A regime of social policy must be installed to meet the basic needs of all citizens at all times – not only during pandemics
The current pandemic has forced us to think about the plight of workers in our country. While the virus has demonstrated the enormous value of health workers, it has also enhanced public awareness of the pivotal role of migrant workers in our economy.
We have been compelled to realise that between 100 million to 125 million people leave their villages, families and homes to find work far away wherever they can find it; their invisible hands harvest the crops and feed us, clean streets, run factories, build roads, and construct our houses.
Condition in ‘normal’ times
The current plight of migrant workers during the lockdown should become an occasion to reflect on their abysmal condition in “normal” times.
Many “contractual labourers” rarely see a written contract. A minimum, regular wage per month is legally required but seldom paid.
Many do not receive wages for months, and at the end of the season when they are finally paid it is often less than what was agreed.
There is a lack of transparency in accounting — excessive, arbitrary and unexpected deductions from final payments are common.
This renders them even more financially vulnerable because of indebtedness. Quite often they work long hours, between 10 and 13 hours a day, live in tents or makeshift shanties without access to potable water, toilets, and electricity.
Work, home and dignity
Socioeconomic rights, including the right to work, have long been part of our Directive Principles of State Policy.
By enacting the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act law in 2005, the Indian Parliament had set in motion a process that makes a specific and significant welfare provision constitutive of the very idea of citizenship.
Now, manual work in extremely hot conditions on parched terrain is an energy-draining, back-breaking chore, not quite a source of self-realisation central to the emancipatory vision of Gandhi, Hegel or Marx.
There is a sense in which any voluntary work, no matter how arduous, quietly uplifts and enhances dignity and basic self-respect — a point gracefully underscored by a group of painters (migrant labour) in Palsana, Sikar in Rajasthan, when they chose to give a fresh coat of paint to an entire school building in return for the shelter provided to them during lockdown.
No state can build a home — which needs personal care and must be our own handiwork — the right to housing can certainly be guaranteed for it is implicit in the article enjoining the state to provide a decent standard of living.