On 25th March 2020 the Prime Minister Narendra Modi while ordering the countrywide lockdown asked us all to stay indoors and at home and indicated that his government would do everything to meet people’s needs. Four days later the Ministry of Home Affairs directed all employers to pay full wages for the period of lockdown and not to fire any worker from employment during this period. Prime Minister Narendra Modi requested all employers to be empathetic to their workers and uphold the government’s orders.
Today, 3 months into the lockdown, more than 1 in every 4 workers has lost their job. More than 12.2 crore workers are unemployed. This is four times more unemployed workers than before the lockdown. And this excludes those who do not have full time employment. The largest numbers to lose their jobs are at the lowest end of the earning pyramid. Some 9 crore unskilled and semi-skilled workers were fired along with nearly 2 crore skilled and white collar workers. Tens of lakhs of self-employed workers, especially hawkers, were pushed off the roads and hence out of work and livelihood across the country.
How did this happen?
Tens of thousands of employers across the country, big and small and in every sector just laid off their workers despite the government order. They went to court and the same Narendra Modi government that issued the 29 March order could not defend their order. To make matters worse, the government withdrew its order on 18 May. Meanwhile the employers have been given a freehand by the meaningless 12 June order of the Supreme Court, and the meaningless and much delayed response of government in court.
What is the fallout?
Workers have had to dip into whatever meagre savings they have, if at all. They have been forced to borrow, including in kind from grocers and other traders, and abandon their dignity and rely on dole on the streets to fight hunger. Workers have had to accept higher future rents from their landlords to retain their living quarters. Workers and their families have gone hungry, they have gone without medicines and they have had to withdraw their children from schools.
And above all, 4 out of every 10 workers could not find the money to stay on in the city or town they worked, to pay their rent or buy food and hence took to the road to return to their villages.
What has the government done for workers?
The government did absolutely nothing apart the Prime Minister making speeches. It has been more than 3 months since the order of 29th March but there is not a single employer who has been directed to reinstate a fired worker or been penalised for illegal termination.
It is untrue to say Government did nothing – they mobilised police and paramilitary forces to brutally attack desperate workers when they came out looking for work or seeking to return to their villages at rail and bus stations.
In its Covid relief financial package, the government increased the expenditure on the MNREGA from Rs. 60,000 crores to Rs. 100,000 crores. This, it is hoped, will help resolve the jobs crisis in rural areas including of those workers who have returned to their villages having lost their jobs on the city. As many reports claim, much of this allocation, if at all, will get used to pay off the unpaid wages of earlier projects. The government has also not addressed any of the existing issues such as lack of available projects, the use of contractors and machinery that the government ensured over the past six years to rundown the MNREGA in order to show that all that the previous government had done was to create a ‘living monument to poverty’.
The government also launched the Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan in 116 districts in 6 states for 125 days with much fanfare which aims to provide jobs to the migrant workers in their home districts. In light of the prevailing job crisis in the rural areas, irrespective of skill, all that government will be able to offer are possibly the manual jobs under MNREGA or at best as agricultural labour. This is a government that creates a publicity stunt out of even the desperation of workers.
Rapid deregulation of mining which the government has placed at the centre of the post-lockdown economic ‘recovery’ package severely affects the livelihoods of the 25 crore people, mostly adivasis, who live in and around forests and are dependent on the forest for their livelihood as guaranteed by the Forest Rights Act. With mining deregulation on one hand and declaration of reserve forests on the other to supposedly protect wild animals, forest dwellers will be further pushed off their lands, being declared as encroachers, in order to free up land they occupy for generations.
In urban centres, the government offers loans as solution to the large number of self-employed, including hawkers, who have mostly spent their entire lives savings, through the lock down, so they can indebt themselves in the vicious cycle of poverty in order to regain their livelihoods.
And for the thousands of wage earners across the country, all the government is offering is rations under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package while state governments of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh are busy repealing all labour laws including on the security of employment. The BJP government at the centre is pushing the BJP governments in the states to use this human catastrophe to bulldoze the labour law changes so that it can drag its feet on calling Parliament and taking responsibility for its own actions.