Approximately one year ago I was writing about Shambhu who migrated from his village to the nearest town. Who knew in this span of one-year Shambhu will be out of work and walking back to his village? Shambhu was probably luckier to be in his nearest town but an estimated 12 crores Shambhus work as seasonal migrant laborers across the country. They seasonally travel to states which require laborers for farms or industrial sites.
Recently International Labour Organisation (ILO) in its observation stated that in India, with a share of almost 90 percent of people working in the informal economy, about 40 crore workers are at risk of falling deeper into poverty during the COVID-19 instigated lockdown. Globally they estimated the pandemic to affect 2.7 bn workers.
Recent news reports across the media show that thousands of migrant labourers are walking to get back to their homes. They are desperate to go back home as their employers stopped paying them wages. A small primary survey among the micro entrepreneurs in Dharavi, Mumbai, by the writer, shows that businesses are mostly closed; there is no demand in the market so there is no revenue for the owners. Now that the laborers are migrating back so business owners envisage that at least for the next three months there will be no operation or very minuscule churning of their machineries.
During this flux, few states are changing their labour laws. If we see deeper the key legislation governing inter-state migrants in India is the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979. The Act was enacted to prevent the exploitation of inter-state migrant workmen by contractors, and to ensure fair and decent conditions of employment. On the contrary, when the migrant workers are terribly affected by this crisis, the Act and surrounding acts are under pressure and definitely towards dilution which will not be in favour of the labourers.
So, it is definitely a time to ponder regarding our policy making. This person or the family which is walking down the highway or railway track seems to be certainly nowhere in our scheme of governance or the policy making. Suddenly, they are a collective of faceless people! We could have a MGNREGA counter scheme for the urban centres where the security guards, temporary workers, daily wage labourers could have been paid and they could have run the factories in the industrial zones. Direct salary subsidies to the micro entrepreneurs could have kept the urban economy running; crisis times certainly require innovative solutions.
The law making oriented towards land, labour, capital etc will take its own gestation period. But the priority right now should be those migrating or potentially migrating labourers. So, coming back, Shambhu while on the road back to his village is devastated by this apathy of the State. He wanted to buy new clothes for his family this year; instead he is out of work, out of money and probably will be out of food for next few days till he reaches his village!