COVID-19 Brings in Focus the Peril of Cheap Labour
21st century India is the land of high-tech cheap knowledge workers. Needless to say, she is the darling of mighty tech giants.
But, today we are not talking about them. Today, we will be talking about another set of cheap workers, greasing the urbanising Indian economy — they are called, 'the internal migrants'. Today, thanks to COVID-19, these migrant workers are in the forefront of the battle against COVID-19.
Who are these nameless migrant workers, eking out subsistence existence in this land of high-tech workers?
They are India's veritable labour force. They make physical capital to get life and make money. They run agricultural machinery, grow our food, build our high-rises, builds our roads, works in small and medium scale units which are interwoven in the global supply chain of horizontally inter-connected businesses. In a nutshell, they are the reason why India can produce things at cheaper cost than in many parts of the world. Yet, the development process and political process have so far been unfair to them. They are economically deprived without any security of livelihood. They have been cheated out of their political rights as well.
Glamorous Growth without Basic Social Benefits
COVID-19 brings to limelight how we under-value our human potential economically, socially and politically.
Migration of workers, particularly from village to cities within India, has become the major unacknowledged source of the Indian growth story in the last two decades. They work without any social security benefits. To ensure fairness, it is crucial to expand the reach of their political subjectivity. Several Lok Sabha (Parliament of India) and assembly elections data reveal that many of the migrant workers were the missing voters, who could not make their journeys at the time of elections, or be present during list compilation. Thus, they remain uncounted with their political right and in practical terms, they become disenfranchised. What we ask for, is a simple infrastructure of remote voting, no less, no more.
Defining Human Dignity in the Land of Technology
The hard lesson of COVID-19 — coming face to face and dealing with our national shame.
One of the ways to come out of it is to recognize this problem and have substantive enfranchisement of migrant workers. Empower them to speak in the language of political rights of a dignified citizen. Make the people’s representatives and the political parties to listen to them and consider internal migrants as important as overseas migrants. The Election Commission of India (ECI) has already extended the voting rights to Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), and promised extension of postal ballot voting rights if they are unable to travel to their constituency.
Why can’t this remote voting right be extended to the internal migrants?
One way to achieve this is to implement the postal ballot or some kind of proxy voting-booth in the host-state for the migrant workers. All these will create new decent jobs for cleaning up discrimination and unfairness and to advance the sustainable development agenda. Let us understand, this will only strengthen our social potential. Without a strong social capability society is bound to crack inside out.
We need rules/institutions to build social capability by unleashing potential within the migrant and the peripatetic populations. The Indian Population Census of 2011 estimated that internal migration increased by 45 percent within a decade. A recent survey of 3,018 migrant workers in the construction sector in Delhi and Lucknow reports that 63 per cent of the sample could be termed as “single migrants”, making 2.55 trips each year to their villages, and dividing the year almost equally between various construction sites and the village. More strikingly, over half of them had been into this “circular migration” for close to a decade or so. The survey reveals that these migrant workers dwell in the building sites, manage space on the street, or rent a bed in a squatter colony without any legal status. Asking them to produce documents in support of citizenship in the host city is to disenfranchise them.
20th Century Regulation Fails for the 21st Century Mobile Migrant
“The Inter-state Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act,1979” appears severely inadequate and rarely implemented. Recently, the issue of “remote voting’’ surfaced along with the attempt to link the ECI database with Aadhaar to enable migrant voters to vote remotely. The prior bitter experience of failure to link Aadhaar with the Public distribution system (PDS) makes us believe that any such attempt might further disenfranchise the migrants. There are apprehensions that instances of cancellation of bona fide voter cards might become huge in number. with The excuse might be failure to link the two databases at the time of voting, failure of biometric authentication.
One of the arguments given many a times is that anyone, including the migrant-workers, can always register as a voter in their host constituencies. The rules for constituency change are as follows: one can only be enrolled for voting in her place of residence, and not in a place where she is currently staying. A person cannot claim to remain a voter in her native place just because she owns a house there. In short, individual’s inalienable right to vote is conditioned by a rather strict residency qualification thus favouring a sedentary population.
In India, internal migration of the working class has historically been a “State subject”. The introduction of postal ballot will drive competitive electoral politics of the migrants' "homeland" to these peri-urban construction sites, which in turn, will make the sender states more responsive to their needs, keeping in mind the electoral arithmetic. The migrants’ question can then be understood also through citizenship and not just from the perspective of livelihood.
The horizon of political subjectivity of the migrant workers cannot solely be captured through the lens of either only workplace rights, or just voting rights. The concern here is about empowering citizens through democratic rights.
Shreya Ghosh and Ritajyoti Bandyopadhyay
Is COVID19 on a Collision Course with 'Utopia'?
In 2015 these lofty goals were undertaken by all United Nations Member states towards global governance for sustainable development. In essence, unknown to the masses, United Nations has dreamt up this awe-inspiring 'utopia' of economic development that is dependent on integrated planetary living.
