Are we facing another migrant labour crisis?

No one can forget the problems created by the reverse migration of labour after the first lockdown was announced in middle of March 2020. There were many heart wrenching scenes that still haunt the nation. A lot of lessons were learnt that included what could have been done to avoid the chaos as the migrant labour was finding ways and means to go back home to their parent states. Given the suddenness of the lockdown announcement and the magnitude of the numbers involved, perhaps the authorities and the labour were both unprepared for the situation as it unfolded last year. The question that emerges today is will history repeat itself given the uncertainties surrounding the decision on impending lockdown in Maharashtra?

Over the last week there have been reports of a lockdown in Maharashtra because of the uncontrolled rise in the COVID-19 cases. Speculations are rife as to what form the lockdown will take. Will it be a total lockdown barring essential services? Maharashtra state government was most vocal when the sudden lockdown was imposed by central government in March 2020. It charged the Modi government for not planning the lockdown and causing innumerable hardships to millions of migrants. Today, despite past lessons, the state government is dithering on the decision for over a week which seems to have increased the uncertainties among the migrant labour, some of whom are already heading back home. 

If the state government is in the planning stage for the lockdown before it takes a final decision, will it not be prudent to inform the public about the scope and duration of the likely lockdown? This will help the people to plan at their level to tide over some of the difficulties that are likely to surface. Above all, should the state not have issued an advisory for the migrant labour to give them a sense of security? Has the government forgotten that Maharashtra was one of the worst affected states last year because of the reverse migration crisis? Why has the government not listed out the measures it is likely to implement to ensure safety and well being of this labour force? Or does it mean that whether the lockdown is sudden or planned, the migrant labour will have to fend for itself?

Whatever be the form of the lockdown that may be announced, it is a given that it will be for a shorter duration and restricted in scope than the one in 2020. Last time despite lifting of the lockdown it took considerable time and effort for industry and businesses to restart and come to speed. This time it will not be so as any lockdown is unlikely to be on the same lines as the one in March 2020. It may be safe to assume that a three-week period is likely to be the outer limit in the present context. The cost of a longer lockdown will be too heavy to bear for the state as also for the nation. If that be so what can be done to ensure that the migrant labour stays put and avoids the rush back home. In reality it is not only the migrant labour but also the local labour force employed that is equally affected. 

These are some of the considerations that should be addressed to avoid a calamity like situation:

  1. Employers and authorities must assure the labour that there is no need to panic and that their welfare and wellbeing will be looked after. This will have to be an awareness campaign on the same lines as the one that was implemented for taking precautions against the Coronavirus. 
  2. The immediate onus lies on the employers of the labour who should reassure their workers that maximum efforts will be made to protect their salaries. Surely any business that has been making money for years because of its workforce can afford to pay salaries (or part of it depending on how long the lockdown goes on) to its workers from accumulated profits, reserves or even personal assets accumulated over the years. After all those personal assets were purchased from business profits generated with the efforts of the workers. So, if a businessman has to sell an odd asset to tide over a few months of losses, there is no reason why he should not. 
  3. Government must identify businesses that have suffered the most because of the virus in last one year. Businesses like hospitality, entertainment, construction and sections of retail fall in this category apart from some more. These sectors must be given relief in terms of reduced rents (where applicable), power, other services and some taxes to tide over the crisis. This includes rents that have to be paid to private owners by such businesses. The state government has to find legal ways to achieve this. In some very critical cases even cash subsidies could be considered mainly to offset part of the salary burden. 
  4. If the crisis carries on for a longer period in any sector, there may be a need to reduce salaries for limited periods till things come back to normal. However, the percentage reduction cannot be same across the board. Those drawing fat salaries at the top will have to take the maximum cut while those at the bottom rung only marginal. The managements must discuss with all concerned and come out with workable plans that can be implemented for good of all concerned. 
  5. Despite the virus crisis, some sectors are doing brisk business. Can the government find ways to impose some interim levies on them for collection of a corpus to aid other industries? There will be opposition to such a move but in principle it will be a right move. The government invariably collects more income tax from high-net-worth individuals and any move to collect more tax from a flourishing industrial sector in the present environment will be in similar vein. 
  6. States like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which send out maximum migrant labour, must do their bit too by aiding the families of such migrant workers in their native villages and towns. This will mainly be in terms of ration kits, medical emergencies and education costs of the families that are left behind by such workers. This will necessitate a coordination between the home state and the state where the worker has migrated. This may seem difficult but given the connectivity and the information available through bank accounts and other welfare schemes it may not be that daunting a task. 

Laying off work force is the easiest way out but it is neither the best way nor does it pass the humanitarian test by any stretch of imagination. Just as businesses plan for the many good times that they have; they must rise to the occasion and find solutions for the few bad times that may come their way. Given India’s growth story, there is no doubt that mostly it will be good times for the businesses in the decades to come. If one can give a little today in crisis, there is no reason why it will not come back, multiplied many times, in the future during happy times. In the end it is all about intent and the capacity to share in adverse times. 

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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