Employers need to be humane and must be dealt with strictly if they fail to take care of workers in emergencies, like they did during the pandemic
India went into a nationwide lockdown on March 24 to combat the Coronavirus pandemic and the entire Government machinery was galvanised by invoking the National Disaster Management Act. However, the sudden shutdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi created a serious governance and humanitarian crisis as panicked migratory workers in metro cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Ahmedabad set out for their home States on foot. The Government, before announcing the lockdown, should have asked the Labour Ministry to plan an exit route for migratory workers who are the backbone of urban India’s economy. But that was not done, leading to endless suffering for the migrant workers.
Bureaucrats enjoy tremendous clout in running the Government and advising politicians, but in this case the Government machinery, from top to bottom was in deep slumber and failed to visualise the enormity of the problem. The district-level bureaucracy however, did extremely well in properly visualising and enforcing the lockdown and contained the pandemic to a certain extent. Had the migratory workers been tackled carefully, the virus would not have spread to rural India. For over two months there was chaos on the roads as nervous labourers and daily wage workers, who lead a hand-to-mouth existence, decided to go home and cover hundreds of kilometres on foot. As a result, many died midway due to hunger, thirst, fatigue and some died in horrific road and railway accidents.
The Prime Minister and the Centre realised their mistakes quite late in the day and started running special Shramik trains to ferry the migrant workers to their hometowns, just as they began a phase-wise easing of the lockdown. As a consequence, the returning migrant workers spread the virus in their respective States. For example, in Uttarakhand there were only a few cases of COVID-19 in Dehradun and Haridwar earlier. But now the whole State is witnessing a daily spike in cases. This could have been avoided with foresight.
Most of the migrants fall in the category of the unorganised workforce and are employed by enterprises owned by individuals. Some are self-employed workers engaged in the production, sale of goods or provide services of any kind. This also includes a worker in the organised sector who is not covered by any Acts mentioned in Schedule II of the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008. The Government enacted the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996 to protect them but the mandarins of labour and other Ministries failed to implement the provisions. It is estimated that `31,000 crore is available under this Act for building and construction workers. Similarly, labour welfare funds are also available.
Before announcing the lockdown, the Central Government should have asked all the migratory labourers to register at the nearest Government office and prepared an online list of such people living in the cities with the help of the State machinery. Based on this list, the funds available for the welfare of labour could have been utilised to retain them at their work stations. The employers should have been asked to pay their salaries for at least three-four months, with some support from the Government. Now, the Centre has announced a `20 lakh crore stimulus package for the economy, which also includes a package for migrant workers who have returned home. Had it been done at the start of the lockdown, economic activities would have assumed without a hitch. After all, without workers, the industrial and manufacturing economy cannot work. Now the Government has eased the lockdown but people are finding it difficult to find manpower to restart manufacturing units.
The people at the helm of affairs must ponder over the fate of the 45 crore unorganised sector workers who are the backbone of the `10 lakh crore construction, industrial and agriculture sectors. The Government should constitute a committee to identify the sector-wise strength of the unorganised sector workers and their problems of finding a livelihood. The Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996 had made adequate provisions for accommodation, crèche, canteen, education and healthcare. But these were never implemented by the contractors, Government engineers and other supervisors, though there is provision for penalty and punitive action. In the absence of unions, workers are not aware of their legal rights and are exploited and shunted out at the slightest protest.
The Government ought to direct all stakeholders and create an enforcement regime to ensure welfare measures for the unorganised sector workers. The recent package announced should be used to create all facilities in urban localities as per the 1996 Act provisions. It would be desirable to frame a new comprehensive Act covering all migrant/unorganised sector workers. The employers need to be humane and must be dealt with strictly if they fail to take care of workers in emergencies, like they did during the present pandemic. Labourers deserve to live with dignity. We must remember the words of Mahatma Gandhi who once said, “Man becomes great exactly in the degree in which he works for the welfare of his fellow men.”
(Writer: VK Bahuguna; Courtesy: The Pioneer)