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Labour Fiasco

Labour Fiasco

The main theme of Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s address to the nation on 12th May was “Self Reliant India”. With this objective he announced a mega economic package of Rs. 20 lakh cores to counter the financial fallout of the coronavirus crisis. In his address, the Prime Minister said, "The package will focus on land, labour, liquidity and law; it will help small business, labourers and farmers. It will focus on the well-being of migrant workers too". It would cater to various sections including the cottage industry, MSMEs (Micro Small Medium Enterprises), the middle class and industries among others, he added. He also said that the Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman would unveil the details of the economic package.

Unfortunately, the PM failed to mention in his address anything about the pathetic condition of the migrant workers. There was no word of empathy for the workers who died on the way due to accidents and exhaustion. On 8th May, a cargo train had mowed down 16 migrant workers, who were sleeping on the railway tracks near Aurangabad. The workers were walking along the railway track from Jalna in Maharashtra to go to their villages in Madhya Pradesh. Due to exhaustion they slept over the railway tracks and train ran over them. The migrant labourers are partners in building India while the soldiers protect the country. Are the builders of India less than the protectors? Then why are they neglected and not cared for?      

When the Finance Minister disclosed the details of economic package on 13th May, there was not much for the migrant labourers and the workers of the unorganized sector. On 14th May, the FM revealed that Rs. 3500 crore will be spent for an estimated 8 core migrant workers. Each migrant worker will be getting 5 kilogram grain and one kilogram chena (pulses) for two months. The impoverished migrant workers urgently need cash transfer also, which the government has to consider sympathetically.

The opposition parties severely criticized the government for its neglect of the poor sections of the Indian society. "The special  economic package announced by the Union government is nothing but a big zero. It is eyewash to fool people. There is nothing for the unorganised sector, public spending and employment generation," said the West Bengal CM, Mamata Banerjee. The Left parties said that government failed to address the immediate concerns of people and dismissed the economic package as a "farce".

The government had announced on 13th evening a measly sum of Rs. 1000 crores from the PM CARES fund for the welfare of the migrant workers. According to P Chidambaram, the money from PM CARES fund will not be given to the migrant workers but to the State governments to meet the expenses of travel, accommodation, medicine and food for the migrant workers. But nothing will go to the hands of the migrant workers," tweeted Mr Chidambaram.   

The media continue to report the tragic stories of thousands of migrant workers walking on the roads and dying due to accidents. Some of the scenes are heart wrenching. NDTV News on 14th showed a lady pulling her suitcase and her child resting over it in scorching son. In another scene a young migrant worker from Madhya Pradesh, Ramu wheeled his daughter and pregnant wife for about 700-km from Hyderabad to Balaghat on a makeshift wooden cart that he made with wood and sticks. News papers in Indore carried three depressing pictures on 12th May: a young man carrying his disabled mother on his back and walking, a mother and her elder son together carrying her disabled son and a young man pulling bullock cart along with a bullock on the other side, carrying his mother and mother-in-law. The young man of the third picture was forced to sell one of the bullocks, as he had no money for buying food and other essentials.   

The number of accidents involving the migrant labours is increasing. On 14th morning, eight workers died and over 54 suffered injuries after the truck they were travelling in was hit by a speeding bus in Madhya Pradesh's Guna. The incident was reported hours after six migrant workers were run over by a bus on a highway in Uttar Pradesh.

Instead of caring for the workers some state governments are depriving them of their rights under the shade of Covid 19. Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh governments promulgated ordinance to suspend most of the labour laws for three years in order to attract investment and facilitate economic revival. Similar move is also contemplated by the Gujarat government. Six state governments have already enhanced the daily working hours from eight hours to 12 hours through executive order in violation of the Factories Act. Ten central trade unions on 11th May said they are considering approaching the International Labour Organization (ILO) against suspension of major labour laws in these states. The changes in the labour laws will reduce the workers to the status of slaves.

India cannot be made self-reliant by trampling upon the basic rights of workers. The working class secured its rights after struggling for many years. Under the pretext of economic development the workers cannot be denied of their basic rights. India should aim at self reliance along with dignity for workers. The central government in consultation with the States may take immediate steps for solving the issues of the workers, including migrant workers.

First of all, the Central government should intervene to stop the states from depriving the workers of their basic rights. Only a contented workforce will be able to contribute significantly for the economic development of the nation. There is no doubt that the labour laws that are detrimental to economic growth should be amended or removed in consultation with the representatives of the workers.

Secondly, the Central government has to coordinate with the state government for safe travel of the migrant workers back to their states. No state government should allow migrant workers to walk. They should arrange suitable transport to reach them to their respective states as the Madhya Pradesh government is doing now.

Thirdly, besides providing ration to the migrant workers, a particular amount of money should be transferred into the account of the migrant workers to tide over the Covid period at least for three months. The migrant workers who have returned to their villages are already impoverished and emaciated due to the ordeal they had to undergo during the lockdown and their travel back to their villages. They may not get any job in the villages where already unemployment and underemployment are rampant. Hence financial support to them is urgent and vital.

Fourthly, employment facilities are to be created in the rural areas in view of accommodating the workers returned from the urban centres. These workers may not go back immediately to the cities where they were humiliated and made to starve. Only better working conditions and minimum security will attract workers to the cities again.  The States may adopt strategies similar to the plan already prepared by Jharkhand to provide employment to its work force. Jharkhand in one the states from where largest number of workers migrate to other states in search of jobs.

The Jharkhand government has prepared three schemes to provide employment to the workers returning from the cities as well as to make the best use of its important resources: land, water and forest. They are Birsa Harit Gram Yojana for rural plantations, Neelambar Pitambar JAL Sammridhi Yojana for water conservation and the Poto Ho Khel Vikas Scheme for making playgrounds. All the three schemes will be implemented by making use of the provisions under MNREGA and other state sponsored programmes. The Jharkhand government has requested the Centre to increase the number of working days under MNREGA and the wages per day.  

Under the Birsa Harit Gram Yojana, over two lakh acres of land will be used for afforestation. Five lakh families would be given nearly 100 fruit-bearing plants, with initial plantation, maintenance, land work and afforestation to be taken up through MNREGA. Each family is estimated to receive an annual income of Rs 50,000 from the produce from the third year onwards. Under the Jal Sammridhi Yojna, water storage units will be constructed to store rainwater and recharge ground water. Under the playground scheme, the government aims to develop 5,000 grounds, with at least one in one Gram Panchayat. There are around 4,300 panchayats in the state.

Fifthly, the State governments have to create a better environment for the migrant workers. The urban India continues to be the economic hubs of India and therefore workers are needed for the revival of economic activities. Legal protection, security, minimum wage, health care etc. are the aspects the State governments have to pay attention.

A country that does not do justice to its workers cannot become great by enhancing its economic and military power. The migrant labour fiasco has already spoiled India’s name in the international circles. The international media have highlighted the way they are being treated, sometimes worse than animals. Instead of basking in the past glory, the rulers have to treat humanly the migrant workers. The migrant labourers are also the citizens of India with all the right and privileges guaranteed in the Indian constitution. Justice, Liberty, equality and fraternity, ensuring dignity as mentioned in the preamble of Indian Constitution, are also applicable to them.  It is the duty of the Central and the State governments to ensure these rights to them. Unfortunately the Prime Minister forgot to remind himself and the State governments that the migrant workers should get justice, and not charity.

(jacobpt48@gmail.com)

(Published on 18th May 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 21)