>

The interests of workers, businesses are deeply aligned, especially in these times of crisis: Azim Premji

Sixteen young men were mowed down by a train. The details are still being investigated. But we do know the basic truth. Like millions of others who lost their livelihood, they were starving. So, they decided to walk a few hundred kilometres to their homes and slept on the tracks assuming no trains would run, since it was the lockdown. Some kind of a lockdown was necessary to tackle the pandemic, but these deaths are an unforgiveable tragedy.
 
I don’t use the word ‘unforgiveable’ lightly. The blame is squarely ours; the society that we have built. This tragedy is just one of the most wrenching markers of the tremendous misery that hundreds of millions of our fellow citizens are bearing, those who are the weakest and the poorest.

This is the reality we are living through. And so, it was shocking to hear that various state governments, encouraged by businesses, are considering (or have already done so) suspending many of the labour laws that protect workers. This includes laws related to settling industrial disputes, occupational safety, health and working conditions of workers, and those related to minimum wages, trade unions, contract workers, and migrant labourers.

Those sixteen young men died because we have almost no social security and too little worker protection – not because we have too much of it. Which is also why the lives of hundreds of millions have been torn asunder in the tsunami of the pandemic, not only because of structural poverty and inequality.

 
All my working life I have dealt with labour unions and labour laws. It is not as though over these past fifty years I haven’t dealt with draconian laws and unreasonable trade unions. But over the past few decades labour laws have changed such that they are hardly among industry’s top constraints. At the same time, social security measures have not increased, thus worsening the precarity of the employed. Diluting these already lax laws will not boost economic activity, it will only exacerbate the conditions of the low wage earners and the poor.

Such measures tend to pit workers and businesses against each other. This is a false choice. We need only look at the past few weeks of experience, the unjust treatment of migrant labour vitiated the social contract between business and labour. This triggered the mass reverse migration of labour, undermining businesses. Thus, such measures are not only unjust but also dysfunctional. The interests of workers and businesses are deeply aligned, particularly in times of unprecedented economic crisis.

Even more importantly, we must look at the much larger set of issues. This economic crisis is also devastating the rural agrarian sector, and equally, if not more, the informal economy of the self-employed and small businesses across rural and urban areas. These sectors support the livelihoods of many times more people than the formal, organized sector.

 
The situation is far more serious than what most people seem to realize. I am saying this from our own experience. Over the past 50-55 days, as the country tries to deal with the pandemic and the human misery in its wake, the Azim Premji Foundation, along with Wipro, has worked extensively, both on the humanitarian and the healthcare front.

These efforts have been and continue in 375 districts across 30 States and Union Territories. This has only been possible because of our deep ground presence – over 1600 of our own team members have been joined by over 10,000 government schoolteachers, and, over 50,000 members of our partners whom we have supported through financial grants. Our 2000 strong University alumni also play a crucial role. While this ground presence is enabling our work, it also gives us a very real and dynamic sense of the economic crisis that is unfolding.

The economic damage and the ensuing humanitarian crisis are immense. We are still in the early stages of tackling the pandemic, we must not forget that. This also means that ‘livelihoods versus lives’, meaning reviving economic activity versus measures to tackle the pandemic, is not only a false choice but also a dysfunctional and unethical way of framing the issue. The pandemic must be dealt with on the healthcare front fully and comprehensively, while the people and the economy must be supported equally to ameliorate the immediate human suffering and to minimize long-term damage. Given the seriousness of the situation, the Union and State Governments must play a central role.

In this context, we must welcome the announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, of a fiscal stimulus and support to the economy of nearly 10% of the GDP. I think this is the size of support required, given the state of the economy, of livelihoods, and of the lives of people. There are also near-term uncertainties about the course of the pandemic.

So, it is important that this 10% be well and truly in addition to the already committed government expenditure and interventions and is not in any way (even partially) a reclassification of the earlier commitments. With this financial outlay many critical actions must be taken, I suggest a few here.

Immediate steps need to be undertaken to help the rural sector. Expanding MGNREGA may be the most important step to help the most disadvantaged and poor to whom it should be provided. Additional allocation of Rs 1 lakh crore should be made to MGNREGA, along with increasing the guaranteed number of days per household and increasing the daily wage. This will help all who demand work.

Ensuring timely payment of wages will be critical. A similar Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme must be designed and rolled out. Both these schemes can enable creation of productive assets, including infrastructure and agrarian assets, which will form the backbone of the countries’ economic revival, serious and sustained Investment in public health will help the campaign against this and future pandemics, and help build up a desperately needed functioning and responsive National Health System in our country. In this season it may also need to support the operating expenses of the rural economy.

Some of the stimulus money must be used to increase public investment in agriculture: to promote sustainable farming initiatives, stronger procurement system for grains at remunerative prices, and the expansion of local storage and value-addition for perishable crops. It should also be used for fostering rural and small-town entrepreneurship and making these economies more dynamic by increasing opportunities in agri-based as well as artisanal industries. This could be done through involving local democracy institutions such as the panchayats.

Enhancing social security is the most important action to mitigate the widespread humanitarian crisis. Food security must be ensured – we must universalise and double the PDS ration for 3-6 months and distribute it free through doorstep delivery along with cooking oil, pulses, salt, masala, sanitary pads and soap in advance to all.

Emergency cash relief of Rs. 7,000 per month for at least three months (without biometric authentication) to each poor household/migrant worker. Minimum wages for 25 days per month should be released to all poor urban residents for the period of the lockdown and at least for two months month following the end of the lockdown. Full autonomy and freedom should be provided to stranded and migrant labourers in deciding their travel plans, while ensuring all measures for containment of the pandemic. No one should be forced either to stay back or to return to their home states. Stranded migrant workers should be allowed to travel for free on buses and trains.

This is not comprehensive but just a sample of measures we could consider. Nor can this be achieved overnight. A one- to two-year detailed implementation plan needs to be developed quickly, by appropriate experts, and fully involving the states and civil society. But the size and nature of measures do need to be this ambitious to be able recover.

As we come out of this crisis, which we eventually will, we must also see this devastating experience for what it truly is. A tragic wake-up call to the nation, to build a more just, equitable and humane society.

(By Ajim Premji, Founder Chairman, Wipro)