More than a month after the nationwide lockdown dried up the sources of livelihood for migrant workers in different parts of the country, the Union Home Ministry has passed an order allowing the inter-state movement of these workers.
By all accounts, most of them have spent the past five weeks in overcrowded shelters arranged by state governments, civil society groups or employers. The decision to allow them to return home, though belated, is welcome.
The Centre has also done well to direct states to ensure that the homecoming of the workers happens in controlled conditions: “Only asymptomatic people will be allowed to travel, and a second assessment of their health will be conducted after they arrive at their home states”. States have been asked to develop protocols for receiving and sending stranded persons. The onus(responsibility) is now on them to draw plans to facilitate their safe return.
A majority of the migrant workers hail(come from) from Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha. These states have a varying COVID-19 burden. Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh have more than 2,000 cases while the states in the east have a comparatively low incidence of the disease, though, as a report in this paper shows, West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand are showing signs of becoming potential hotspots(place of significant activity, danger, or violence).
CHALLENGES TO THESE STATES:
The return of migrants could pose more challenges to these states. But that is a responsibility for the respective governments to address — not a burden to be shouldered(carried) by the returning workers alone. The local authorities must reach out to the migrants to conduct periodic assessments of their health — as required by the home ministry’s guidelines — and the state governments must be ready with quarantine facilities where, if required, they can be isolated in a dignified manner.
The humanitarian case for these measures is evident(obvious). But, as former chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian underlined at an e-adda organised by this paper on Tuesday, there is also economic sense in facilitating the exit of workers. Migrant workers will return to work only when they are assured that, in times of crisis, they can go back easily and safely to the sanctuary of their villages.
GRIEF OF MIGRANT WORKERS:
The Covid-19 pandemic has bared(uncovered) the precarious(worrying) existence of at least a 100-million people, many of them migrants, who work in factories, build roads and houses, pull rickshaws and operate the informal economy. They live in squalor(dirt) and in shanties — even on pavements of the cities they serve — without regular supplies of potable water and electricity. Many of them do not have proof of domicile(home) in the places they work, cannot get a ration card and thus remain out of the ambit(control) of the public distribution system.
In rural India, the MGNREGA, the PM Kisan Yojana and crop insurance schemes provide a semblance(appearance) of relief during distress. But in cities migrant workers do not have even this modicum(small amount) of social security. Without social safety nets for such workers, the wheels of the economy could stop turning. That’s one important lesson of this pandemic.
Centre’s decision to allow migrants to return home is welcome. Their safety and dignity is the state’s responsibility.
In the midst of the pandemic, Maharashtra is staring(looking) at a building political crisis. Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray will have to vacate his office if he fails to get elected or nominated to the state legislative assembly or council before May 27.
Thackeray was sworn in on November 28 last year, and as per the law, must become a member of the House within six months, in this case, before May 27. Since the Election Commission has deferred(postponed) all elections, including to nine legislative council seats in Maharashtra, in the wake of the COVID outbreak, the ruling coalition has proposed that Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari nominate Thackeray to a vacant seat in the legislative council.
The governor has been silent on the proposal, though the state cabinet made a formal recommendation, first on April 9 and then, on April 27. On Thursday, however, he requested the EC to declare elections to the nine legislative council seats “at the earliest”.
It is important that a prolonged political impasse(deadlock) is avoided in a state in which COVID is taking a high and mounting toll. At the same time, it is also imperative(needful) that a solution is found only through due process, and not by short circuiting it, or by setting a precedent(model) that could return to haunt(bad memory), and be misused.
REPRESENTATION OF THE PEOPLE ACT:
The main opposition party in Maharashtra, the BJP, has argued that Thackeray’s nomination to the legislative council would be in violation of the Representation of the People Act. The RPA mandates that a vacant seat be filled only if the remainder of the term extends to at least a year – the term of the seat proposed for Thackeray ends in June.
However, some constitutional experts have argued that the cited law applies only to by-elections, and not nominations. It is for the courts to clarify the law. But a resolution – whether by the nomination route, or the holding of election – needs to be reached quickly, taking into account the context, while adhering(following) to due process.
If the COVID crisis had not unfolded, it would not be wrong to say that, given the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi’s numbers in the assembly, Thackeray’s election to the legislative council was a fait accompli(thing that has already happened or been decided before those affected hear about it, leaving them with no option but to accept it).
