Construction workers are part of the unorganised sector where often wages are not fair, security is non-existent, safety standards are poor and labour laws are violated routinely.
Construction workers are part of the unorganised sector where often wages are not fair, security is non-existent, safety standards are poor and labour laws are violated routinely.

The Chicago convention in 1884 of the Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions resolved that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labour from and after May 1, 1886.” Exactly 134 years later, a labourer assisting a mason in construction work in Mumbai walked about 1,500 km to his native village Mathkanwa in Shravasti district in Uttar Pradesh, where he died in a quarantine facility. Ironically, his parents had named him Insaaf Ali. Ali is no more but his case highlights the suffering and trauma of millions of daily wage labourers who have survived in tormenting conditions and seek ‘insaaf’ from society and the government. The question that stares us today, which is the time May begins and brings with it May Day celebrations, is this: Where is a labourer in India today? What and where is the dignity of bread labour?

Trade and labour unions flourished all over the world after the 1884 resolution in America. India has its own chequered history of trade and labour unions. We know that barely 20 per cent of our labour force works in the organised sector. As much as 80 per cent is in sectors and areas where often wages are not fair, security is non-existent, safety standards are poor and labour laws are violated routinely. There is also plethora of material that makes the case for mobilising the unorganised labour and the self-employed to enable them have their voice heard as a collective. There have been many noteworthy attempts in organising them with initiatives like SEWA, Gramin Bank and many others. But all said and done, in our country, a body lender is just a mazdoor, with no other identity. And who cares for this mazdoor? The well-known Hindi poet, the late Dushyant Kumar, wrote in one of his ghazals: Yah jism bhoj se jhuk kar duhara hua hoga, main sajade mein nahi tha, aapko dhoka hua hogaa. (This body was bent over due to weight heaped on it, you must have got deceived, I was not in prayer).

We can reflect that 2020 is a rather unusually cruel time to celebrate the May Day. Millions of hands that were silently engaged in building our cities and towns and producing for the population, and driving our lives and prosperity and allowing us to take pride in GDP growth, are languishing on some open street or in some ramshackle unused sheds and buildings. They are queuing up twice a day, several hours each time from morning seven and in the evening from four, in the scorching heat to wait for food packets that arrive sometime after twelve noon and seven in the evening, and without guarantee that they will finally have food for the day. Their hands that produce the wealth of India are rendered meaningless because they have no work, and no one to rely on and nothing to fall back on.

Where are the toilets and the baths? Where is water for the frequent hand wash? It is some kind of a cruel joke played upon this species called Mazdoor. In desperation, many of them made a desperate bid to make it to their villages walking with their small baggage and some leftover money with women and small children. The pedal rickshaw drivers from Delhi started cycling to their villages hundreds of kilometres away in Bihar. Samaritans were there on the way, but how many could they reach? What could we do for Insaaf?

The Home Ministry’s advisory now guides the State governments to make arrangements to take the mazdoors back in buses after May 3 to their native villages. What stopped the all mighty Centre with a popular and strong leader to allow this to happen before the lockdown was announced? The image of the quick and firm decision maker has to remain intact. Collateral damages are to borne. But by whom? The leader has announced that people should not rush to markets and hoard, everything will be available. This was to address whom if not the rich and the middle class with ample purchasing power. The mazdoor and the kisaans were left to fend for themselves. Promises were made that money would be transferred to Jan Dhan accounts, but how much and how long would that meagre amount sustain the poor?

It is now clear that there was no immediate urgency to impose the sudden lockdown with an advance notice of barely four hours – announced at 8 pm; enforced at midnight! The rate of infection was known. Early action was desirable but that action, when planned, discussed and announced in advance calms nerves, smoothens the process and allows people not to be caught off guard and stranded, virtually, on the roads. Yet, it is the shock treatment that is required to build the image of a decisive leader. We know that many of those who wanted to go back to their villages could have made it with the help of extra trains and buses. The States would have responded. Money could have been transferred; supply chains and infrastructure could have been put in place. But it would have lacked the drama and the shock.

Given the situation we are in now, economic recovery is the hot topic. Wise babus, economists and intellectuals are talking about the bottom-up approach! Yet there seems to be no learning from the irreversible externalities and the maddening self-ruinous run in favour of GDP growth delivered through extreme industrialisation and urbanisation. The Prime Minister is credited with having launched a Swachh Bharat Abhiyan as part of the celebrations to mark 150 years of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi. But this safai should be as much about cleanliness in our thinking process and not staying prisoner to economic models that we can see have delivered exploitation of nature and of the downtrodden.

We can look for light in Gandhi’s way. Could we not pay a deserving tribute to make a move to Gandhi’s idea of ‘gram swaraj’ with ‘swadeshi’ and ‘swavalamban’ as the pillars? We have science and technology with us to make the right kind of innovation and scale down (rather than scale up) production to a level that a village or clusters can manage such enterprises. The land, water and forests could be restored and regenerated to improve productivity and support the labour force in the villages. Modern amenities can be provided; indeed, a condition would be that the demand will have to be brought down. Prof. Pulin Nayak of the Delhi School of Economics, renowned teacher, argues this case. COVID-19 provides an opportunity to redesign our polity and economy.

This is an opportunity if we can begin to look in a direction that we have shunned so far. Let our ‘Gram Sabhas’ have the political power and control over natural and other economic resources. The kisaan and the mazdoor’s dignity has to be restored and would this not be a wonderful gift to them on this May Day?

Dr Sudarshan Iyengar is a Gandhian economist and a former Vice Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith,a university founded by Mahatma Gandhi in 1920. Syndicate: The Billion Press

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