CORONA, LOCKDOWN AND WORKERS: CAN WE AFFORD TO HAVE A TRADE-OFF BETWEEN LIFE AND LIVELIHOOD?
Though much has been written about socio-economic implications of Covid-19 and on-going lockdown, yet, there is scope to continue the discourse since trade-off between life and livelihood has emerged as a serious challenge. As a matter of fact, both are important and one cannot be sacrificed for other’s sake. Already, there are reports about lay-offs and loss of livelihood across sectors and countries, more so in the poor and developing countries where the unorganized sector is the predominant employer. Millions of workers are applying for unemployment allowance and other types of aid as they are facing starvation due to loss of employment and livelihood and many others are working under such a threat as the global economy is heading towards a serious recession.
It is true that in a lower-middle-income country like India with a large population, multi-dimensional poverty, high incidence of inequality, and inadequate health services, the lockdown was thought of as the most potent weapon to fight out coronavirus and it has yielded results. However, while declaring lockdown, like a surgical strike, perhaps not much thought was given to its socio-economic implications for unorganized/informal sectors, migrant workers, and poor people.
Approximately 94% of workers in India are engaged in informal employment; a significant proportion of them is working poor and facing multi-dimensional poverty. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), about 77% of Indian workers are in vulnerable employment. The Arjun Sengupta Committee report on unorganized sector enterprises (2008) also revealed that 77% of the Indian people are living on less than 2 US dollars a day per capita and are vulnerable to even minor economic shocks.
The all-time high unemployment rate in India (6.1% in 2017-18) during the last 45 years (with 14% unemployed youth on aggregate) and a three-fold increase in rural male youth unemployment, to 17.4% in 2017-18 as compared to 2011-12, has further aggravated the unemployment situation. Employment opportunities in agriculture (largest informal sector with nearly 50% workforce) are shrinking in a big way. This, along with deepening agrarian distress, is pushing the rural youth (especially males) out of agriculture who are migrating to cities and towns in search of employment and livelihood.
Most of these hapless youths enter the labor market as manual labor at an early age of 14-20 years as secondary wage earners of their households. In the absence of any skill and almost no education, they remain stuck in the most unskilled, lowly paid, and hazardous jobs throughout their work-life span. As such, a large number of them do not experience any upward mobility. Their peak work-life is from 21-30 years when they become primary wage earners, do hard manual labor, get married, and start a family.
Hard manual labor (during 30-40 years age group) in poor working and living conditions (with unhygienic and inadequate nutrition and poor health services) and low earnings (bound to remit a large share back home) take a toll on their health. Consequently, the majority of them start frequently returning to their villages, often with some chronic illness. By the time they reach 40 years of age, they start taking up local labor opportunities with lower wages and slide back into poverty with weak bodies. Their children start migrating in search of employment and livelihood and continue to remain in the vicious circle of poverty.
40 MILLION MIGRANT WORKERS ARE THE WORST SUFFERERS OF SUDDEN LOCKDOWN
These migrant workers (approximately 35-40 million), with hardly any means to fall back, are the worst sufferers of sudden lockdown. They were yearning to reach their native places to be with their families in this hour of fear, anxiety uncertainty. The governments of the day, perhaps, could not give them the trustworthy assurance to take care of their bare minimum needs and their families (back home). If the government could transport stranded Indians from abroad and students from Kota and other places (which is appreciable) then the moot question is: why were these hapless migrant laborers not transported to their native places? Perhaps, their transportation was not a priority of the government!
Under the circumstances, these stranded migrant workers started distress ‘reverse migration’ to their native places on foot and other available means, many with small children. Perhaps, their urge to meet their families, prowling fear, uncertainty, and lack of trust in the system compelled them to take such a decision. Thousands of them thronged to railway stations and bus terminals, especially in the metropolis, with the hope that the government would transport them to their native places. But not much has happened.
It is still not late. The country has a formidable rail and road network and a large fleet of buses and trucks. The entire system of rail/road transport (including private) should be pressed into transporting the stranded migrant workers and the problem will be solved in a week. As regards, their basic needs for food and clothing they should be given a liberal and free supply of food grains out of the buffer food stock of nearly 65 million tonnes. Besides, they should be given some amount of cash to meet their utmost necessitates. The religious organizations and sects also need to be roped in.
Besides addressing the immediate crisis, the country should seriously think to come out of lockdown (of course, without compromising the safety norms) and resume economic activities across sectors so as to save lives as well as a livelihood as both are closely interwoven. The prolonged lockdown may lead to more deaths with hunger in India rather than with coronavirus which may have serious socio-economic-political implications.
(Views are personal)