Needed: A new economic order

Migrant workers and public economics
Last Updated 03 June 2020, 18:43 IST

Post-lockdown, ‘migrant workers’ has emerged as a special category of people. Invoking varied responses. To some, their plight is a blot on our conscience but to others, these are foolish people who walked on railway tracks and got killed. Or, gathered in thousands violating physical distancing norms at railway or bus stations, rather than staying indoors in their homes. People do not realise that they hardly have a home in the cities where they live, and that is why they were doing what everyone else was – trying to go home in a time of uncertainty and panic!

But, why don’t they have homes in these cities where they live and work? Because no one cares. Neither the Prime Minister or Chief Minister, nor you and I. If they are construction workers, they are often tucked away in small colonies provided by the construction companies, where they usually don’t have more than six feet-by-three feet space for one person to sleep and live in, and a few toilets often without water supply and an open space to bathe, sometimes with access to drinking water, sometimes none. Often located next to the ‘towers’ or a ‘dream city’ – high rise apartments with all amenities and ‘lung space’ – that they were brought in to build. These are the spaces where they were expected to stay for weeks together without any assurance of food, cash, contact with their families. And a majority stayed. They had no option, unless they already had started walking or cycling. And some of those who managed to cycle home did so by cycling through the nights and hiding in the day for fear of police beatings. This is what I found in my recent visits to a few workers colonies in Bengaluru. The same situation exists in other industries and in other cities.

Talking to a cross-section of ‘migrant workers’ in the construction sector in Bengaluru, it emerged that a majority of them had not received wages even for January and February when the lockdown was suddenly declared on March 24. Food supplied by NGOs and part payment of the January-February wages by the ‘contractor’ through whom they were hired helped them sustain themselves. The employers rarely provided any food or supplies. And now that the construction activities have started, these companies and the State want them to stay back but are not ready to pay even partial wages for the period of the lockdown.

And where is the State in all this? The Union government had passed an order making it compulsory to pay wages during the lockdown but withdrew that order later.

We know well who benefits from this withdrawal. Repeated extension of lockdowns did not come with any arrangement for them to go back home. And now, when it has, it is full of confusion and chaos about rules, payment, forms and procedures.

These workers I talked to have been trying to negotiate online forms, police stations and railway stations, often without any clear instruction and support, barring from a few civil society networks trying their best to reach out. With poor literacy skills and limited knowledge of local language, they feel frustrated and helpless, and in the process even get cheated. Deepu (name changed) from Bengal received his February wages on May 21 and decided to spend it on buying a regular train ticket, with no hope left for finding a seat in a Shramik Express train. At the ticket counter, he was told that no ticket was available till June 22. Someone took him to a nearby shop and sold him a confirmed ticket worth Rs 3,160 for Rs 4,500. He spent more than half of his monthly wage on this ticket in desperation.

What else has the State done? A number of BJP-ruled states, joined by Karnataka now, have either suspended most provisions of labour laws or amended them to enhance the working hours and reduce the social securities to “revive the economy”. There is no sign of any rethinking, any churning or of any gratitude to the fact that the workers, who have kept going the essential services – the grocery shops, security services and health services – must be treated better in the post-crisis phase. Instead, labour laws are being amended to further dehumanise them.

Every single worker who I spoke to in these colonies expressed a desire to go back home. Undaunted that there may be no work back home, and they may be walking into a food crisis and other distress: “Whatever is there, we will share and eat”, “even if we die, we will die in peace”, “we will work in the fields and survive,” they said. Considering the huge number of roughly 20 crore migrant workers working outside their villages, the process of revere migration has only just begun. To respect the rights and dignity of these workers, it is time to strengthen labour laws while doing away with overlaps and ambiguities that presently exist.

The economy’s revival strategies need to consider the imminent labour crisis in urban areas alongside responding to rising pressure for work opportunities in rural areas. The provisions for food grains in the economic package may give some relief to returning migrants but is highly inadequate. It is not enough to enhance NREGS allocations marginally, it is also important to simplify the processes so that people are not lost in paperwork. It is also important to increase spending on food security and to strengthen basic education and health services in rural areas.

It is time that to realise that public spending on these services in times of a slowdown creates multiplier effects ensuring wage and income security while also leading to creation of demand for goods and services, and in turn regenerating economic activities. These are backed by evidence and well-justified economic policy choices and are not a recipe for doling out public money. The guiding principles of public economics are and ought to be different from those of the balance sheet-based accounting guidelines of the corporate sector.

(The writer is Director, Centre for Budget and Policy Studies, Bengaluru)

(Published 03 June 2020, 16:42 IST)

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