In Retrospect

False promises & hope anew

COVID-19 has laid bare for all to see, the plight of the informal sector and the migrant workers who sustain it. Vinay Kumar & Sunita Narain reflect on how, as a nation, we can finally make the necessary changes in both urban and rural settings to finally support those who hold up our modern existence

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on with the number of cases going up with each passing day, images of migrant workers trudging long distances to return to their homes relay poignant tales of their suffering.

It is indeed a sad commentary about the state of governance in the country with thousands of workers and their families not been able to get back to their villages even after nearly 60 days and three editions of lockdowns. The country has entered Lockdown 4.0 which will last till May 31 but the miseries of workers are not going to end any time soon.

In sweltering heat, workers have taken steps too big for them, walking distances of 800 to 1,200 km to get back to the safety of their respective homes and to be with their families and loved ones. Their sad plight has also served to spotlight the deficiencies in the country's planning and design of urban centres to act as engines of employment, shelter and workplaces.

The pandemic, in all likelihood, will force policymakers and the political leadership to have a relook at urban policies where cities can act as providers of permanent homes to the migrant labourers, construction workers and household helps.

According to figures available with the Union Labour Ministry, as many as 42 crore unorganised workers are engaged in doing different jobs in cities, mostly as ragpickers, domestic workers, rickshaw pullers, cobblers, washermen, agriculture and construction workers, handloom workers, beedi workers and also

in the leather sector. This is nearly one-third of the country's total estimated population of 130 crores and does not represent those engaged in the organised sector.

Looking at this figure of unorganised workers who barely earn just enough to make their ends meet, it is not difficult to gauge the conditions in which they live in cities — highly congested localities which are urban slums. Here, half a dozen persons are crammed into a single room where health, hygiene and social distancing go for a toss. Consider Mumbai's Dharavi, one of Asia's largest slums, which is spread over a square mile and is home to nearly a million people. In the time of Coronavirus pandemic, dwellers in Dharavi are struggling to be able to live and Mumbai has emerged as the most affected city in India.

This brings to question the kind of planning which has gone on in the past while designing urban centres where unorganised workers have not been assigned spaces to live. These workers have to travel considerable distances to get to their places of work in the absence of assigned spaces for them. If cities have seen the proliferation of illegal colonies and slums, it is precisely because the workers have not been given any space to live near the residential complexes and condominiums where they are engaged as domestic help, gardeners, cleaners, guards and drivers. A considerable number of those who flock to big cities in search of jobs in the unorganised sector also make an effort to somehow squeeze into any illegal sub-urban colony or slum and get a roof over their head. Such illegal colonies, unplanned as they are, often get regularised during the time of elections. However, the plight of inhabitants in such colonies rarely improves in terms of good infrastructure.

It was in October last year that Union Cabinet had passed a bill to regularise 1,797 unauthorised slums in the national Capital, aimed at improving the lot of 40 lakh residents who had thronged to Delhi in search of better life and livelihood. The problem of slums and informal settlements can be gauged by the fact that worldwide, about one billion people are slum dwellers and it is estimated that by 2030, three billion people will lack access to adequate and affordable housing, according to UN-Habitat.

Perhaps, COVID-19 will be a pointer to the urban planners to design self-contained, sustainable models where workers have a small but clean space to live in hygienic conditions, complete with basic amenities. Only if sprawling urban spaces had provided for the workers engaged in the informal sector, workers would not have had to return to their villages where once again they will have to face the compulsion of finding jobs and in the absence of opportunities, flock to cities.

As PM Modi stressed in his last address to the nation, there is a need to make India self-reliant. He also referred to turning the current crisis into an opportunity. At such a time, it will be worthwhile for policymakers to look towards reviving the rural sector by creating jobs in sectors like agriculture, animal husbandry, dairy, micro-enterprises, food processing, textiles and leather. It will not only help in reviving the rural economy but also prevent mindless migration of workers to cities where the pandemic has not only led to job losses but also deprived them of their earnings and shelter.

