Thousands of migrants were forced to walk to their villages – the soul-crushing images of utter loss and helplessness during the first and the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic brought the plight of India’s migrant workforce into the mainstream. With the situation improving, the issues of migrants and their livelihood has again lost focus. Thinc Migration, the eight-part webinar series, by The Indian Express has brought the issue back into the mainstream. On Monday, the fifth edition of the series saw a mix of esteem speakers. They addressed issues from the aspects of corporates, academics and research. Meher Pudumjee (Chairperson of Thermax Limited), who began the webinar, spoke about her experience of launching an initiative that specifically addresses the issues of the workers. Be informal or on contract, Pudumjee’s unique campaign wants to help the migrants to lead a dignified life.
“We have made a very, very modest beginning. Partnering with ‘Dasra’ and other like-minded corporates across Mumbai, Pune and Ahmedabad, we commenced an initiative called ‘Social Compact’. It works for greater dignity and equity of industry-employed informal workers in the informal sector. We want to mainstream the thought that responsible business is equal to a successful business.”
“The ‘SoCo’ initiative was kickstarted in September last year. With help of our NGO partners, six outcome areas were identified that underpin the vulnerability of the informal workforce. These are – a living wage, safety at the workplace, health and social security, grievance redressal, gender parity and last – linkages to the entitlements.”
A self-driven journey, ‘SoCo’ started as a pilot project with just 15 companies. The project aims to reach 150 companies, Pudumjee said. The initiative aspires to address a million workers spread across the country, she added. “It is the time for businesses to have the responsibility to look beyond growth and profits. Whether it’s our people, society or government. The new decade commences with greater concern and compassion,” Pudumjee said in her opening remark.
Next up was an academic approach. On how badly the migrants are affected in India, especially in times of the coronavirus pandemic, Professor Deepak Mishra from the JNU said that “the very first aspect of understanding this issue is to move away from the generalised description of the migrants. One must look at the specific group of migrants. There are specific patterns of vulnerability associated with each migrant group.” On what must the policymakers do, Professor Mishra said that the starting point of any policy is to look at “the vulnerability not in terms of its immediate and readable manifestation. But to go beyond that and look at the structural inclusiveness that creates, sustains and reproduces the vulnerability over generations. We must look at the origin area, the migration process and finally what can be done at the destination.” Talking about greater inclusiveness, Professor Mishra said that if something can be done for the migrants at the origin i.e their villages where they are seen with lots of doubt and at the destination i.e. the cities where they are regarded as outsiders, the inherent vulnerabilities and subsequent issues would reduce to a large extent. He also said that this can only be done we have a multi-level structure, an institution that specifically addresses the issue of inclusivity.
Later, Radhicka Kapoor (Fellow at ICRIER) spoke about why exactly people migrate to cities. Kapoor said that in India, what we see is a circular migration. She also said that when compared to economies such as Brazil, Mexico and China, India’s scale of urbanisation is still far less. She added that there is a clear link between circular migration and the rise of the informal sector workforce. She also spoke about push and pull migration. Kapoor highlighted the fact that India has a mix of both push and pull migration. This means that migrants either are pulled into this aspect of better opportunities in the cities or they are pushed out of their villages due to lack of suitable work.
Manish Sabharwal (Chairman, TeamLease) said that “there is no such thing as poor people. Rather there are people in poor conditions.” He said that India doesn’t have an unemployment problem. He said that the country has the issue of poverty. He said that the current trends clear show that “we don’t have a shortage of land, labour or capital.” Sabharwal said that what India is struggling with is the wage issue. He stressed the fact that India must do more about making better cities.
However, Rajiv Khandelwal (Founder, Aajeevika Bureau), disagreed with Sabharwal and said that those who are caught in the debt trap really don’t have any choice. He said that the daily wages have gone down by 20 to 30 per cent due to the coronavirus pandemic. He said that many in India’s migrant workforce are on the edge of threshold survival. Aajeevika Bureau founder further said that the distress component of the migration should come down.
While there were many disagreements, the three main key points that saw an overall consensus were – formalisation of the migrant workforce; wages not jobs are the main problem and the kind of urbanisation that India is witnessing right now. As Professor Mishra said, “right to have a dignified life is a minimum in a democracy,” almost everyone agreed upon the fact that a lot needs to be done for the migrants if we don’t want to see the gut-wrenching scenes once again.