The Emperor Has No Mask: The Indian State in the Time of COVID-19

The threat and the potential scale of devastation is worse than demonetisation, even if the casual cruelty is familiar.

As the COVID-19 virus races across countries and continents, taking its deadly toll, states across the world are scrambling to deal with what has become the most wide-spread pandemic outbreak since the 1918 Spanish flu. As states grapple to navigate this uncharted territory, the pandemic has also become a lens that is bringing into sharp focus the bare character of different states. How a state responds to this crisis is even more revealing than how it goes about its business in the normal course.

The heart-wrenching images of long lines of migrants trudging hundreds of kilometres, with sparse belongings and children in tow, to return their village homes; of police beating and humiliating the desperate poor now adrift on the streets; of the hungry and tired being made to frog-jump and crawl on the roads by police enforcing the lock-down; returning migrant families huddled by the roadside being doused with chemical bleach by the administration are now seared in our collective memories.  These are the defining images of the response of the BJP-led Indian state to this extraordinary crisis.

Why did the Indian state respond in this inhumane way?

We have lived through the lynchings, cow-vigilantism and the steady drip of low-intensity attacks on minorities and Dalits through the first term of this government. We have also seen how the regime, emboldened by its mandate in the last election, has stepped up the undeclared state of emergency – the arbitrary scrapping of Article 370, the twisted chronology of the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, the carnage unleashed in North-East Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere against minority communities in the wake of protests.

But the casual, and thoughtless cruelty of the sweeping nation-wide lockdown announced by the Prime Minister with a four-hour notice, and no planning for the inevitable impacts, and the predictable and preventable tide of suffering that was set loose, tells us something even more chilling about the regime. This even more than what we have witnessed before, reveals something fundamental about the current BJP-led regime. The exclusion, victimisation and humiliation of the working poor is not an aberration or a misstep that can be wished away with a sop and an apology. It is central to the agenda of this regime.

The working poor, the large numbers of migrants swelling the ranks of informal workers living a hand-to-mouth existence, on meagre daily earnings, are the most vulnerable in this crisis as economies go into lock-down.  Even if we accept that urgent need to curb the spread of the COVID-19 demands putting the entire economy in a state of induced coma, the manner in which the lock-down was announced and executed threatens to pull the plug on precisely those who need life-support.

The lock-down has left them without jobs and earnings, rendered many homeless, and for those who were already homeless, has denied them access to the streets and shelters where they live. As they were tossed rudderless into the gathering storm, these workers and their families sought their moorings in their homes in villages where there is no real health-care provision to speak of. This was their safety net. And when they did what many middle class and elite Indians stranded abroad in regions where the pandemic had struck before it reached India had done, they met the brutal force of the state — a state that had not given any thought to how the lock-down would affect them. Worse, one that has no qualms about abandoning millions of the working poor – the most vulnerable and also those truly fuelling the economy — to the mercy of the pandemic.

Also read: What Does the COVID-19 Lockdown Mean for Food Security?

The annual rate of growth of labour migrants nearly doubled from 2.4% between 1991-2001 to 4.5% between 2001-2011. These numbers are significant underestimates, but give a sense of the surge in migrant flows within India. Informal workers, drawn largely from migrant populations, form nearly 90% of the workforce . In urban areas where they constitute about 80% of the workforce, they perform services as diverse as casual daily labour, construction work, street-vending, delivery, transport from rickshaws to ride-share, and domestic work.

Police personnel patrol Marina beach to enforce a lockdown in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, in Chennai, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. Photo: PTI/R. Senthil Kumar

Packed into tenements and slums, makeshift shelters in the streets, living from day to day on daily earnings these migrant workers balance precarious urban livelihoods by hanging on to their moorings in the rural hinterland. Facing debt and impoverishment and a dearth of employment opportunities in the villages, they continue to leave the villages, travel long distances in search of opportunities to earn, and end up in the proliferating informal labour-force in urban areas.

To this picture add the fact that job growth has stalled, and has been limping behind economic growth, while wages have lagged behind productivity since the boom in 2004-9. The formal sector has increasingly shed large chunks of the core of regular formal workers, and much of the growth in jobs since 2004 have been informal casual and contract jobs. From being less than one-fifth of the manufacturing jobs in 1998-9, now about two-thirds of jobs in the manufacturing sector are based on precarious informal contracts that can be ended at will, guarantee no benefits, and lie outside the ambit of legal protections – thus allowing employers to cut labour costs. The weekly earnings of informal and contract workers can be as little as half or even less than what formal workers earn in many occupations, and they do not receive the standard benefits. Such jobs are also more susceptible to occupational health and safety risks.

The growing pool of casual and contract labour cushions firms and businesses from the gyrations of the market, while pushing down costs, especially in more labour-intensive sectors. The mantra of flexibility has been used by businesses to lobby for the easing of rules to allow employers to herd more and more workers into informal jobs. As informalisation fragments and fissures the labour market, and jobs are turned over more rapidly, the capacity of workers to organise to resist the squeeze on wages erodes.

The share of wages in organised manufacturing, which constitutes only a small share of the total labour-force, has fallen from more than 30% in the 1980s to less than 10% in recent years. For comparison, the share of labour in developed OECD countries fell from around 51% in 1991 to about 49% in 2012 in what was a period of slow economic growth. Perversely, most of the decline in India occurred in a period when the economy was actually growing.

