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