Beyond Silkyara smiles, gloomy state of workers - Hindustan Times
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Beyond Silkyara smiles, gloomy state of workers

Dec 02, 2023 12:06 AM IST

The policy environment is callous towards workers. This is scandalous since India now has the tools to provide universal social security to all workers

The successful rescue of 41 workers trapped in the Silkyara tunnel for over 17 days is both thrilling and sobering. Thrilling because the lives of 41 workers were saved and the entire State machinery came together in solidarity to do all that it took to rescue the workers. In this one instance, the lives of India’s workers were prioritised, and successfully so. This is a triumph. But behind this triumphant moment, is a sobering reality.

Workers rescued from the tunnel. (X) PREMIUM
Workers rescued from the tunnel. (X)

Away from the bluster about the fastest-growing economy, third-largest economy, and $5 trillion economy, there is a real economy that occasionally makes itself visible in the national consciousness to remind us of the ugly truths about the Indian economy and what it means to be a worker within it. The Uttarkashi episode is one such occasion. Speaking after their successful rescue mission, the real heroes of the hour, the “rat-hole” miners, reminded the country of harsh truths. All they asked for was a life of dignity, of humanity where workers receive fair wages and work in safe conditions.

The harsh truth is the Silkyara tunnel incident is not an isolated event. Every day millions of India’s workers suffer the worst forms of indignities as they struggle to make a livelihood with little policy protection and on the margins of national consciousness. And so while we celebrate the triumph of the rescue mission, we must also confront our skewed policy regime that flouts worker safety, and environmental norms and preys on worker vulnerabilities.

The grim reality of India’s workers is visible in the limited data we collect. Data from the government’s Periodic Labour Force Survey (2022-23) shows that a mere 20% of India’s workforce finds work in regular wage/salaried jobs. Social security is not guaranteed even for these workers — 59% do not have written job contracts and 54% are not eligible for any specified social security benefit. More than three-quarters are either self-employed or casual labourers with no income and employment security and social security benefits. More than three-quarters are either self-employed or casual labourers with no income and employment security and social security benefits. Crucially, India’s labour market remains deeply segregated by caste, gender, and religion which shape people’s employment opportunities, type of work, and income. Low levels of female labour force participation have been widely debated, but the roles of caste and religion in shaping employment structures matter significantly and are invisible in the contemporary debate.

Azim Premji University recently released “State of Working India”, which presents important evidence in this regard. Looking at long-term trends from the 1980s to the present, the report finds that upper castes are twice as likely to have moved out of agriculture into modern services compared to Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Scheduled Castes (SCs) and three times more likely as compared to Scheduled Tribes (STs). Regular wage employment remains the privilege of the upper caste: 32% of upper caste workers are in regular wage employment, compared with 22% of OBC and SC workers and 14% of ST workers. Muslims are less likely to hold regular wage jobs and more likely to be in self-employed/casual wage work over the entire four-decade period analysed.

Finally, a large number of India’s workers are on the move. Absent a census, data is limited but one useful estimate that gives a sense of the magnitude is from the 2016-17 Economic Survey, which estimates migrant workers account for between 17-29% of the labour force. It is these workers who were forced to walk home during Covid-19 and in ordinary times, risk stampedes on trains to live and work in deplorable conditions.

Against this backdrop, the policy environment is not just grossly inadequate but actively callous towards workers. In response to the Covid-19 crisis, for instance, several initiatives like the One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC), Affordable Rental Housing Scheme, and the eShram portal — a digital database for registering unorganised workers — were launched. However, implementation lacks energy. The flagship ONORC has waned. Data from CPR’s Accountability Initiative shows that between April 2021 and December 2022, ONORC was accessed by 17.4 million beneficiaries accounting for less than 1% of total e-transactions in this period. The eShram portal has 291 million workers registered, but there is no clear policy direction beyond the distribution of cards.

State governments, as my colleague Mukta Naik has carefully documented, have innovated to devise social protection schemes for migrant workers. However, none of this translated into a coherent governance approach that cuts across jurisdictional boundaries. Moreover, at a time when digitally enabled cash transfers have come to dominate the electoral landscape, the approach to welfare is curiously delinked from worker needs. This is evident in the fact that most cash transfers are place-based, not portable, and targeted to rural residents. India now has the tools to provide universal social security to unorganised workers. It is scandalous that it has failed to do so. As is a railway policy that prioritises Vande Bharat fast trains for the privileged few over sleeper berths for the vast majority of travellers.

When it comes to labour laws, state after state is privileging deregulation in the hope of attracting investment without adequate consideration of critical issues of worker safety. The gross negligence that caused the Silkyara tunnel incident may have made headlines but taking such risks is the fate of most workers. This is India’s reality. And a daily reminder that no matter how fast we grow or how large an economy we are, an economy that condemns its workers to remain in precarity, will always be poor no matter how fast its GDP grows.

Yamini Aiyar is president and chief executive of Centre for Policy Research. The views expressed are personal

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