Millennium Post

Out in the cold?

As the nation looks to reviving the pandemic-struck economy, the plight of migrant labourers must be addressed with a revitalised system of employment and skill training

Amid Coronavirus or COVID-19 infection-induced pandemic, the Central Government along with states is now making efforts to bring the economy back on track. With the last set of 'Lockdown Guidelines', the Modi Government gave states a larger role to play in restarting Indian economy. As PM Modi handed back more discretionary powers to the states, the major portion of the task to normalise trade and commerce has also shifted to the states. But the most immediate challenge was to re-employ millions and millions of migrant workforce rendered jobless in the wake of the national shutdown called to contain the infection. The challenge was accentuated by the fact that this workforce no longer exists at the business hubs where they were employed. A large number of them, nearly 65 million, shifted back to the safety and security of their native states in one of the most traumatic reverse migrations witnessed in Indian history.

Six states most affected

Most labour in the country comes from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Odisha. There is no method of counting but it is estimated that Uttar Pradesh accounts for the highest 25 per cent and Bihar for 14 per cent of these migrants. While Rajasthan contributes six per cent and Madhya Pradesh at five per cent to this workforce. According to government estimates, in Bihar, around 24 lakh people have returned home. Uttar Pradesh estimates pegs the figure at about 34 lakhs. While Rajasthan estimates that 13.5 lakh migrants have come back. The smallest contributor to this workforce, Madhya Pradesh saw a reverse migration of about 13 Lakh people, including about five lakh family members of labourers. Odisha has reported that about 5 lakh workers have returned home after the lockdown.

Welfare, healthcare and employment for such a large population in a short time is definitely a huge challenge. For larger states like Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh the challenge is bigger. Whether in restarting the industrial activity, arresting unemployment or social welfare, the size of the state and the population poses a tough situation. Add to it, millions of those migrated back are poor and belong to labour sections.

Need for a lasting solution

To overcome the challenge, the Centre clubbed together 25 employment schemes for the Rs 50,000 crore 'Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyaan (GKRA)'. The scheme covers 116 districts from six states: Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Odisha. Launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 20 from Khagaria in Bihar, GKRA is more of an immediate measure than a lasting solution. Designed to work for 125 days in 116 districts in the six most affected states, the scheme may have given temporary relief but already more dark clouds are looming on the horizon.

According to the recent data released by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), India's rural unemployment rate is on the rise. The rural unemployment rate climbed to 7.1 per cent in the week ending on July 19 from 6.34 per cent recorded in the previous week. Experts believe that with the onset of monsoon, this may only inch further up especially with summer sowing season coming to an end. This might have further aggravated with the onset of monsoon as rural farming and construction activity also get majorly stalled. With the additional migrant population present, the burden of welfare on states will definitely be more.

The extent of social, economic and health emergency faced by the poor migrant labourer can be gauged by just considering the case of Madhya Pradesh where about 13 lakh labourer population has come home. According to a survey done by NGO Vikas Samvad, the State has no apparatus or method to ascertain the number of people who have migrated out for work and so would probably never get to know how many exactly returned amid the COVID pandemic crisis. A nightmarish situation if you wish to plan for their welfare.

Perhaps there is no option to restart business and economic activities but the moot question is has the government really put a plan in place to ease the stress on sections that were hardest hit by the sudden shutdown of trade and industry?

Missing labour-centric policies

The poor and the labourer did seem to be on the mind of PM Modi when he acknowledged in 'Man Ki Baat' that it is they who have been worst affected by the Coronavirus crisis. But they do not seem to be a priority when restarting the economy was announced. Millions of labourers and daily wagers migrated back to their native places from various corners of the country, many forced to travel on foot for as much as a thousand kilometres.

When Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the Rs 20 lakh crore package for MSME sector many were hoping that there would be some direct relief for the most affected party, the labour workforce. But the entire focus of the package was on relief to businesses and not workers. Add to it the changes made to labour laws by Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. Among other things, these sweeping changes allowed increasing working hours without pay enhancement.

However, the Union Labour Ministry has told the relevant parliamentary standing committee that these changes will not be entertained. On July 20, 2020, Committee Chairman Bhartruhari Mahtab (BJD) said, "The labour ministry has said that extension of working hours beyond eight hours is illegal and can't be allowed to happen." The labour law is on the concurrent list so any changes to its provisions have to be in line with the Central legislation. Legality apart, the changes are anti-labour.

The notification issued on May 5, 2020, by Madhya Pradesh Government disbands recognition of trade unions for collective bargaining for key industrial sectors. Many other provisions of the 'Factories Act' including provisions of water and toilets to basic health and safety have also been changed. And most importantly, the new rules allow working hours to be extended to 12 hours instead of eight and weekly hours up to 72 hours. The notification also bars the raising of complaints and disputes under the 'Industrial Disputes Act' unless it relates to the closure of the establishments with more than 300 employees. All these changes are applicable for three years. And workers can expect no better options in other states. Neighbouring Uttar Pradesh and also Gujarat have made similar changes to the labour laws.

Women hit hardest

Yet another survey done by NGO Vikas Samvaad shows that COVID-19 lockdown has resulted in severe malnutrition among women in underprivileged sections in Madhya Pradesh. The study in 122 villages of six districts—Rewa, Satna, Panna, Umaria, Niwari and Shivpuri reveals that among 64 per cent families at least one family member migrated for work.

Look at the case of 40-year-old Rajkumari from Satna district. She went to Surat about three years ago for work primarily as a daily wager at construction sites. While Surat became a victim of COVID-19 epidemic she became the victim resultant by job loss. Without money and support, Rajkumari set out for her hometown Satna with her three children, one of them physically challenged. For the better part of her journey on foot, she carried her disabled son on her back with the other two in tow. She was 'lucky' when some locals in Panna reported to authorities that she may be carrying a 'corpse' on her back. Lucky because the complaint got her official help in reaching home with all her sons alive.

Now, when the Government speaks of the 'revival' of MSME and 'Construction' sector, what will Rajkumari do? What will over 13 lakh migrants in MP do? These people have already made their second migration in one life. They have shown grit once by leaving the love of home for work. Shown resilience to migrate back, leaving the place they may have created for themselves in another state. Will they muster enough courage for 'third migration' in one life? It seems too much to ask for from them just because they have put trust in the Government.

Madhya Pradesh government and any other state for that matter, have their task cut out. They must find a comprehensive way to revive economic activity so that the over 65 lakh poor labourer class need not leave their home once again for a mere piece of bread. The State needs to empower them enough with not just job security but skill enhancement so that if in future, they do migrate, they migrate for further growth like we do.

Views expressed are personal

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