In any disaster – natural or otherwise – those at the bottom of the pyramid almost always get hit the
hardest. More so in India with its sharp socio-economic divides! At such times governments are
obliged to ensure that the worst hit are not thrust deeper into poverty and destitution.
Covid-19 has raised questions where the sympathies of most of our rulers lie. Do those at the
bottom of our pyramid count for much?
We were pushed into the national lockdown, with even public transport shut down, from the
midnight of March 24 after just four hours notice! Millions of daily wage earners and workers in the
informal sector suddenly found themselves trapped in the slums and ghettoes of our cities and
reduced to the indignity of surviving on charity in the absence of regular work.
As the lockdown was extended they came out on the streets demanding trains to return to their
ancestral villages. With no help forthcoming from the central government, large numbers of these
workers (many with children in tow) began walking the several hundred kilometres back to their
villages, in the scorching heat of summer. Many perished in road/train accidents en route. One
estimate is several million such workers have been on the roads during the lockdown but this mass
human exodus, with its heart-wrenching individual stories, has been either been largely ignored by
the political bosses in Delhi or blamed by some as the outcome of a left-liberal news media
Through early April to May, equally disturbing news emerged from Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh,
Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra, Odisha,
Assam, Bihar and Karnataka states. Apparently to spur productivity, these states announced that
daily factory working hours were being raised from eight to 12 hours for a period of three months.
BJP-ruled Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh went even further! Laws relating to labour
unions and resolution of industrial disputes were suspended for three years, businesses employing
up to 100 workers could now hire and fire workers, there would be no government inspection of
businesses with less than 50 workers, etc.
Most certainly these will be copied by other states as well, ostensibly to woo investors and, by
implication, to generate more tax revenues as they face up to the economic devastation wrought by
Covid-19. But it is not so certain if these so called labour reforms will indeed pull in businesses, as
there are other factors as well that influence investment decisions at a particular location. For
instance, the status of local and regional physical infrastructure, access to easy/cheap bank loans
and so on.
What is certain is that these ‘relaxations’ in labour laws and working conditions undo at one stroke
many crucial gains won by workers after decades of struggle.
Alarmed by this onslaught on labour rights, ten all-India labour unions jointly wrote on May 25 to the
Geneva-based International Labour Organisation decrying “these diabolical measures” which it said
were being introduced by states at the behest of the government of India despite the unions’
protests. Attention was also drawn by these labour unions to the lockdown induced “inhuman
miseries of the tens of millions of inter-state migrant workers” across the country.
Meanwhile, about a month into the lockdown (on April 23), some 50 officers of the Indian Revenue
Service sent across to the Central Board of Direct Taxes a set of 10 unsolicited but brilliant ideas.
Among them: Collect more tax from foreign companies well established in India and the domestic
super-rich, as a short term measure, to help pay for the Covid-19 economic fallout. For between
three and six months, it was suggested, the highest tax rate be raised (from 30%) to 40% on those
with an annual income of Rs10 million (US$142,850) and a wealth tax be imposed on persons with
Rs50 million (US$714,285) annual income. And, an additional tax be imposed on the incomes of
established foreign companies for between nine to 12 months. Such taxes, especially on the ‘super-
rich’, said these officers, serve the larger public good.
How were these ideas received? Not even a discussion was entertained! Instead, making thempublic through news media was labelled an “act of indiscipline”!
There’s more! From May 18, employers are not bound to pay salaries to staff for the period their
businesses remained shut during the lockdown. Thus, the home ministry reversed its own March 29
order that all employees should be paid salaries on the due date, without any cuts, during the
lockdown even if their work places were shut down.
Isn’t it elementary that the wealthier amongst us are much better equipped to weather the Covid-19
But most of our rulers don’t seem to share this perception.
(Madhu Nainan is a Mumbai-based journalist who has worked for AFP and now edits an energy e-journal)