If workers in the manufacturing sector – the sector where we might expect workers to have a greater capacity to bargain and organise than in other sectors, can be squeezed to this extent, the capacity of firms and employers to squeeze informal and contract workers would be that much greater.

Also read: The Coronavirus Pandemic Has Strengthened Class Segregation in India

Migrant workers, straddling the stagnant agrarian economy and the urban economy with its meagre promise of low-paid jobs without security, are the dark underbelly behind the façade of ‘India Shining’. The growth powered by their sweat and blood, has had very little to offer them. Given the uncertainty and inadequacy of earnings in the urban centres, the connection to the rural economy becomes the bedrock of the survival strategy for the informal worker, who never quite sheds the sense of being a migrant.

The surplus of labour in the poorest states in the rural hinterland reinforces the ‘surplus’ informal labour pool in the urban centres. It reflects the peculiar pathology of India’s developmental model. This distorted developmental model, which feeds on, and fuels the growing pool of informal workers, has older roots that precede the current regime. But there has been a ratcheting up. The pathology has been embraced as normal.

Labourers load sacks of vegetables on a hand pull cart during the nationwide lockdown imposed in the wake of coronavirus pandemic, in Kolkata, Thursday, March 26, 2020. Photo: PTI/Ashok Bhaumik

A long period of stagnation in the agrarian economy, has metastasised into a full-scale farm crisis. And yet, MGNREGA programme – the safety net that is meant to protect the poor rural households facing dwindling earnings – has faced cutbacks.  Even before the recent budget announced a 13% cut in MGNREGA allocations, many state governments were confronting a cash-crunch and fifteen state governments were in the red because the centre had not released funds. The adverse conditions that compel the working poor to migrate to urban centres have been exacerbated. But this is just one edge of the pincer’s jaws.

Around the same time that the present regime revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, two labour bills – the Code on Wages Bill (2019) and the Occupational, Safety and Working Conditions Code (2019) – were also pushed through the parliament, to be followed by the Code on Industrial Relations (2019). With this the BJP had began ramming through a central piece of its agenda – the revamp and consolidation of forty-four labour laws into four codes – ( wage, occupational  safety, social security, and industrial relations) with the explicit aim of amplifying the powers of the employers, in the face of strong objections from trade unions. The consolidation of various codes and rules was not undertaken to protect the workers, or bring informal and contract workers into the ambit of social and economic protection, but rather with the aim of further tilting the balance of power against the working poor.

The early salvo in this quest to reshape labour relations had been fired with ‘labour reforms’ introduced in Rajasthan in 2014. Governments in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Haryana followed with similar reforms. The reforms diluted oversight, eased the rules for firing workers, employing contract labour, changing service conditions arbitrarily, while restricting the worker’s rights to form unions, raise disputes and engage in strike actions. The agenda has now been launched on the national stage. This is the other edge of the pincer.

Among the stated aims of the labour reforms is that it would make compliance with the law easier for the employer. But the labour reforms are being hammered through in a context where evasion of existing regulations and rules protecting labour was already pervasive in both the organised and unorganised sectors, and enforcement of the laws was lax.

Also read: As India Faces One of its Toughest Challenges, Who Holds the Reins?

The problem was the lack of compliance and enforcement, not the difficulty of compliance. The odds have always been stacked against workers. The reforms push the odds further and remove any semblance of protection and relief. The new code will make it easier to hire labour on contract, on terms that can change arbitrarily, for a wider variety of tasks and operations, while absolving the employer of the responsibility for compliance with regulations.

The government could raise the ceiling on the number of employees required for seeking prior approval for firing, pushing an even larger workers into the terrain of precarity with a stroke of the pen, by executive order. The agenda of dismantling the protections and safety net of workers, has been accelerated while riding rough-shod over the mechanisms of tripartite consultations (between representatives of trade unions, employer organisations, and government departments) in the drafting of the codes, and with minimal legislative oversight and discussion. The pool of informal precarious workers is being strategically widened.

The zeal with which the regime is rewriting rules to favour businesses is hardly surprising for a regime’s whose signature achievement in an otherwise dismal economic record was moving India up in the World Banks rankings of ‘ease of doing business’. In the year that unemployment rose to a record 7.5%, and as much as 9% in urban areas, India also moved up 14 places to rank 63rd globally in terms of the World Banks ‘ease of doing business’ index.

A family of a migrant worker sits along a highway as they wait for a bus to return to their village, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi, India, March 29, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

The needs and claims of the growing ranks of informal labour, barely eking a subsistence in the interstices of urban economies, while remaining dependent on their ties to their homes in the hinterland do not seem to figure in the calculus this regime.  We saw this before in this government’s shock announcement of demonetisation a few years ago. Demonetisation was rolled out without any planning for how to deal with the immense suffering and disruption the overnight annihilation of the basis of the informal economy would unleash on the working poor. As the source of their livelihoods disappeared, migrant informal workers had left cities and towns to seek some semblance of security back in their village homes.

We see it again in the regime’s response to the pandemic. But the threat and the potential scale of devastation and the humanitarian catastrophe is much, much worse, even if the casual cruelty is familiar. Those who risk starvation if they do not defy the lockdown and return to their villages are also most at risk from the spread of the pandemic. While a package of Rs 1.7 lakh crore for cash and food transfers was announced two days after the lock-down orders had unleashed a tsunami of suffering, it is far from adequate to what is needed. And it can hardly undo the damage that has already been wrought.

Ramaa Vasudevan teaches economics at Colorado State University.