All the claims and narratives of a progressing nation – Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘marching into the 21st century,’ Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s ‘India Shining,’ A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s ‘providing urban amenities in rural areas,’ Manmohan Singh’s achievement of 8-9% GDP growth rates and Narendra Modi’s ‘smart cities’ – have crumbled in the wake of the national level migrant workers’ crisis during the coronavirus lockdown.
The phenomenon of lakhs of workers marching, cycling or hitchhiking home hundreds of kilometres away has not been seen anywhere else in the world either because nowhere do people migrate in such large numbers for jobs or because other governments took care of their workers better than in India.
How shameful that a country desiring to be a global economic and military power doesn’t have the wherewithal or the political will to take care of its poor. When the poor needed succour most, they were simply abandoned. Inspite of the Constitution of India being formally guided by the concept of ‘socialism’, this tragedy has also highlighted the discriminatory treatment by government on the basis of class, and by extension caste, as the categories of class and caste in India more or less overlap. While free transportation was arranged for children of the moneyed class, the poor, even if they managed to get onto a train or a bus, were made to pay – because of which, in some cases, they abandoned the idea of travel.
Opening up the sale of liquor on May 4, 2020, effectively made a mockery of the lockdown when the police gave up attempts to prevent people from gathering in crowds. The people who lined up in front of liquor shops were the poor, not the rich – just as it was the poor who queued up outside banks during demonetisation. Hence the government not only deliberately allowed the poor to risk their health by assembling in this way but also took away from them whatever little cash they had which could have been spent on buying food or healthcare for their families.
To add insult to injury, workers are now expected to give up their basic rights. A number of state governments have suspended various labour laws to varying degrees for different time periods. Uttar Pradesh has suspended all but five labour laws for three years and in Gujarat, workers will be made to work for extra hours but not paid adequately for that. May Day is celebrated as labour rights day around the world because it was on May 1 in 1886 that American workers in Chicago resolved not to work for more than eight hours a day. But the Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and UP governments have shown scant regard for this hard won right and issued ordinances which may not stand the scrutiny of law even if they are passed by their respective legislative assemblies. When the Uttar Pradesh Workers’ Front approached the high court with a public interest litigation, the government quietly withdrew its May 8 order permitting 12 hours of work per day and 72 hours per week without additional payment for overtime, before the next hearing date.
The prime minister views all the discomfort borne by workers as a sacrifice for the nation. He has chosen the most exploited class of society for inflicting sacrifices which they are indeed making by losing their jobs and incomes, dying in accidents on roads or railway tracks while going back home or simply going through the excruciating experience of walking for hundreds of kilometres with all their belongings and without any guarantee of food or water. In some cases, families with children have made this arduous journey. It is a matter of national shame that our workers are subjected to this humiliating treatment.
If workers can make sacrifices why not others, especially the business class, which anyway has surplus accumulated income? If workers are expected to give up the guarantees of working hours and minimum wages, why don’t we ask industrialists to work without profit for the next three years? All private companies could be converted to trusts with a board of trustees replacing the board of directors and a managing trustee replacing the owner.
Everybody working for the company could be paid salaries decent enough for survival. After all, isn’t that what we are expecting from the workers? This is precisely the advice Mahatma Gandhi had for owners of big businesses. He suggested that they must consider themselves as trustees of all the assets controlled by them meant for common good of human society. Hence, everybody could get a salary according to their skill but it would be desirable to follow the principle laid down by another important political thinker of the country, Ram Manohar Lohia – that the difference between the incomes of the poorest and richest should not be more than ten times.
If this standard is adopted by all organisations and governments, India will be able to deal with the setback to its economy due to the lockdown in an effective manner. If the minimum daily wages under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is Rs. 202 in UP, then the maximum salary anybody should draw in government or private sector in UP should not exceed Rs. 2020 per day or Rs. 60,600 in a month.
Any profit above total expenditure of private companies for the next three years should go to the government treasury and the government could waive income tax for this duration. If the National Food Security Act extends its coverage universally and education, health care, transport, communication systems and banks are all run as trusts rather than for-profit enterprises, then there is no reason why any family should be unable to meet all its expenses.
Free education and free heath care is a policy followed by many countries successfully. Giving priority to public transport over private motorised vehicles is another such sound policy. If people with an inclination for service, as we witnessed a number of them during relief work, were to take up service sector positions and work on an honorary basis or for a minimum salary, governance could really improve and corruption could be brought under check. Hence, by a wise selection of policy measures the cost of living can be brought down. In the coronavirus lockdown almost everybody was down to fulfilling only their basic needs, giving up most of the comforts and facilities of modern living. What was forced upon us could slowly become a subject of voluntary acceptance.
Unless such austerity measures are followed we may not be able to recover from the crisis we’re in.
Arundhati Dhuru and Sandeep Pandey are Lucknow-based activists.