The above image shows the global call to action in 17 spaces that is designed for sustainable development, ushering in ultimate utopia by 2030. The grand vision: empowered human living.
Then comes along Covid-19, a virus.
What does this mean?
Does it mean COVID-19 is at odds with 17 Sustainable Developmental Goals (SDGs)?
If we are aware of the various targets and Indicators, then our answer is no. We can see SDG3 is about promoting healthy living for all ages around the globe.
Promoting human capital means, tackling global health risk, fostering a healthy mind, global health oversight, health emergency preparedness and end of epidemics as we know it. So, scientific approach to strengthen implementation of SDGs in the aftermath of COVID-19 need to continue with equal force.
Sooner we jump start with renewed realizations our economic-social-environmental actions, the better off we will be for absorbing such shocks in future. Predictions of public health crisis in climate change scenarios are already high. However, scientific discourse in climate conversation is, about how such challenges may be approached by pro-active measures through preventive health care.
How does COVID-19 stack up against other existing health ordeals?
While deaths from Covid-19 in the first quarter of 2020 is ~190,236 globally, vector borne disease death annually is ~700,000. Here are few mind boggling stats.
2195 children die of common diarrhea every day x 365 = you do the math
Cancer claims 26,386 lives every day x 365 = you do the math
200 million people drink arsenic laced water in the absence of access to safe drinking water.
COVID-19 lifts the veil of societal shame
'Hand-washing' as obvious as it sounds, is the best to avoid COVID-19. Internet 'memes' of soap use, running hot water for hand-washing, and hand sanitizer use, has dominated the urban cultural landscape in the last few weeks. COVID-19 transcended the divide between the developing and developed countries, only among the privileged few who can afford to have the warm luxuries of cool cleanliness.
Seems like COVID-19 categorized pandemic have shamelessly forgotten about 50% of the world population who lives in South Asia, Sub Saharan Africa and East Asia. Majority do not have access to safe drinking water. Let alone, 24x7 water service flow. And flow of hot water, is nothing more than a pipe dream.
Sarcasm leads one to underscore the fact that 50% of the world population is immune from COVID-19. It should be diligently noted, that global advisories for COVID-19 are exclusive and in contradiction with SDG 10 : Reduced inequality. Framed as such, COVID-19 is indeed in a collision course with utopia. But, it is upon us not to make it so.
Why should we work towards planetary utopia?
In nature, everything is connected. This is equally true of a healthy environment and a healthy economy. We cannot hope to sustain life without taking care of nature. And we need healthy economies to lift people out of grinding poverty and achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
If we are talking of ‘solidarity’ and thriving economy, then what is the one take home message from COVID-19? We need investment to make this solidarity package work.
Investment in two core sectors:
Water and Energy (SDG6 and SDG7) to revive the economies immediately with existing scientific know-how and solve inequity and provide minimum dignified living. This needs to happen now not until 2030.
This will in effect directly accelerate solutions of:
SDG 1, by improving proportion of population with access to basic services;
SDG 2, as water and energy are the basic inputs and related infrastructure for food production and preservation ensuring food security;
SDG 3, by directly improving health capital by reducing mortality from water borne diseases and quality health service infrastructure;
SDG 5, by reducing burden of unproductive time allocation and disease burden of women; SDG 10 by reducing inequality between and within countries.
If we add some solid scientific understanding borrowing from climate conversation and ensure inclusive and equitable education SDG 4 invoke solidarity through global partnership SDG 17, we can advance SDG 8, by providing decent work, economic growth sustainably for those who needs the most ; SDG 9, by adding innovation in basic service access infrastructure; SDG 11, by making human settlements resilient and sustainable; SDG 12, by helping sustainable consumption and production by reducing food and resource losses at various stages of supply chain; SDG 13, by helping in combat of climate change and it's impact; SDG 14 by sustainable harvest of marine resources and by reducing pollution load carried to marine system; SDG 15, by reducing burden on forests and the ecosystem by making transition to modern energy sources; SDG 16 by reducing crime, violence etc. which happen many a times in dark, deserted alleys and by reducing water related conflicts.
How much would it cost?
Based on past research   and back of the envelope calculation using macro economic parameters, we can expect a 3-4 times production growth following a required investment commitment of 3.5 trillion USD targeted towards 50% of the global population aspiring for dignified living with basic services.
This will build global wealth in all three dimensions social-economic-environmental toward sustainable development. Building purpose driven physical capital and socially innovative service delivery models and policy innovation in water and energy will provide reliable 24x7 service access to water and electricity for 50% of the laggards in the development process. Back of the envelope calculation show no less than 200 million new jobs are guaranteed. We do need innovative framing of the investment plan to once and for all solve inequity in access to basic hygiene, to avoid any future Pandemic with multilayered damage whose cost is well above $ 3.5 trillion in a global economy of today valued at ~$86 trillion.
In next series of articles, we point out the need for multidisciplinary scientific approach and contextualization to avoid some of the inevitable fall outs in many societies of following one size-fits-all kind of unscientific response strategies for managing a Pandemic.