The Election Commission could find a way of holding the deferred elections to the nine council seats in Maharashtra immediately. There may be logistical issues due to the COVID restrictions, but the EC could explore innovative solutions.
Elections to the council require only the MLAs to vote and polling could be held without making them congregate(assemble) in the House. Most importantly, all the stakeholders must avoid the temptation to politicise or prolong the uncertainty.
Governor Koshyari has urged EC to hold election in which Maharashtra CM will be candidate. EC must act without delay.
International Labour Day is celebrated on May 1 to honour workers. Labour has an undeniable role in shaping the nation’s fortune. Since the times immemorial(long time), the working class has struggled and sacrificed for greater causes — first for Independence and then building the nation brick by brick.
The ongoing fight against COVID-19 has brought temporary hardship for everyone, including workers.
BEACON FOR WORKERS:
Many leaders have been a beacon(signal) for workers and B R Ambedkar was one among them. As the representative of the Depressed Classes in the Round Table Conference, Ambedkar forcefully pleaded for living wages, decent working conditions and the freedom of peasants from the clutches of cruel landlords. He also fought for the removal of social evils that blighted(infected) the lives of the downtrodden.
INDEPENDENT LABOUR PARTY:
He went on to form the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1936 with a comprehensive programme to meet the needs and grievances of the landless, poor tenants, agriculturists, and workers. In the polls held in 1937, the first election under the newly enacted Government of India Act of 1935, the ILP achieved spectacular success by winning 15 of the 17 seats it had contested for the Bombay Legislative Assembly.
On September 17, 1937, during the Poona session of the Bombay Assembly, he introduced a bill to abolish the Khoti system of land tenure in Konkan. He opposed the introduction of Industrial Disputes Bill, 1937 because it removed the workers’ right to strike.
His profound knowledge of labour matters was universally acknowledged and demonstrated during his term as Labour member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council from 1942 to 1946. When the world order was in flux during World War II, Ambedkar was guiding Indian labour.
The changing economy provided opportunities for the expansion of industries. While entrepreneurs and managers could hope for prosperity, labour was not given its due share. Ambedkar piloted and introduced measures for labour welfare by laying the foundation for the basic structure for the government’s labour policy.
He tackled the knotty(complex) problems and won esteem(pride) and respect from employees and employers alike. The Indian Trade Union (Amendment) Bill, introduced by Ambedkar on November 8, 1943, compelled the employers to acknowledge trade unions.
Mines Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill 1943:
On February 8, 1944, in the legislative assembly during the debate on the Lifting of Ban on Employment of Women on Underground Work in Coal Mines, Ambedkar said: “It is for the first time that I think in any industry the principle has been established of equal pay for equal work irrespective of the sex.” It was a historic moment. Through the Mines Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill 1943, he empowered women workers with maternity benefits.
PROPER CODE OF LABOUR LEGISLATION-
Addressing the Indian Labour Conference held in New Delhi on November 26, 1945, Ambedkar emphasised the urgent need to bring progressive labour welfare legislation: “Labour may well say that the fact that the British took 100 years to have a proper code of labour legislation is no argument that we should also in India take 100 years. History is not always an example. More often it is a warning.”
Ambedkar did not accept the Marxist position that the abolition of private property would bring an end to poverty and suffering. In Buddha or Karl Marx, he writes: “Can the Communists say that in achieving their valuable end they have not destroyed other valuable ends? They have destroyed private property.
Assuming that this is a valuable end, can the Communists say that they have not destroyed other valuable end in the process of achieving it? How many people have they killed for achieving their end? Has human life no value? Could they not have taken property without taking the life of the owner?”
PRADHAN MANTRI SHRAM YOGI MAAN-DHAN YOJNA:
Inspired by Ambedkar, the current government has taken steps to improve the quality of life of workers. For example, the Pradhan Mantri Shram Yogi Maan-Dhan Yojna was launched in February 2019 to ensure protection of unorganised workers in their old age. Through technological interventions like Shram Suvidha Portal, transparency and accountability are ensured in the enforcement of labour law.
The government is working to simplify, amalgamate(cmbine) and rationalise(justify) the provisions of the existing central labour laws into four labour codes — Labour Code on Wages, on Industrial Relations, on Social Security & Welfare and on Occupational Safety, Health & Working Conditions.
As we recall the innumerable contribution of the countless labourers in nation-building, with an ever-increasing spirit of Shramev Jayate, we must remember the contributions of Ambedkar.