China’s labour force comprises around 70 per cent migrants. The annual leave period during the Chinese New Year or other holidays concede with the largest number of people moving from one place to another in the world. They bring the huge Chinese railway network to stretching to the pointing of fraying.
THE coronavirus pandemic will leave some deep and fundamental lessons for organising our economy and for a new kind of social policy. If lockdown was the essential way to fight the spread of the virus, it has also shown where our social policies are flawed and how those can be remedied. We have always been talking about 90 per cent of the total employment in India being in the informal and tiny and small sectors. But we have hardly bothered to know how these people worked and lived. They worked in informal sector and live in informal accommodation which had none of the social security that goes with employment, work and living.
Unless it was so informal and improvised, the migrant workers could not have been thrown out of their rented accommodation overnight after announcement of the lockdown by the Government. Had they lived in rented accommodation giving them certain rights, all these migrant labourers with their goods and chattels, and their families would not have been forced on to the roads so summarily. Maybe, even if they had no monies coming in with the lock down, or if they were looking at starvation in wherever they were staying, they would at any rate have thought of leaving for home as the only way to salvation. But then, how come China handled its situation so very differently from India.
China also has huge load of migrant labourers and possibly the absolute numbers would be more if not less than India’s. China’s labour force comprises around 70 per cent migrants. The annual leave period during the Chinese New Year or other holidays concede with the largest number of people moving from one place to another in the world. They bring the huge Chinese railway network to stretching to the pointing of fraying. But there are some significant differences which give an edge to the Chinese to handling a crisis when one arises.
Chinese migrant labourers are provided accommodation by the employers. There have been descriptions how cramped these are, how bad there are in the international media. There are even horror stories. Workers live in bunkers in massive quarters built by the employers in industrial centres. These are virtually concentration camps for workers working in industrial clusters away from their homes. But then, when the shove comes to push, they can’t be pushed out of their temporary accommodations by their employers. What will the employers do with the empty hulks of large industrial workers’ dormitory buildings?
They might not be the best accommodation in times of a hugely infectious disease. But their utility for holding the workers where they are could ensure that an epidemic is not carried far and wide in to the country and infect people in the remote villages and hinterlands. This in itself is a massive advantage. Since we cannot change overnight and locate our industries far and wide into the country, it would be essential that our industrial policy should now include some provisions for providing workers’ some living quarters not very far from their workplaces. Not for all, but then at least for those who are coming from across distances. Some social policy for community housing seems like in order to mitigate human costs in times of crises. Of course, there will be those who will are that such humongous crises do not happen frequently. The last was a hundred years back. But then, a society must remain prepared for handling awful crises of this dimensions.
This might be construed as discriminatory. Such policy would inherently work against employing people coming from across the States. But then, it will minimise human suffering in times of such health or possibly similar climate episodes. Secondly, what good it was to declare the large Rs 1,70,000 crore income support scheme for the really vulnerable and worst-hit if the money could not be transferred to their hands quickly and ensure they have something to fall back upon? Had the money been transferred to their accounts forthwith, they could have stayed on at their places of work at least for the time of the lockdown period.
The moment the news started flowing out of the migrant labourers leaving their homes at their places of work, this issue should have been taken up on highest priority and ways should have been devised to stem the tide of outwards movement. After all, the outward waves were limited only in certain areas and these should have been addressed fastest. There have been criticisms that the crisis should have been foreseen, even before the lockdown was announced. However, this appears rather uncharitable. When facing such existential threats of a virulent epidemic spreading like wild fire, there would be lapses in forethought. These are not to be picked up.
What should however be stressed is how fast is the response. No country in the world, however much richer and technologically advanced, did foresee all the ramifications as the crisis unravelled. None had even responded very fast. But the enormity of the problems could be manifold, compared with theirs when India is concerned. Because our numbers are huge and our resources in reverse are pea sized. This crisis should also show in very clear outlines, how far advanced China is compared to us. Their medical facilities for supporting quarantines or in treating people are so vast, we cannot even remotely approach it. And in such times, these resources which can make the difference. Even the United States could not measure up to China in this respect.
They have one big advantage we don’t have, nor desired to have. As a dictatorial country, they can order about the way we cannot. They could just cordon off one whole province from the rest of the country and by and large confine the inception to that State. We are not able to do anything of that sort. The passage of the migrants could undo all the advantages we can gain from a lockdown. Thirdly, this could be the end of globalisation that we have known so far. Globalisation had its discontents, as Jeffery Sachs had written in his book. But nobody really visualised globalisation had its enormous risks to the lives of humans or maybe we do not know other animals too. This shows globalisation as a looming biological catastrophe. We have to be careful.