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Carrying burden of uncertain future

Published: 6th May 2021 12:03 am | Updated: 5th May 2021 10:24 pm

On the evening of April 21, my nerves got suddenly strained after I saw a picture on my smartphone. A family of migrant workers – a bit privileged as it appeared from their looks – was sleeping on chairs in an inter-State bus terminal in Delhi clutching one another. Apparently, the family was trying to hurry back to its native place desperate to flee from the partial lockdown declared by the Delhi government. But the last bus had left and the family had no other way but to spend the night in the bus terminal hoping to catch the first bus next morning.

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The second wave of Covid-19 attack has brought back memories of the pitiable conditions that migrant workers of India were in during the first wave last year. Lots of crocodile tears have flowed down the country mostly from politicians and those who frequent the corridors of power. Even the Central government’s efforts to provide succour to these hapless people have been found to be inadequate and questionable too.

Poor Acts

The Inter State Migrant Workmen Act (ISMWA) of 1979, a poorly implemented law, has now been incorporated in the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code (OSHWC), 2020. The latter has expanded the definition of ‘employees’ to include those who are self-employed or migrate on their own. This is laudable.

But the OSHWC has a reverse side too. Its applicability has been whittled down by earmarking it for establishments that employ 10 persons and above, while the criteria under the ISMWA was 5 or more inter-State workers.

Moreover, the Building and Other Construction Workers Act (BOCWA), 1996, mandates the formation of state welfare boards for preparing and implementing welfare schemes for construction sector and other workers. Strangely, migrant workers are not covered by this Act although they form a large segment of construction workers throughout the country.

Migrants board a train towards their home states, amid spike in the numbers of positive coronavirus cases in the country, in Jalandhar on April 30. -Photo: PTI

Economics of Pain

Migrant workers constitute the mainstay of our economy. Does it sound odd? Well, we can then move into the world of economics and statistics. It is now an accepted fact that these poor people generate nearly 50% of our economic resources.

KP Kannan, a development economist, has carried out a detailed study on it. Kannan avers that the number of workforce in India is 461 million. Eighty per cent of it — 369 million by arithmetical calculations — is engaged in informal sectors such as agriculture and micro, small and medium enterprises. The remaining 92 million workers are in the organised sector. But even here, 49 million of them cannot be called regular workers as they fall in the category of contract labourers and temporary staff.

So a solid footed workforce is absent in India even 73 years after the independence of the country, lots of ‘revolutionary’ words from our politicians and a plethora of ‘progressive’ labour reforms. We will again go back to Kannan for understanding the structure of India’s labour force.

According to him, 52% of all labour force in India belongs to the self-employed category. It reveals another aspect of the Indian economy — even after decades of centralised planned economy, job creation has not progressed. Moreover, casual labourers constitute 24% of all workers. Together, they constitute 350 million workers who form the core of the national informal labour base.

Kannan’s final calculation is frightening. The organised sector has provided little job opportunities as 89% of all Indian workers are from the informal sector who enjoy very little or almost no statutory benefits.

Piecemeal Policies

Woefully, the Central government is still working on a piecemeal basis for standing up to the crisis. Quite a few programmes and policies have been announced. But they are either old wines in new bottles or simply lack farsightedness.

Strangely, most of these workers have strong connections with their native places and local economies, including the location-specific micro, small and medium enterprises. Even if large scale migrations from cities start, and indications are that it is still on a minuscule scale, there is no reason to think that everything is lost. In such a scenario, an imaginative approach will be necessary and that entails vigorous efforts to put a new life to the MSMEs.

The principal hindrance for such programmes is the inability on the part of policy planners to correctly realise the contribution of the informal sector to our national economy. Last year, at the height of the pandemic, Arun Kumar, a renowned economist, had calculated that production in the country must have had come down to 20-30% of the normal. According to his calculations, if 75% of productions is lost in a month, assuming uniform productions throughout the year, then there has to be a loss of Rs 13 lakh crore in incomes and 45% of it will be the loss of the unorganised sector. This is the area where poor people work and this is the gigantic amount of contribution they make to India’s economy.

Setting up of high-tech industrial enterprises may be in sync with the politico-economic thought that is now reigning over the world. But India lives in her informal sector and it is extremely important that something is done for ameliorating the conditions of the people who work in this arena.

(The author is a senior journalist and commentator specialising in politics and international affairs)

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