essential food commodities, medical care, payment of rent, and other supplementary expenses," it said. ($1 = 73.4750 Indian rupees) (Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj @AnuraNagaraj; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org)

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