If the ‘subtle battle’ of migrant will end?

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By SK Nag

Though Article 19 (Right to freedom) allowed migration across the country for employment needs, nevertheless, the comprehensive legal framework could not support and protect them from exploitation. It is an axiomatic need that these laws should be more labour-friendly, but ironically, they are bureaucratic. Due to narrow outreach of labour laws (100 states law & 40 central laws governing various aspects of labour engagement), it deprives them of fundamental constitutional rights.

And finally, Govt. has introduced the bill with a view to address their plight. Lockdown resulting from COVID Pandemic overtly unwrapped the vulnerability of migrant labour engaged in informal and formal sectors. It had also exposed the line of divide between Bharat and India distinctly. Now all of us know where Digital India is ending, and Migrating Bharat is beginning.

The democratic framework evolved so far since independence is proved to be falling short of good governance. The governance that was intended by Gandhiji could not be achieved so far. COVID has opened up the divide indicating the predicament globally. We are miles away from delivering true good governance that was dreamt by our historical leaders and reformists.

Millions of migrant workers’ lives got disrupted since the beginning of the lockdown. COVID affected them disproportionately. It took away their complete livelihood. Poor and migrant are synonymous and often defined as underprivileged by digital India. They are fast adopters of change and have the courage to swiftly move on without the old baggage, unlike others. They showed the world; how strong and fearless they are. They walked thousands of miles to reach home from different parts of our country, fearlessly defeating all odds. Finally, they proved to be resolute due to the continuous adaptation process, which they had to undergo to sustain their daily struggle for existence. Insufficient outreach of Government support to them might have forced them to become antifragile.

Before Pandemic, the management experts across the globe preached how to handle the ‘VUCA’ world with their many management techniques to insulate the world from the unknown-unknown (The Black Swan Effect). But those techniques and analyses failed to have mitigated any risk during this pandemic disruption. Volatilities and uncertainties had never been so ugly. No scientific advancement could come forward to save us from the dread disease. We are still struggling to come out of it, globally.

Instead, we are falling back on our traditional distancing method from each other like ancient thought of untouchability. It teaches us how to leave our life henceforth adopting some changed living (New-normal). Is it New-Normal or ancient-normal?

Our Migrant Bharat has shown us how fast they can adjust to the change and adapt to a new situation because they lived in the ‘VUCA’ world since independence. India could not reach to serve them better.

Unemployment in native states results from inaccurate distribution of employment generation in farm-based and non-farm-based sectors. In search of livelihood, the migration need happened historically and exodus was observed in significant numbers. It was estimated by ILO (International Labour Organisation) that in Q2 of FY 20-21, 195 million full-time worker jobs would be eroded. This would be impacting consumption in our economy significantly. 

Backbreaking work, we don’t see any radical change going to happen shortly. But this Migrant Bharat will grow herd immunity before Digital India and move forward faster than Digital India.

A rigid legal framework eliminates the incentivizing opportunity due to the high cost of compliance. Interstate Migrant Workmen Act, which is unable to eradicate the debt-based bondage framework prevailing in many poor states. This system leads to forced labour and a family-based wage system. Village leaders to deny legitimate wages to female workers devised this family-based wage mechanism.

‘Ease of doing business’ should complement ‘ease of paying wage.’ A national wage payment platform is needed now to comply with the mandatory requirement of wage payments to the labourer. Direct wage transfer (DWT), like DBT, is essentially necessary to have a transparent wage transfer mechanism.

Unorganized sectors employ a significantly large number of migrant labour. Therefore, exploitation and unfair wage payments cases are more. These sectors employ labour through deployment contractors, who get paid as per minimum wage law. Still, the same do not reach the ultimate beneficiary. A majority of the amounts of money are taken away by these middlemen. They are influential village leaders holding the traditional apex position in their respective villages’ age-old social hierarchical framework.

The PM’s envisaged of having a migration commission which is an immediate need. This commission can better allocate jobs by mapping skill sets and their employability around their home location. But these skill-sets need equal participation in the country’s industrial growth besides their earning requirement.

Migrant labourers acquired their skill-sets traditionally through inheritance from their ancestors. These skills are highly location-specific. Therefore, the migration of skills across the country is unavoidable. Otherwise, the over-concentration of the same skill-sets might lose its importance and usability. Equitable distribution of skills through a platform where these skills can be traded should also be the commission’s responsibility.

Only an unmindful modification of the labour laws to make it more industry and labour-friendly might not yield the desired long-term positive momentum.

A pragmatic approach with a full understanding of the problem must be in place to alleviate migration labour’s underlying distress due to system apathy. The time has come to address this with an open mind so that the Digital India & Migrant Bharat can walk hand in hand forever in the coming days. And will this labour bill implement the necessary disciplinary mechanism to stop their subtle battle.

(SK Nag is Chartered Engineer, Energy Expert and industry mentor. The views expressed are personal opinion of the author. He can be reached at saibal.iim@gmail.com )

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