I assume, all of us must have wondered once at least in our lives, how people in the earlier times used to travel such large distances on foot. It was amazing even to imagine that! It is not amazing anymore, because it is a reality that is mocking each one of us in our sun screened faces while we sit back in our comfortable homes.
The COVID-19 outbreak has left naked the condition of the lowest strata of the society in India. It was shocking to note that while the government decided to lock down 1.3 billion people in their homes, to curb the spread of the virus, the picture of the poor didn’t flash even once in their minds.
Forced to flee their homes in search of better work opportunities and the desire to give a seemingly better life to their families, these migrants labourers, sweepers, guards, street vendors, anyway must not have expected much from those in power and perhaps the reason why they took the pain to walk thousands of kilometres on foot to reach home.
198 migrants lost their lives due to government inaction.
Is this what the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, meant when he talked about ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat(Self Reliant India)’? Well, I don’t know but could be! These people did all that was within their capacity, without a helping hand. They gave their blood and sweat to earn daily, fed themselves on that money and sent back the rest home. And when no one cared they left for home on foot.
And of course, the governments, states or centre made their priorities clear. It took them more than a month to wake up from their indifference. 198 migrants lost their lives on roads alone. In one incident, 16 migrants were crushed to death by a goods train while they settled down to rest, unconsciously on a railway track in the western state of Maharashtra. When the transportation resumed, close to 100 people died in the railway premises.
Meanwhile, as all this was happening in the country, various state governments announced ordinances exempting the factory sector, establishments and businesses from all major Labour laws, except the basic one’s. In May 2020, Uttar Pradesh announced an ordinance called the Uttar Pradesh Temporary Exemption from Certain Labour Laws Ordinance, 2020, exempting the factory sector of all major Labour Laws except three – Building and other Construction Workers Act,1923; Bonded Labour Act,1976; Section 5 of Payment of Wages Act, 1936, for a period of three years.
Major laws that have been done away with include the Minimum Wages Act, Trade Unions Act, Industrial Disputes Act, Factories Act, Contract Labour Act, Payment of Bonus Act, Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, Working Journalists Act, Employees’ Provident Funds and Miscellaneous Provisions Act.
States like Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab and others also followed suit. Interestingly, the working class was not even considered a party to these decisions, in any of these states. This comes also as the gross violation of the ILO convention (C144) that mandates all its signatories to make “Tripartite Consultation” before ascertaining any changes to the labour laws.
Tripartite consultations involve the Employers, the workers and the governments for making any legislation to the labour laws.
Legal protection for the unorganized labour force is next to non-existent.
Governments have repeatedly claimed that the Ordinance would help in promoting the ‘ease of doing business’, attract foreign investment and protect jobs. But again, it is the workers who have been made the scapegoats for protecting the business class. The entire burden of protecting the businesses has swiftly been shifted on the shoulders of the working class, at the cost of their human rights.
Here, both, the urgency and intention of the state governments to protect businesses should be noted and should be compared to their delay in action for the crisis-hit migrant workers.
We need to question the labour laws too. The laws are designed to serve only the better off labour class, the organized labour force, despite the fact that only 10 per cent of the entire labour force belongs to this group. Only a handful of laws like the Contract Labour Act,1970, the Inter-state Migrant Workmen Act, 1979 and a few others assure protection by law to the unorganized sector. Contractors exploit their lack of awareness or even literacy to deny the benefits that are legally due to them. Sadly enough, both the acts have been rendered inoperative for the period of three years in UP.
The people we’ve seen on the streets, struggling to reach their homes are informal labourers, meaning, they have no social security from the employer’s side. To make things clearer these are the ‘kabadiwalas(garbage collector)’, the nai(barber), the vendor, the cobbler, the tailor, and so on.
In 2018, 50% of the Indian population participated in the labour force. 81% of the total workforce was employed in the unorganized sector. But, a large portion of the formal sector also comprises the unorganized form of labour ( as contractual/casual labourers). When that is also taken into account, the proportion of informal workers in the total participating labour-force reaches around 92%.
