A manifesto for ‘migrants’: Towards a new social contract
The conditions in which a large number of wage workers lived during the lockdown period and then went back to their homes in different states have bruised the conscience of many in the country. Recently, millions of such wage labourers returned to their homes to ward off hunger and humiliation. It is understood that the term ‘migrant’ may not be most appropriate if used for only laborers but not for many of us who also moved like them in search of opportunities away from our home state. We imply wage laborer working in a state other than they come from as a ‘migrant’ here. Their sufferings were witnessed by one and all. Large number of individuals, civil society organisations and even professionals did try to mitigate their pain. Salute to all of them and no comments about the indifferent segments. The challenge next is to restore the broken trust of workers and their employers and restart the engine of growth and equitable development. The voice of the marginalized migrants is unlikely to be heard coherently and persuasively on its own. It is here that the role of academicians as honest brokers of ideas and institutions can play a role.
Managing migrants’ return to work:
It is unfortunate that practically no industry association has expressed regret or apology for having betrayed the interest of the workers at such a critical time of lockdown. Some scattered voices of employers offering AC or air ticket have begun to emerge. Farmers in Punjab sent busses on fifty percent sharing of fare to bring workers back. Some of them are offering a loan for resettling. But none has talked about the compensation for those who died and those who suffered hunger. It may be useful to restart the dialogue with a minimum resettlement allowance and return fare. All of them must get basic health insurance and other reasonable facilities for stay and family care. We should learn from the lacunae in ESIC where many times employers get the registration done only when there is an accident to get the worker covered by ESIC. Else, they don’t register the majority of workers even in places like Gurugram. Public policy on such a subject must require a declaration of registration done on all public displays by the concerned construction company. Likewise, attractive saving schemes must be introduced Improving upon the new pension scheme. Education subsidy for children and PDS entitlement for them in place of origin for family and and work must be ensured.
Leveraging the skills and knowledge of workers who are staying back in villages:
It is pity that most of the return migrants are digging earth or breaking stones under MGNREA. The skills of construction workers can be used for constructing underground water storage tanks to facilitate rooftop water harvesting in all the school buildings, dispensary, and other public buildings. It will provide high-quality water and give a push to sanitation mission where large number of toilets are blocked because of lack of water. The workers with manufacturing skills can be encouraged to set up small enterprises with the help of risk capital and public procurement assistance. A new wave of rural industrialization can unfold the hidden potential contribution of reverse migration. It will require mapping skills and knowledge of workers urgently. Skill mapping has already started in several states. Why not knowledge mapping too as a part of mental work under MNGRES.
Widening the scope of MGNREA
MGNREA should use not just menial work but also mental work, such as art and culture, biodiversity mapping, village knowledge register, etc. If all the walls of schools are painted by folk artists, an enormous number of jobs can be created for artists besides improving the learning environment of the school. Each artist should be encouraged to put his/her mobile number and name in the corner his/her artwork so that onlookers can place their orders for the particular work.
Mapping the knowledge of wage workers will bring out unique set of survival innovations and traditional knowledge which can help them, and also others. These can become a basis of setting up micro and macro enterprises. We will have to connect innovation/Traditional knowledge of ‘migrants’ (minds on margins…), investment and enterprise as per the model set up by GIAN, set up in 1997, India’s first Grassroots Innovation Incubator, a model which was scaled up in the form of NIF.
A new social contract
We have to redefine the role of management, labour, regulatory body and civil society watchdog groups to ensure a fair deal for all. This social contract will encourage the workers to be productive, effective and responsible. Likewise, employers will have to ensure much better facilities and assure a caring attitude in the future.
All those who have helped ‘migrants’ enormously still have the goodwill for poor people. Can it be harnessed to create a micro-adventure innovation fund to encourage enterprises to be set up by migrants and other knowledge-rich workers by seeking small contributions from them? Unless we begin to appreciate the resources in which poor people are rich, we will not be able to negotiate the social contract.