All the narratives of a progressing nation, Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘marching into the 21st century,’ Atal Behari Vajpayee’s ‘shining India,’ A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s ‘providing urban amenities in rural areas,’ Manmohan Singh’s achievement of 8-9% Gross Domestic Product growth rates and Narendra Modi’s ‘smart cities’ have crumbled in the wake of national level migrant workers’ crisis during the coronavirus lockdown with lakhs of them marching, cycling or hitchhiking home thousands of kilometers away, a phenomenon not observed anywhere else in the world either because nowhere people migrate in such large numbers for jobs or foreign governments took care of their workers better than in India. It has been proved that a country desiring to be a gloabl economic or military power doesn’t have the wherewithal or the politcal will to take care of its poor. When the poor needed the succor most, they were simply abandoned. Inspite of the Constitution of India being guided by the concept of ‘Socialism’ formally, this tragedy has also highlighted the discriminatory treatment by government on the basis of class, and by extension caste, as class and caste categories in India more or less overlap. While for children of moneyed class free transportation was arranged, the poor even if they managed to get onto a train or a bus were made to pay because of which in some cases they abandoned the idea of travel.
Opening up the sale of liquor on 4 May, 2020, effectively made a mockery of lockdown when the police gave up attempts to prevent people from gathering like they were doing prior to this. The people who queued up infront of liquor shops were the poor, not the rich, similar to queues during demonetisation. Hence the government not only deliberately allowed assembly of poor but also took away from them precious little cash they had which could have been spent on buying food or health care for their families.
To add salt to injury now workers are being expected to give up their basic rights. A number of state governments have suspended various labour laws to varying degrees for different time periods. Uttar Pradesh has suspended all labour laws for three years and in Guajrat workers will be made to work for extra hours but not paid adequately for that. 1 May started getting celebrated as labour rights day because it was on this day in 1890 that American workers resolved not to work for more than 8 hours a day. But Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and UP governments have shown scant regard for this hard won right and issued ordinances which may not stand the scrutiny of law even if they are passed by respective legislative assemblies. When Uttar Pradesh Workers’ Front approached the High Court with a Public Interest Litigation the government quietly withdrew the 8 May order of permitting 12 hours of work per day and 72 hours per week without additional payment for overtime, before the next hearing date.
The Prime Minister views all the discomfort borne by workers as a sacrifice for the nation. He has chosen the most exploited class of society for inflicting sacrifices which they are indeed making by losing their jobs and incomes, dying in accidents on roads or railway tracks while going back home or simply going through the excruciating experience of walking for thousands of kilometres with all belongings on their body without any guarantee of food or water, in some cases with women and children. It is a matter of national shame that our workers are subjected to this humiliating rigmarole.
If workers can make sacrifices why not others, especially the capitalist class, which anyway has surplus accumulated income. If workers are expected to give up the guarantees of working hours and minimum wages why don’t we ask the industrialists to work not for profit for the next three years? All private companies could be converted to Trusts with Borad of Trustees replacing Board of Directors and Managing Trustee replacing the owner. Everybody working for the company could be paid their salaries good enough for survival. After all that is what we are expecting from the workers? This is the advice Mahatma Gandhi had for owners of big businesses. He suggested that owners of businesses must consider themselves only as trustees of all the assets controlled by them meant for common good of human society. Hence everybody could get a salary according to their skill but it would be desirable to follow the principle laid down by the second most important political thinker of the country after Gandhi, Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia, that difference between the incomes of poorest and richest should not be more than ten times. If this standard is adopted by all organisations and governments then it would be in the interest of larger society and as a country we’ll be able to deal with the setback to economy due to lockdown in an effective manner. If the minimum wages under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is Rs. 202 in UP then the maximum salary anybody should draw in government or private sector in UP should not excedd Rs. 2020 per day or Rs. 60,600 in a month. Any profit above the total expenditure of companies should go in government treasury and government could waive income tax for this duration. If National Food Security Act extends its coverage universally and education, health care, transport, communication systems and banks are all nationalised then there is no reason why any family should not be able to meet all its expenses within this amount. Free education and free heath care is a policy followed by many countries successfully. Giving priority to public transport over private motorised vehicles is another such sound policy. If people with an inclination for service, as we witnessed a number of them during relief work, were to take up service sector positions and work on honorary basis or for minimum salary, the governance could really improve and corruption could be brought under check. Hence by a wise selection of policy measures the cost of living can be brought down. In the coronovirus lockdown almost everybody was down to fulfilling only their basic needs giving up most of the comforts and facilities of modern living. What was forced upon us should become a subject of voluntary acceptance.
Unless such austerity measures are followed we may not be able to recover from the doldrums we’re in.
Arundhati is with National Alliance of People’s Movements and Sandeep is with Socialist Party (India).