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On April 8, 2021, Bheru Lal Gameti, a professional cook from the Udaipur district of Rajasthan, was on his way to work at the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar. He was carrying a few packets of beedis on the request of his neighbour and fellow cook, Bhawar Lal Gameti, a 45-year-old who had been working there since before the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Bheru Lal never got the chance to pass on the beedis to Bhawar Lal as the latter passed away the same day, after suddenly collapsing and hitting his head on cooking equipment in a pickup in transit.
Bhawani Shankar, the contractor who had hired Bhawar Lal on behalf of a catering company, quickly arranged for transporting the body back to his village in Udaipur.
On receiving the body, Bhawar Lal’s family (consisting of his wife and five children) and neighbours were shocked to see around 100-150 of their Brahmin neighbours, who otherwise never attended Adivasi funerals, forcing them to cremate the body immediately, without even conducting a post mortem. According to Bheru Lal, they were saying, “Last mein pareshan mat karo” (Don’t disturb him at the end”.)
Shankar refused to pay Bhawar Lal’s family his pending wages, amounting to approximately Rs 17,500 for a period of 25 days. Instead, he only gave them Rs 1 lakh ex gratia. Even the hospital in Haridwar refused to issue a death certificate or conduct a post mortem, allegedly citing time constraints.
The recently launched e-Shram portal is supposedly designed for just such accidental deaths; the ones that occur at the workplace in the unorganised sector. The state has undertaken the responsibility of providing a sum of Rs 2 lakh as compensation in such cases and a sum of Rs 1 lakh as support in case of disability.
The Union government plans to link the e-Shram card with other schemes, such as the Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana (PMJJBY) and the Public Distribution System (PDS). However, the e-Shram portal only provides information on the eligibility and benefits of these schemes with no mention of the process or plans for facilitation. For example, without having a bank account, the e-Shram card will not give you direct access to the PMJJBY because it is a scheme that is implemented by the Department of Financial Services through banks.
This begs the question: what benefits will workers be entitled to simply by virtue of having an e-Shram card? Moreover, is the responsibility for providing the same borne solely by the state?
Rajendra Sharma, programme manager at labour rights NGO Aajeevika Bureau (AB), is wary of the benefits e-Shram claims it will provide migrant workers or daily wage labourers since the database only asks for details of the workers and not the employers. While the update option can help with the dynamic nature of the work, Sharma believes that maintaining a record of the employer’s details as well will help strengthen accountability.
What’s more, it would help fix the liability of employers towards their workers in cases of accidental injury or death at the workplace, or even a national emergency. This would reduce the burden of responsibility on the state to provide additional relief to workers in emergency situations, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, or to provide them with social security or benefits.
There is no doubt that the database will make visible what has been an ‘invisible’ section of the population so far. The details that are asked for, such as bank account numbers, phone numbers, primary and secondary occupations and training, however, do not accurately capture the levels of employment or the specific skill sets possessed by workers. This will make it hard to understand the exact nature of the work or the conditions of employment and the database will remain just that; a database.
According to Sharma, the database as it stands will fail to effectively put an “ankush” (check/control) on informality. Speaking about his experiences with the e-Shram registration camps that AB held, he said, ““Hum digital India ho gaye hai pura ka pura…dekha kya digitalisation tha gaon mei? (We’ve fully become a digital India… but did you see how much ‘digitalisation’ was present in the village?)
During a week-long registration drive organised by AB, over 200 workers were aided in registering on the e-Shram portal. Of them, only around 10% had their correct mobile numbers linked with their Aadhaar cards. Several people’s bank accounts were not linked with and in some cases, their biometrics were also not updated, automatically excluding them from the registration process altogether.
Through these camps and on-going registration efforts, AB was able to understand these additional issues that people were facing upon registration, apart from the existing ones of illiteracy, lack of internet connectivity, lack of information about the portal as well as a lack of access to electronic devices. If this is the case on the ground in Udaipur, one can only imagine what it must be like on a national scale.
Bhawar Lal is just one example of many where legal and fundamental rights like compensation, insurance, wage payment and access to legal recourse are violated and no action is taken against contractors or employers. How will the government be able to sustain the new e-Shram venture for an estimated 38 crore workers in the unorganised sector when existing legal structures and labour laws are not implemented effectively in any case?
While the creation of a database is admirable and an urgent necessity, with 9 crores of the targeted 38 crore e-Shram registrations completed as of November 25, 2021, how it will be utilised remains to be seen. As for Bhawar Lal, the cause of his death remains a mystery to this day.
Shifa Zoya is currently a field fellow at Aajeevika Bureau, Udaipur, working on migrant labour issues. She has completed her Bachelor’s in Anthropology and Psychology from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.