In the first quarter of 2020, economies worldwide went into ‘lockdowns’ of different kinds as governments sought to limit the spread of the coronavirus. In the case of India, the brakes were abruptly applied to daily life, and consequently, the economy ground to a near halt. Manufacturing activity ceased, public transportation came to a standstill and countless daily wage earners were left without an income overnight.
Millions of the rural poor in India flock to its large cities in search for higher wages. For a country that is keen for the world to ‘Make in India’, the treatment it has meted out to those who will be tasked with making in India leaves much to be desired. Even weeks after the lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi without any advance notice, thousands of migrant workers were still on foot, having walked hundreds of miles, and possibly still a few hundred away from their destinations.
Help did eventually come—albeit a little too late—as India contemplated a phased reopening. Migrant workers were packed into trains and buses and sent off to their respective states, with scant regard or possibility for social distancing. In several cases, trains were re-routed owing to crowding on routes, with journeys taking significantly longer than they should. In many instances, little or no food was provided to those traveling on these long journeys.
The exercise continues and as the country tries to emerge from the lockdown, the largest daily spikes in COVID-19 cases are being witnessed.
Workers have it tough
It isn’t just migrant workers being short-changed. In India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, home to over six million industrial workers, the state government issued an ordinance that does away with all bar three labour-related acts. The state government announced in May that of its 38 labour laws, 34 will remain suspended for 1,000 days – or about three years. Although it suggests these are ‘labour reforms’ that have been enacted to attract investors to Uttar Pradesh, many are rightly sceptical for these changes could result in major workplace exploitation for thousands.
In southern India, the Karnataka state government had initially arranged for special trains to ferry migrant workers home. However, following a meeting with real estate moguls in Bengaluru, it was decided the trains be cancelled supposedly because an exodus of migrant workers would have resulted in labour shortages in the real estate sector when construction activity resumed. This was after migrant workers had already paid for their travel expenses well in advance.
Clearly, workers in India have been at the receiving end during this pandemic – sometimes used as a political football, with their circumstances looked upon simply as an inconvenience.
The story, however, is completely different for Indian migrants working abroad. The Indian government has arranged relief flights to bring home its stranded citizens from overseas. In simple terms, the government has funded the homeward travel for migrants living in other countries. In contrast, those looking to go back home within India have mostly been left to fend for themselves, and been required to make their own payments – this too has happened only after the plight of the migrant workers has been extensively reported on over the past couple of months.
It is easy to understand these double standards, but not excuse them.
There are 13.5 million Indian nationals working overseas, many of whom are workers. Indian migrant workers seek out foreign shores for jobs to earn higher incomes than they would in India, and to support their families back home. This is a substantial source of revenue for the Indian government, with remittances from overseas accounting for 2.9% of India’s GDP in 2018.
According to World Bank estimates, Indians working overseas sent home US$79 billion in 2018, making India the world’s largest recipient of inward remittances, ahead of China, the Philippines and Mexico. This is a sizeable figure – larger than India’s annual education and healthcare budgets put together.
Can India deliver on its lofty ideals?
India is still only an emerging economy – one that has set ambitious manufacturing sector goals to position itself as the world’s factory. It is a tall order, given the various problems plaguing its manufacturing sector and related policymaking.
India’s manufacturing sector is still largely unorganised and while advanced economies brace for the fourth industrial revolution, India is still grinding gears to keep pace with even the third. Foreign investors have been drawn to the country’s services sector. Manufacturing has been less appealing and even as many companies look to exit China and relocate manufacturing to less expensive destinations, it is arguable whether India will be a major beneficiary.
Migrant workers form a significant demographic – and a large voter base. Successive governments have time and again positioned themselves as socio-economic reformers. Indeed, some positive changes have been brought about. But the manner in which the current issue of migrant labour returning to their villages is unfolding reflects a wider malaise – which is a disregard for the plight of the poor. If India truly aspires to become an economic superpower, it must first learn how to respect those who really can ‘Make in India.’