Published: 28th March 2020
There might be a food riot soon: Why these JNU profs have started a petition to help unorganised labourers during lockdown
Are the provisions announced enough for the labourers, rickshaw pullers, washermen and people who make the biggest service sector of the country? ask the professors and suggest ways to deal with it
India has entered its fourth day of lockdown imposed due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asked people not to step out and the government has also a Rs 1.70-lakh-crore economic package involving free food grain and cooking gas to the poor for the next three months. But is the informal sector really being taken care of? Professors of the Jawaharlal Nehru University's Centre for Informal Sector and Labour Studies do not think so. They have started an online petition addressing the PM to ensure the safety and social security of informal sector workers during the lockdown. The petition filed on change.org has collected more than 1,750 signature till now.
The teachers said that even though the lockdown might have been necessary, its execution was not well planned. "The benefits should ideally have been announced prior to the lockdown announcement. The migrant workers who are walking hundreds of kilometres to get back home would not have to leave," said Dr Anamitra Roy Choudhury, Assistant Professor of the Centre for Informal Sector and Labour Studies in JNU. "The government has set up bank accounts under the Jan Dhan Yojna, given an Aadhaar Card to everyone — this is the time to make use of it. Merely announcing a budget won't help. They need to work on a war footing otherwise India might witness a food riot soon," he added.
Dr Roy Choudhury also thinks that the central and state governments should work in unison to make this happen. "The government needs a list of all the beneficiaries to see to it that everyone gets the benefits of this economic package. Also, they should ensure the food is transported properly and seamlessly," he added.
In their ten-point appeal, the teachers have asked the PM to ensure that no migrant worker should be forced to leave their workplace during the lockdown period as it will not only cause inconvenience to them but will defeat the very purpose of the lockdown. Adequate arrangements should be made in every state for their safety and health security. This has been addressed to some extent on Friday when the Union Home Ministry asked state governments to prevent a mass exodus of migrant agriculture labourers, industrial workers and unorganised sector employees from their workplaces to their hometowns.
This advisory came after reports emerged of labourers being harassed and beaten up by the police and forced to walk to their hometowns with their family as there was no transportation facility available. "Effective steps must be taken to rein in the police and law enforcing agencies so that no worker is subjected to unnecessary violence and coercion," demands the petition.
The teachers also demanded that ESI hospitals should be provided with adequate facilities for COVID-19 tests and other necessary support to handle the pandemic and made accessible to workers during the crisis, even if they do not have proper IDs. "The workers of this class have experience frequenting the ESI hospitals and it would be easier for them to avail the facilities there," said Dr Avinash Kumar, Associate Professor of the centre. "Mobile hospital vans must also be brought into service in order to reach out to workers in need of medical attention," he added.
The issue that had surfaced after the government announced cash benefits was that it was for the registered labourers, while only a very small percentage of our labour force is registered. "Yes, and neither do we have a centralised system to register a labourer. There is no proper database. Even if a labourer registers himself under a contractor or a builder, he has to register when he shifts jobs. That almost never happens," added Dr Kumar. "We need to make use of the financial inclusion initiatives that the government claims to have put in place," he said.
Free distribution of alcohol-based hand sanitisers to all workers, said the petition, adding that termination of an employee from the job or reduction in wages must be made illegal, universal cash transfer of Rs 7,000 in the form of basic income to all for at least six months except government salaried employees and those in the organised sector, universalise distribution of food grains through PDS at schools and anganwadis and ensure that supply to PDS must be adequate with expanded rations, Immediate release of all MGNREGA wage arrears along with advance payment of pensions and doorstep delivery of food to all mid-day meal beneficiaries and ensuring that free meals to all those in need.