The ambitious 'Smart Cities Mission', launched in 2015 by Prime Minister Modi in his first tenure — with a funding of Rs 98,000 crore to develop smart cities across the country and make them citizen-friendly and sustainable — will only make the cut when such cities provide for, in an integrated way, living spaces and job opportunities for the workers. IT connectivity, use of technology and data to improve infrastructure and services will no doubt provide a modern lifestyle

to the inhabitants but it will be the human resource in the form of informal workers who will sustain them in the long run.

Renewing rural economies

Events are moving along so very fast in our world. It was just two weeks ago that I wrote about how the economic collapse because of COVID-19 had made the invisible, visible. I wrote about the images of migrant labourers that haunt us, who made their way from villages to cities for jobs and are now walking back home because of job loss — often dying and collapsing with hunger.

Since then, the migrant crisis has made its way into our homes; into our living rooms; and, into our consciousness like never before. We have seen them, we have felt their pain and, we have wept when we heard how tired migrants sleeping on train tracks were crushed to death by an oncoming train. More and more of such cases have come to light — we are all traumatised. I know.

But it is also important to note that their pain has not gone unnoticed — the Government has started trains to bring migrants back home. It has done this knowing there is a danger that the contagion might spread to villages. But it knows that there is also visible anguish to go home. It had to respond. I can say that as yet, all these efforts, including the move to provide free food to the returning people, is still too little. Much more needs to be done to take them home with dignity and to provide them with the wherewithal to survive in the coming months.

However, what we need to discuss now is not just the returning migrants but what this will mean for the future of work and the future of production — not just in India but across the world. So, what happens to work now — workers have returned home; they may come back as things improve or they may not. Already in Indian cities, we are getting news about how essential municipal services are affected without this workforce. We are getting news about the panic of builders — the industry is being made aware of the fact that even when lockdowns are lifted, production needs workers.

So, the value of their work — the worker who was until now dispensable and cheap — is being felt. These workers were kept in the worst possible conditions, sleeping and eating in hovels — inside the 'sweat' factories and shops that the world has come to know. There is no government housing or transport or any other such facility for industrial areas — factories are supposed to produce and workers are supposed to find whatever means they can to survive.

We know that people live cheek-to-jowl with industry — this makes them vulnerable to toxic gas leakages or pollution. But have we ever stopped to ask why these informal, illegal habitations are built? They are built because there is no housing provided. But labour needs jobs and the industry needs labour. But now the labour force is gone, some say they will never return.

Work needs to be reimagined. In areas where people will return, this is a great opportunity to renew rural economies and make them resilient. But this is not going to be easy.

Just consider how, in the 1970s, when Maharashtra had a great famine looming and it feared massive unrest in its cities because of rural exodus, one man, VS Page, a Gandhian, had come up with the scheme to keep people employed at their place of residence. This was the start of the Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS), which morphed into the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) many years later.

But what we forget as this programme took the avatar of government rules is that it was a contract — between the rural and urban. Professionals in cities paid a tax, which went into the scheme meant to provide employment at home for villages. It was a win-win for both.

What we also forget is the opportunity that this work provides to rebuild nature's capital — through real and tangible assets of water, forests, grazing lands, horticulture and investment in livelihoods. This is not to say that these words are not there in the Government document. All this is said but there is little understanding of the intent or the opportunity. It is a tired scheme, meant to provide work during distress.

We need a new direction and leadership. We must stop seeing this as a scheme for breaking stones in the scorching sun. We must see this as the scheme for providing livelihoods for renewal — do all we can to build the rural economy, driven as it is through value addition in agriculture, dairy and forestry. It needs a new blueprint; a new compact between the rural and the urban.

But this then brings me to the question of production — India and all other countries of the world are desperate to restart factories and rebuild economies. The fact is that the global economy is built on cheap labour and by discounting environment protection — there is a cost to providing homes for workers; providing adequate living conditions and wages that would give people well-being.

There is a cost to ensure that water and air and waste are not dumped but treated and then disposed of. The rich did not want to pay this cost; they wanted cheap goods for consumption. That's why production moved to our world.

*With inputs from DowntoEarth

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