Every Indian knows that the lockdown announced by Prime Minister Modi on March 24 has effectively shut down most of the economic life in the country. Yet, the first measure of its impact on employment is beyond imagination – a horror story.
An estimated 11.76 crore persons lost their jobs between March 22 – just two days before the lockdown began – and April 5. This is an estimate presented by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) after analysing reports from its periodic labour force survey. Due to the lockdown they could only cover about 10,000 households, that, too, through telephone. Despite this truncated sample, the scale of job losses is staggering.
In fact, it is quite possible that this survey has under-estimated the number of employed and unemployed because the scale of shutdown is far wider in its sweep than could be accommodated in a sample survey. Also, the effect of the lockdown has been far greater and more grievous on the poorer sections than white collar employees.
The CMIE survey also shows that the Indian labour force participation rate has steeply declined to its worst level ever of a mere 36.1%. This means that only about that share of the working age population is either working or willing to work but currently jobless.
In other words, a vast majority of the population has resigned itself to sitting at home, without work. That’s a natural outcome of the lockdown which forced millions of labourers to flee from their places of work back to their distant homes, and others who simply were told that their services were no longer needed.
Note that, theoretically, all those people who were employed but are no longer working due to the lockdown should be paid full wages. This is what the government has urged employers to do. But, clearly this has been like water off a duck’s back. Which employer is going to listen to such “urgings” from the government unless it is backed by stringent punishment for violations? Had these workers been getting their wages, they would have been counted as employed, because they would have declared themselves as such. So, these mind boggling numbers also reflect the failure of government policy on wage rights during the lockdown.
Joblessness At An All Time High
The steep fall in labour participation rate is actually made up of two components: the currently employed and the currently unemployed but willing to work. If you look at just the category of those who are jobless and looking for work – in order to survive – a picture of dire distress and suffering emerges.
As shown in the chart below, the unemployment rate has zoomed up from 8.4% on March 22 to 23.8% on March 29, and then 23.4% on April 5. That means nearly a quarter of the labour force is currently sitting idle, though they are seeking work. They are not resigned to their fates – they want jobs, because without that they and their families will starve.
Various trade unions and welfare organisations have been distributing relief material – rice, pulses, salt, oil – to destitute and hungry families in most parts of the country so that these fellow workers do not die of hunger. It is only in Kerala and a few other states that a state government policy is ensuring a regular support and sustenance to starving workers.
Did It Have To Be Like This?
A question bothering many in the country is this: did it have to come to this? Does the battle against COVID-19 pandemic need this kind of forced sacrifice of the working class? Is this what the PM meant when he exhorted the people to get ready with resolve and restraint to fight the disease?
The answer is so simple that it looks almost trite: no, most of this misery of economic distress and death pangs would have been avoided if proper preparation was done in the two months before March 24. People could have been told that a lockdown would be necessary, maybe a graded one. A date could have been set giving time to make arrangements. A system of wage support could have been put in place. Money could have been transferred as could have essential commodities. The whole country would then have risen as one to unitedly fight out this pandemic. Instead, nothing was done – except asking people to clap and blow shankhs, and later, light diyas.
This will surely go down as one of the biggest failures of the present central government – they abandoned the people when faced with the worst ever crisis humanity has faced in living memory.
Also read: COVID-19 - Has The Leaking Indian Lockdown Succeeded?