Building a better world
On the occasion of Mahaparinirvan Diwas, remembering the many contributions of Dr BR Ambedkar towards social security and public health in India
Dr BR Ambedkar was much concerned about crucial national healthcare policies that could reach the poorest and the untouchables. He was equally emphatic towards the issues of social security and labour welfare of India's workforce. Dr Ambedkar was a serious thinker and a tall contributor in the field of social security, labour welfare and public health, apart from being a great emancipator of the depressed classes in the pre-independence era, a constitution expert, a legal luminary and a mass leader.
Social transformation is necessary and a prerequisite to attaining social security. In this respect, the approach used by Ambedkar to ensure social security for all is still relevant. He believed that social security measures bring social justice through equal distribution of resources. Ambedkar strongly emphasised that social justice through social security brings unity and equality of all human beings.
Ambedkar asked the provincial governments to work for the principle of uniformity in labour legislation. Ambedkar believed that labour achieves security through legislation. It obtains the right to safety, care and attention, through the conditions of welfare enforced by the government upon the employers for the benefit of labour. But labour's security is not ensured merely with fair conditions of work. What labour wants is fair conditions of life, obtained through fair conditions of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
While addressing the constituent assembly (November 25, 1949), Ambedkar stated: "Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it, social democracy, which means, a way of life which recognises liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. The consciousness of social security comes to a man when he feels that he is getting his basic rights."
As the first Law Minister of independent India, Ambedkar proposed social security measures for the marginalised, women and factory workers. He believed that the state can help in creating wealth but creating social security for needy people was a big task even for the state. He framed many laws for Social Security for workers like 'The Workmen's Compensation (Amendment) Act', and especially for women workers in India such as 'Mines Maternity Benefit Act, 1941'.
For the benefit of workers, he enacted the 'Employees State Insurance Act, 1948' to help them with medical care, medical leave, and compensation for injuries that happen during work.
In his short spell as a member of the Viceroy's Executive Council (July 1942 - June 1946), he undertook major steps towards protecting the interests of the labour. Dr Ambedkar's visit to Jhumritilaiya & Koderma in April 1944 was one of his first contributions towards social security. Baba Saheb visited the mica mines in areas around Jhumritilaiya and Koderma and found the conditions of work there to be dismal. As a result of this visit, he got approved and finalised maternity benefit to the women workers, a labour welfare fund and a restricted number of working hours. He ensured that the Government takes the responsibility of ensuring the right to prescribe fair wages and fair conditions of service. During this period and later on, he promoted trade unionism and tripartism.
Ambedkar was a votary of the modern industrial economy and the free movement of labour. He stressed upon skill up-gradation and mechanisation. Ambedkar had an instrumental role in establishing employment exchanges, which helped in the resettlement and employment of de-mobilised services personnel and discharged war workers during the transition period, i.e., employment to unemployment tendencies and ensured satisfactory distribution of manpower among various branches of production. This was in sync with the requirement of the then job market and the industry. He visualised the state having a pivotal role in this endeavour. His views are even more relevant today when the country is facing a burgeoning youth population and a rapidly changing job market, especially in the present pandemic economic situation.
Ambedkar's concern for labour was not only at the policy level but also the political level. He floated the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in August 1936 which projected itself as a party of workers. The programme of the ILP, published in 1937, described it as a 'labour organisation in the sense that its programme was mainly to advance the welfare of the labouring classes'. It supported state ownership and management where ever necessary, but even within the working-class, more stress was on what is called the 'unorganised sector'. His views on protecting the interest of the labour were expressed in a weekly named 'Janata' founded by him in the 1930s. However, due to the peculiarity of the Indian subcontinent where the religious and social order sanctified the division of labour instead of the division of labour, Ambedkar had to change his course to address the issue of caste in his later years. This was one of the reasons that the Independent Labour Party made way for the Scheduled Castes Federation (SCF) in the 1940s.
Ambedkar believed that any health policy must address the poorest of the poor. To him, the Depressed Classes, today's Dalits, were of prime importance. The report of the National Health (Sokhey) Sub-Committee of the National Planning Committee (1948) and the Joseph Bhore Committee (1946), established to formulate a policy for healthcare services in post-independence India had the impact of Ambedkar's thought. Efforts were made to make healthcare appropriate and accessible to poor masses in remote villages. Ambedkar focused on the need for state-supported health provisioning. It is for these reasons that even the Bhore Committee (1946) endorsed the core idea to make health services reach everyone in the country, even those who cannot pay for them. He believed that the health of the people of India was of prime importance. Ambedkar referred to the words of the 'Report of the Economic Group of the Pacific Relations Conference', on rights that could be translated into real terms for the common man namely; "peace, a house, adequate clothing, education, good health, and, above all, the right to walk with dignity on the world's great boulevards without the fear of a fall". He championed for the improvement of public health and sanitation, prevention of disease, provision of medical facilities and improvement of existing facilities that he got included in the 'Coal Mines Labour Welfare Ordinance, 1944'.
It has been possible to make efforts towards the attainment of goals related to labour welfare, social security and public health, within the framework of the Indian Constitution, due to Baba Saheb Ambedkar's efforts and vision to provide a road map for the people of India. The Directive Principles of State Policy under Articles 38, 39, 41, 42, & 47 of the Indian Constitution have provided explicitly for the same.
In today's era of economic uncertainty and global pandemic situation, the cause of social security and labour welfare is much more relevant and important than ever before. The Government in these times of COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downturn has taken many steps like additional allocation to MGNREGA, earmarking financial assistance from PM-CARES fund for migrant workers, Atal Beemit Vyakti Kalyan Yojna unemployment allowance by ESIC, PM Garib Kalyan Yojna (by EPFO), Atmanirbhar Rojgar Yojana and also got the 'Social Security Code Bill' passed by Parliament, merging so many earlier enactments in one and trying to cover more and more workers like gig workers under the social protection net, to provide them better security benefits.
The writer is the Additional Commissioner & Regional Director with ESIC, Ministry of Labour & Employment. Views expressed are personal