With Covid pandemic having shaken India financially, as it has done the entire globe, Narendra Modi has declared a package of Rs 20 L crore, which apparently is a welcome move. It remains to be seen to what extent this will be a stimulus and in which sectors. Even before the pandemic hit India like a thunderbold, the country, as every one knews was reeling under a deep economic recession. Not only did the Modi government fail to provide the promised scale of job opportunities, the second term of the regime was marked by a fast increasing unmployment. And with the lockdown imposed under the compulsion of Covid, matters got aggravated further.
When statistics say that during 2012-2018, the job loss recorded was 6.1 million, the rate of unemployment until 29 March this year rose sharply from 8.4 per cent to 23.8 per cent, as per the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. The number of jobless increased from 3.2 Cr to 3.80 Crore. Taking into account the Corona period alone, during March 2020, 29.9 per cent of jobs were lost and there was a further loss of 27 per cent in April. International Labour Organisation (ILO) had even earlier warned that 40 crore Indians toiling hard for their living in the unorganised sector, were falling into destitution.
According to the 2017-18 survey, over 90 percent of Indian labourers are engaged in informal employment, and it is this segment that is worst affected by the lockdown. Although accurate statistics are missing, a sizeable section of the estimted 40-50 million inter-state migrant labour, made their way to home states on foot, and running out of food and shelter, many lost their lives presenting a heart-wrenching picture before the world. No one seems to have any clue as to what plans the government has prepared to resolve their crisis.
It is when this poses a conundrum yearning for urgent solution that the central and some central governments have introduced drastic amendments to labour laws, which send jitters all across the organised labour sector. It has become apparent by now that the reforms brought in by the Modi government and BJP state governments in UP, Madhya Pradesha and Gujarat, under the pressure and clout of the corporate sector, are harsh, anti-labour and anti-human, as already charged by most of the labour unions. Even governments in non-BJP ruled states like Rajasthan and Maharashtra are heard to be moving along the same lines. The unions point out that extensive changes have been made in the amendments by increasing work hours from 8 to 12, allowing employers to lay off workers at any time and curtailing benefits like bonus and Provident Fund.
The case made out by the employers is that they have no alternatives for the resumption of firms that have run huge losses due to Covid, an argument promptly accepted by the government. But it is notable that the unions who stoutly resist the state governments' decision to withdraw existing labour laws, include also Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the RSS-backed trade union. BMS's General Secretary Virjesh Upadhyay has asked its units in the states concerned to write to their chief ministers demanding that they should abolish the move and any problems in the labour front should be discussed with labour unions. Further, all the major unions including BMS, INTUC, AITUC and CITU are in a collective move to approach the ILO. For, they claim that what happens now constitutes a violation of international labour laws to which India is also a signatory. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi too has called upon the central government not to make Covid an opportunity to violate labour rights.
True, there is a compelling situation engendered by Covid bringing withit the job losses and inevitable closing of enterprises referred to above. And no government can turn a blind eye on them. What governments should do is to seek wise, timely and far-sighted plans and changes which can tide over the current crisis. But then, no move should be made that entirely ignores labour which forms the backbone of nation-building and development. The situation makes it imperative also on the worker class collectives to realise the criticality of the crisis and to be prepared for an accommodating stance. If both sides stick to their guns with irrational postures, there will be no way left for a mechanism of restoration. Only discussions and negotiations will be pave the way for mutually acceptable solutions.