Labour Day Special: Need all round reforms with human face

Thousands of migrant workers from the cities have returned to the villages. Many of them may not come back to the cities. Not out of volition but out of compulsion. There may be massive loss of jobs in the hospitality and tourism sectors till such time as a vaccine against covid-19 is discovered and made widely available. Even then, many hotels and restaurants set up with borrowed money would have gone under. The apparel sector, which employs a large pool of people moving out of farming, has also been dented by delayed payments and by importers, unable to sell the merchandise due to lockdowns in their respective countries, forcing huge discounts on exporters working on thin margins. With wage cuts and loss of salaried jobs, EMI-financed investment in construction will suffer. A sector which employs rural labour will be hit.

In such a situation, the government will have to step in. MNREGA, the rural job guarantee scheme, will provide employment of the last resort. But we need to create productive jobs. The government could spend massively on rental housing. The slums and tenements in towns and cities can be replaced with modern housing. If rental laws are amended, private investment will flow in. These houses can be rented out to migrant workers when the economy picks up, and they return.

We need reforms in the railways. The organisation just cannot deliver. The Dedicated Freight Corridor is nowhere near completion despite multiple deadlines. The industrial corridor with new cities that was supposed to run parallel to it, would have created new job opportunities and decongested the big cities. We need tracks for faster movement of passengers and shorter travel. We need to smaller cities to be better able to manage them.

The healthcare system needs a revamp. The covid-19 crisis has shown that there is no alternative to universal public healthcare. We cannot depend on private hospitals and medical insurance to provide us affordable and quality healthcare. We need to invest in prevention and not just in cure. The discipline of epidemiology cannot be neglected with new viral epidemics set to emerge. Delhi’s mohalla clinics and the health systems of Tamil Nadu and Kerala provide models which the other states can emulate.

This crisis has shown that we cannot depend on other countries for critical supplies of medicines and medical equipment. We need to produce the drug intermediaries within the country. This sector should be treated as strategic and encouraged to be competitive. The world will be looking at alternatives to China. India can step in.

Public schooling needs special policy attention. The country could learn from Delhi, not only in providing good infrastructure but also upgrading the quality of teaching.

Private investment has to be revived. After the financial crisis of 2008, it has not recovered. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was expected to be a liberalizer. But to hone his pro-poor image, and also to raise revenues from a flagging economy, he has created fear among private investors with tax terrorism. The government lacks good advisors on economic policy. There will be pressure on the government to go back to self-reliance and import substitution. A low customs tariff regime, necessary for a competitive economy, will be dissed as a recipe for job losses. But unless we are competitive we will not be able to export. It will be tempting to give in to the protectionists. We should not.

We need reforms with a human face. The huge numbers of migrants who flocked home to their villages after the lockdown was announced, have shown that ‘trickle down’ does not work.

A couple of years ago, on the occasion of May Day, Ravish Kumar of NDTV India did a programme on the living conditions of workers in the auto and garment export hub of Gurgaon. He was appalled by the conditions and said there should be a ‘fundamental right to a window.’ Following that TV news report, I went to Manesar, also an auto hub and saw youngsters who had completed 12 years of schooling, employed in the factories for just Rs 6,000 a month. With the economy retrenching and jobs scarce workers’ rights will take a beating. Now, more than ever, we need a leadership that is not only knowledgeable but also compassionate. 

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