By Nageshwar Patnaik in Bhubaneswar, June 30, 2020: Covid-19 will go down in the history as the worst ever crisis the world has faced in several decades. Both lives and livelihoods were in serious trouble after the outbreak of the pandemic across the globe. India was no exception and the economic crisis caused by it has robbed jobs and income of millions of workers, pushing them into vulnerable situation. Be it a large corporate or small business, everyone has been affected and the worst is yet to come with steep rise in Covid-19 positive cases across the country.

Of late, India has emerged as one of the most affected countries from the coronavirus pandemic, with more than four lakh reported cases since January. The Narendra Modi government imposed a national lockdown on March 25 which continued till May end. But some states have been continuing the lockdown based on the severity of the infection due to the deadly virus.

The worst outcome of the lockdown is that the labour market has virtually been thrown into turmoil. Jobs have been lost, wages and salaries slashed or not paid at all and benefits withheld.

The unemployment rate in both rural and urban areas rose sharply in late March. It remained relatively high in April, before showing signs of improvement starting in May when some activities resumed, according to the Mumbai-based Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE).

Estimates of job loss showed that 80 per cent jobs were affected in urban economy, most of which were self-employed, 54 per cent jobs were affected in rural economy, most of which were casual employment. Unemployment went up to 27 percent in early May, a study carried out by experts at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago and the CMIE.

Union Ministry of Labour and Employment urged private and public organisations not to terminate jobs, but in the absence of pro-active move by the authorities, the employers went on large-scale retrenchments as their businesses have been hit hard due to the ongoing crisis.

Lower economic growth and rise in inequality would be the long-term effects, according to an online survey done in May last week by the Indian Society of Labour Economics (ISLE).

Nearly 84% of Indian households is seeing decreases in income since the lockdown began. Nearly a third of all households will not be able to survive beyond a week without additional assistance. The immediate challenges before the government policy priorities were protection of workers and families, short-term employment creation and income transfers to affected workers.

Experts and surveys opined for short-term policy requirements like support to Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME), expansion of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA), job creation, cash transfers and social security and long-term measures such as building a stronger public health system and universalisation of social security schemes.

The poor and underprivileged people, who had limited access to proper healthcare and other resources, were the hardest hit with lockdown. The Modi government launched various programs and campaigns to help sustain these households. Under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, Rs 312 billion were accrued and provided to around 331 million beneficiaries. More aid was announced in mid-May, to mainly support small businesses through the crisis.

The Modi government also announced three rounds of stimulus programmes totalling nearly Rs 21 trillion ($266 billion). That includes a Rs 7.2 trillion liquidity package the Reserve Bank of India had unveiled in February before the coronavirus, which it followed up with other measures to stem the pandemic-induced economic slowdown.

However, the stimulus programmes have largely been either credit guarantee programs or new fund creations to be shouldered by banks and financial institutions.

In the latest move towards providing employment to the migrant labourers, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently launched the Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyaan (GKRA), which is a Rs 50,000 crore dedicated campaign of 125 days to create jobs for millions of migrant workers who returned home during the lockdown.

Modi on Friday launched Atma Nirbhar Uttar Pradesh Rojgar Abhiyan (as part of GKRA), a campaign to provide employment to 1.25 crore migrant workers and others in Uttar Pradesh, who lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic.

With the lifting of nationwide lockdown, the workforce which was uprooted from the labour market are returning back to the cities notwithstanding a spike in Covid-19. The unemployment rate fell back to the pre-corona level at 8.48 per cent in the week ended June 21, 2020, according to the CMIE.

But the urban unemployment rate has fallen steeply to 11.2 per cent and is still above the pre-lockdown levels. But, the rural economy has seen a substantial increase in jobs, thanks to the MGNREGA and due to a sharp increase in kharif sowing this year.

For instance, more than a total of 5.5 lakh Odia migrants have returned to the state and the Naveen Patnaik government pushed MGNREGA to ensure employment to the migrants. This certainly played a role in improving the employment in rural areas in the state, Agriculture Secretary, Saurabh Garg said adding that the semi-skilled and skilled workers are being engaged under GKRA.

The economy cannot take off without the availability of labour. But we have no respect for labour which became evident when hundreds of thousands of migrant workers walked hundreds of kilometers to reach home without money, food, medicines etc in the aftermath of the lockdown.

The Modi Government and the India Inc must see the writing on the walls and take the Marxian dictum – ‘there is no capital without labour’, seriously and ensure a level playing field for the teeming millions of workers in the country in the coming days.

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