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COVID-19 Has Brought To Fore The Importance As Well As Woes Of Migrant Workers

Covid 19 Pandemic will go down as a watershed in India’s economic history as it has exposed several fault lines of the political economy concealed in the cobwebs of macro economic data like GDP growth, factor productivity, foreign exchange reserve, and ease of doing business etc which have turned market led economics into a form of ” brutalist art”.

The systemic inability to address the issues faced by the migrant working men and women in urban and peri urban areas in the unorganized sectors of the economy to keep the economy moving is one such fault line. Absence of any mechanism- both at the center and at the states to monitor inter state and even intra state movement of labor has caught the Governments unprepared and hindered sensible policy making.

London based Financial Times in its May 1 issue estimated that India has 170 millions of workers who migrated from their ” home states” to other states and 140 millions of them have lost their jobs in the wake of outbreak of the Pandemic. Neither the methodology of making the estimate nor the possibility of excluding the intra state movement of labor- so large in States like UP and MP in the estimate is known; and in the absence of any Government estimate there is ample scope for under-reporting of the problem and its dimensions.

The contribution of the migrant labour to the economy is huge – about 10% of the GDP on a conservative estimate but more significantly it is the backbone of the formal economy in manufacturing, construction, transportation, hospitality and private security services. The size of this segment is rapidly expanding due to what the I.L.O calls “informalisation” labor in the wake of ” liberalisation” and spread of outsourcing of skills and subcontracting of work.

The 2017 Economic Survey of the Govt of India estimated that annually 9 million Indians move across state borders. Earlier 2011 Census put 140 million workers in the intra and inter state migrant groups. Further, the database of wages, working and living conditions of the migrant workers is not adequate to make an assessment of their situation; and even when targeted programs were launched by the government to provide the workers in unorganized sectors – rural and urban with some social security as under Atal Pension yojna, the difficulty in reaching out to these groups has been enormous. Nevertheless, Periodic Labor Force Survey 2017-18 reported the hard facts- that more than 70% workers in the non agricultural sectors didn’t have a written job contract, 55% were not eligible for paid leave and 55% didn’t have any health or social security. The working conditions of the migrant labor continue to be highly exploitative despite the fact that we have protective legislations such as the Inter state Migrant Workmen Act, 1997 laying down a system for registration of migrant workers by every state labour Dept, compliance with the provisions for contract employment covering payment of wages, living and conditions of work. However, the ground reality is that the migrant labour friendly legislations are not being implemented properly. This is indeed a sad commentary on the state committed to Sarvodaya and Antodaya meaning upliftment of all and those at the bottom of the Society and the objectives of the Republic as embodied in the Directive Principles of State Policy of the Constitution.

Looking at this crisis from the north east, the first thing that one notes is that no such movement of labour is taking place from North East to other parts of the country while about 6-7 lakhs of Migrant Workers and their families from the region and mainly from Assam are trying to get back to the north east states at this point of time. This is contrary to the narrative that dominates the politics of the region especially Assam that the identity of the indigenous people is under serious threat due to ” unabated migration” of people from outside the region and from across the international borders.

The reason for “no movement of labour” to other states from North East is over all low demand for labour in the region as no large Infrastructure project is presently under implementation nor the manufacturing and tertiary sectors are in need of outside labor- skilled or unskilled. Thus out migration from the north east is the dominant issue now especially from Assam and why?. Because two decades- 1980’s and 1990’s were decades of “no growth “but high population growth and massive youth unemployment generating for the first time a ” push factor” as the opening up of the economy from 1991 reforms created new job opportunities in several cities outside North East . This led to first phase of migration of labour outside the region from late 1990’s and has since grown larger and recurring .

Interestingly economic growth had picked up in the region from the 10th plan ( 2002- 2007 ) and Assam and other states have now been growing at 6% plus annually. However it has not been urban- technology- manufacturing led growth capable of transforming the production function and expanding the urban areas but driven by investment in physical infrastructure projects which create jobs mainly in the construction phase. This period also saw a massive spread of higher and technical educational facilities as apart from IIT Guwahati scores of new universities and vocational training institutions were set up turning out qualified personnel far in excess of the demand of the regional economy because of slow urbanization and growth of manufacturing and value added services.This holds good for undergraduate technical man power too as the region’s net work of Industrial training institutes (ITI) with 28 in Assam and 19 in other states turn out qualified technicians far in excess of the demand as reflected in the small- Rs 6 lakh crore size of the regional economy. This explains the high unemployment especially in Tripura, Assam and Nagaland and the migration of labour to other states and even overseas .

Since this situation is unlikely to change it is imperative that North East states put in place right now an administrative system for ensuring that the labour who move out of the region get the due benefits under the Contract Labour ( Regulation and Abolition) Act 1970, Inter state Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of service) Act 1979 and the Minimum Wages Act 1948 and such other laws which provide protection to migrant labor. This is crucial because right now the provisions under these laws are observed more in their breaches than observance .

However in these difficult Pandemic days it is heartening to note the measures taken by the government of Assam under the leadership of the state’s dynamic Health and Finance Minister Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma to bring back home the stranded workers from Assam indicate a positive approach to this issue.

The size of the migrant workers from Assam is estimated at about 5-7 lakhs including those employed in the other NE states and West Bengal. As there is no system of registration of migrants, the state authorities are taken by surprise whenever the migrants face any serious problem as for instance in 2012 when in the wake of Kokrajhar violence an estimated 30,000 people of NE origin left from Karnataka alone and many from Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra on receipt of threats from Muslim terror groups. Registration of migrants is therefore the first task of the state. COVID-19 crisis in a way created compelling circumstances for this step; and in fact Assam has a lot of useful data based on 9.30 lakh phone calls state government offices received after ” Lock down” from about 4.29 lakhs of Mobile phones of migrant workers seeking state assistance. This generated after due scrutiny 2. 29 lakhs of applications from migrants for state assistance and more are under process. Later, about a lakh Bank details of the applicants were verified to transfer assistance to 86000 migrants till date. This is no doubt commendable.

The state wise break up of migrant workers shows that while southern states and Maharashtra have about 1. 65 lakhs, there is significant presence of Assam migrant workers in UP, Delhi, West Bengal and even Nagaland. This suggests that labour movement within the extended North East covering North Bengal and Sikkim might be significant. Therefore a regional Migrant labour data base covering both intra and inter state migration of labour is necessary which could be prepared and maintained by the North Eastern Council as a part of the regional Planning exercise with participation of concerned states. There is a natural leadership role for Assam in these efforts.

The sight of the starving migrant workers with their families trudging across the country to return to their home states and the fact that many of them perished on the way side point to the emergent need to set up an inter state coordination body under the aegis of the Union Ministry of labor for ensuring that the provisions of all the protective legislations mentioned above are implemented in the true spirit of the Constitution .This alone could protect the migrant workers from being subjected to a situation worse than what Marx called ” wage slavery”. It is time to say Jai Mazdur and affirm that humanism that Vivekananda and Gandhi stood for and not a brutish form of capitalism shall prevail.

About RANGAN DUTTA

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( The writer is a retired IAS officer of the Assam – Meghalaya cadre and has served as Scientific Consultant in the office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India)

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