The colossal magnitude of the migrant labour was not known to the general public, influential leaders ruling India, and movers and shakers of Indian economy. Only now there is the agonising realisation that without migrant labour, the destiny of India would have been shattered. It is they who provide skilled and unskilled labour, and run the wheels of economy. It is they who build India and provide essential services without any social security and social safety net. Migrating from their home and hearth to far off places of India, and living in clumsy and congested surroundings of cities and towns, they earn bare minimum subsistence amount or even less, for leading a life which in most cases is sub human. Forget about fair or living wages, they even do not get minimum wages for the work they do. Long hours of work in violation of existing labour laws and the indignity they suffer while working explain their daily trials and tribulations.
The sudden imposition of a lockdown, without factoring the concerns of migrant labour, has unfolded before the nation the unimaginable plight which they had to undergo. The so called economic security for which they left their hearth and home in the villages was not assured to them by the ruling leaders of India. Robbed of their paltry income and their shanty dwelling units, they were left to fend for themselves. They were made to realise that the towns and cities where they worked and toiled for earning their livelihood by giving their services have no heart to look after them. In such a situation, these towns and cities had no meaning for them. They desperately wanted to go back to their villages and poor rural settings where they thought they would die in presence of their kith and kin.
Indeed, they deserve all salute for showing such courage to walk hundreds and thousands of kilometres to be in their villages. They displayed stoic courage and walked along roads and railway tracks without food and money and with their children in their arms. Fear of death was not a deterring factor for them even as several hundreds of them lost their lives. However, the death of migrant labour on roads and railway tracks hardly moved the ruling leaders. Unmindful of deat.h the labour marched on. Ruling leaders only tweeted to express anguish over their death.
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The builders of India have real strength. Otherwise they could not have summoned courage to walk hundreds and thousands of kilometres. I recall the words of Gurudeb Rabindranath Tagore who, during the second decade of the 20th century, saw Chinese labourers loading goods in a ship in Hongkong. The movement of their robust limbs and strong legs moved him to say that there was poetry and rhythm in the heavy work they were doing. He then said that if the whole of China would display that rhythm then what a mighty country it would become.
The labour remains at the root of the rise and progress of any society and country. We can ignore labour only at our own peril. Even prior to Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi gave primacy to labour. Before he started his Satyagraha in South Africa, he had drafted a petition to safeguard the rights of Indians and he did so by first consulting the labourers. When he was asked as to why was consulting the labourers to draft the petition he famously said that they had as much right to exercise their brains as any body else. He advocated the idea of trusteeship to ensure that that those who had wealth and knowledge to create wealth would act as trustees of that wealth and after keeping some amount of wealth for their living, should use rest of the wealth for society. He proclaimed that the idea of trusteeship aimed at resolving the contradiction between capital and labour. At a time when labour is getting crushed that idea of trusteeship assumes relevant. It is tragic that now the ruling leaders of India have failed its labouring class and miserably ditched them by not recognising them as equal human beings through their attempts to dispense with labour laws.
Taking advantage of the economic imbroglio caused by COVID-19 pandemic and serious livelihood consequences suffered by labourers due to the unplanned lockdown, now a new architecture for revival of economy is being prepared by dispensing with security and safety guaranteed to labour through statutes. Changing labour law to force workers to work for 12 hours with pay of eight hours of work is like introducing bonded labour system which was abolished by Indira Gandhi during the time of she held the Prime Minister’s office. Only the Odisha Government, while altering the labour law to work for 12 hours, has prescribed over time pay for work rendered beyond eight hours.
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Labourers are already worst hit by the pandemic, and the unplanned and abrupt all India lockdown has destroyed their livelihood. Millions of migrant labourers are walking on road and railway tracks without food and money to reach their destinations located thousands of kilometres away and thousands of them are getting killed in the process. The country recently witnessed the tragic incident involving killing of hungry and tired migrant labourers who were mauled by a goods train near Aurangabad when they dozed off because of fatigue and sheer exhaustion due to walking hundreds of kilometres.
The vulnerability of migrant labour to hunger and poverty in their native places, due to absence of social security for them, is well known. In such a tragic situation, the modification of labour laws by taking away all security guaranteed by the Constitution and numerous progressive labour laws enacted after centuries-old struggle would mean heralding the era of unimaginable exploitation of labour reminiscent of the British period. It was Dr. Ambedkar, who, as a Labour Member in the Viceroy's Executive Council, had framed several progressive labour legislations which are being withdrawn in the COVID-19 ridden world. One fails to understand as to how some of the state governments are withdrawing progressive labour legislations for a period three years in violation of many international conventions signed by India to protect the rights of labour.
While rights of labour are being withdrawn, the beautification of Central Vista in New Delhi is being carried forward by spending Rs. 20, 000 crore. Is it justifiable to do so when millions of people have lost livelihood and employment because of mismanagement of economy from 2014 and now, are under the onslaught of global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus? Approval of beautification project in such times marked by a spiraling viral disaster speaks volumes for the lopsided priority of the people ruling India. It is quite evident that these rulers are insensitive to the pain and suffering of people who are now caught in the whirlpool of economic mismanagement and rising levels of COVID-19 infections. We now require the caring governance, at the heart of which remain rights and entitlements of labour and ordinary people of India.
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The writer served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to Former President of India, late K R Narayanan. The views are personal.