As noted Journalist and Politico-Economic Analyst, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta likes to put it, “the class character of these governments is such that they are interested more in trying to save the interests of the employers rather than the employees.“
It is this character that paints the grim picture of economic and social inequality in India.
According to Oxfam India, India’s top 1% population owns 73% of the wealth, while 67 crore citizens, comprising the country’s poorest half own 1%. In the United States of America, the top 1% own 37% of the wealth.
Oxfam India CEO, Nisha Agarwal said, “The billionaire boom is not a sign of a thriving economy but a symptom of a failing economic system. Those working hard, growing food for the country, building infrastructure, working in factories are struggling to fund their child’s education, buy medicines for family members and manage two meals a day. The growing divide undermines democracy and promotes corruption and cronyism.“
The same survey also finds out that it will take 941 years for a minimum wage worker in rural India to earn what the top paid executive at a leading Indian garment firm earns in a year.
The division that exists in the social structure of the Indian society is quite manifest in the increasing economic inequality in the country. Just as darker skin tone people or lower caste people don’t get the hero’s role in Bollywood films, people who are poor and marginalised don’t matter for the governments. Politics, after all, is Public Relations these days and there’s no reason why the governments would want to maintain cordial relations with the poor, the weak. Wouldn’t that be a deficit deal!
Much of the problem is a result of the lack of willpower and empathy on parts of the governments. In Indian democracy, people are looked upon not as humans but as ballot papers.
When that is the case, expecting empathy from the powerholders would mean social distancing ourselves from the world realities. It is the rich who run the political parties and once the parties acquire the chair, the rich get served. Of course, the poor vote, only to be forgotten.
What we see today is just the manifestation of all the apathy that successive governments have shown over the past many years. Till date, the governments have failed to devise a way to identify poor. The concept of the poverty line is vague, completely insensitive and the one which lets the governments escape their responsibilities.
The Tendulkar Committee(2005), set the poverty line at just Rs 32 per capita per day in urban India Rs 27 for Urban areas. This was inclusive of health and education expenses!
In 2015, the Rangarajan Commission set the new poverty lines at Rs. 32 for the rural areas and Rs. 47 for the Urban Areas. It emphasised largely on food as a source of nutrition and overlooking the contribution of sanitation, healthcare and access to clean water.
Most recently, the National Statistical Office’s report on Household Consumer Expenditure for 2017-18 was junked by the Indian government, so there is no latest data about India’s poverty estimates. Social scientist, S Subramanian used data from a leaked version of the consumer expenditure data to conclude that the incidence of poverty in India increased from 31.15% to 35.1% between 2011-12 and 2017-18. The absolute number of poor people also increased from 270 million to 322.22 million over the same period, which translates to 52 million more poor people in six years.
Globally, according to the World Bank’s latest, about 60% of India’s nearly 1.3 billion people live on less than $3.10 a day, the World Bank’s median poverty line. 21% of the population, which boils down to 250 million people, survive on less than $2 a day. What do you eat with that money, what do you spend when you’re sick, how do you send your children to school?
The governments don’t consider the poor as citizens, especially the hyper Nationalist BJP government in power, caters only to the TV citizenry, for which they’ve created well-placed machinery.
Often, those who desperately need aid are left out because they don’t possess the necessary documentation or even awareness, and some others with political connections get access to the government subsidies even when they don’t need it.
It brings us again to the question of the class character of the various States and the centre. If one has to look at discrimination, masks, sanitiser, social distancing, however necessary, are the privileges of the middle class and not the poor. It also indicates the priorities of the government and the population it wishes to serve. You cannot expect a poor to invest in masks and sanitisers when their stomachs are empty.
Many died in the way, many were left with permanent scars and many discovered the heroics within them. Heroics that came out of helplessness!
Can we expect the government to consider these people the next time they take any countrywide decision? Let’s be hopeful.