By Nageshwar Patnaik in Bhubaneswar, September 19, 2020: “Labor produces marvels for the rich but it produces deprivation for the worker. It produces palaces, but hovels for the worker”.

This is what Karl Marx said about the situation of the workers way back in 1844. More than 175 years later, there is little hint of the problems faced by workers particularly in the informal sector in India. The Narendra Modi regime may voice concern over their problems every now and then, but it has shown little interest in challenging the status quo.

India imposed the toughest lockdown in the world in the wake of COVID-19 outbreak which inflicted terrible suffering on informal labour. The pandemic exposed the myriad problems of the working classes overall. Migrants became visible because they started walking, violated the lockdown and upset the system.

On the first very day of the ongoing monsoon session of parliament, the Modi government said it had no data on migrant workers who died as a result of the imposition of the coronavirus lockdown. That means there was “no question of” compensation. The government, however, said more than one crore such workers had returned to their hometown in the lockdown.

Union minister of state for labour and employment Santosh Gangwar’s response to questions concerning migrant workers’ deaths and loss of livelihoods in the Parliament has exposed the utter ineffectiveness and insensitivity of the his ministry for the lives of the very workers it is mandated to protect.

It is needless to say that the GoI has relinquished its core responsibility. Neither it took appropriate measures to compensate the hapless migrant worker or address their issues leaving them in the lurch. Now it has announced that it has no data.

Sixteen exhausted migrant workers were run over by a cargo train while sleeping on the railway tracks of Aurangabad on their walk home and the Railways has stated that since the workers were asleep on the railway tracks, which is a crime, there will be no payment to the victims’ families.

Besides, 47 were reported dead due to exhaustion on their long walk home on foot as they ran out of food and 96 workers died in their journey aboard Shramik trains on their way home. Media had time and again covered these incidents, which are only just some categories of at least 971 documented non-COVID deaths during lockdown. Most of them are migrants and their families. And, these are conservative figures. These deaths have been widely reported in the print and electronic media.

In response to an accident in Uttar Pradesh that left 24 migrant workers dead, the Prime Minister on May 16, 2020, tweeted, “An ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh each for the next of kin of those who lost their lives due to the unfortunate accident in Auraiya, UP has been approved from the PM’s National Relief Fund.”

And yet, the union labour minister on the floor of Parliament categorically denied that these deaths even happened. The migrant workers were at the receiving end due to the unilaterally imposed, unplanned lockdown on March 24 last by the Modi government without taking the conditions of migrant workers into view.

There was an exodus of lakhs of migrant workers to their native places from different parts of the country violating the lockdown. Interestingly, the central government has blamed ‘fake news’ for the large-scale migration crisis during the coronavirus-induced lockdown. However, union labour minister told the Lok Sabha that the size of the inter-state migrant workforce in the country was estimated to be over 10 crores in 2016 in absolute terms.

The Janata Party government had passed the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 which clearly had provision that labour contractors who export workers to other states have to register at both ends and take licenses. Those who employ more than five migrant labourers are duty bound to provide proper wages, housing, medical facilities, pass-books, displacement allowance and anything else that the government of dreamers could cobble together.

The Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996, (BOCW) is yet another law that is supposed to provide security to millions of workers during the lockdown necessitated by an emergency. Registered construction workers are entitled under this Act to a range of social protection and housing services, to be provided by employers. Any person who worked for at least 90 days in the past year is eligible to be registered as a construction worker.

Most importantly, the central government alone is empowered to deal with ‘Inter-state migrants workers going by Article 217 read together with ‘list 1’, under the seventh schedule, which clearly mentions ‘item 81’, namely, “inter-state migration and inter-state quarantine” to be a power of the centre.

In Modi’s first tenure beginning in 2014, the union labour ministry announced that it was planning to undertake a census of workers in unorganised sector and assign them a unique identity so that they would be entitled to certain social security benefits including health insurance and old age pension. The move would have eliminated duplication by linking them to Aadhaar cards.

There was also a plan to link it with ‘direct benefits transfer’ to the bank accounts of beneficiaries, and even food security could be incorporated into this scheme. Had the ministry succeeded in identifying and distributing these unique identity cards, it could have known to a large extent who was stranded where.

Had the ministry succeeded in identifying and distributing these special identity cards in these years, we could have known to a large extent who was stranded where. It is now time for Modi government to fulfill the promise of assigning worker in unorganized sector an identity.

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