COVID-19, economic stagnancy and dignity of work

Bondage in Indian cities is far from gainful employment with dignity. The urban fear is many informal workers may have ‘reverse migrated’ and will not come back

By Rajkamal Goswami, Nitin Pandit
Published: Monday 24 August 2020
COVID-19 betrayed the hopes of migrant workers by stripping off any last shred of dignity they had left, as cities shut their doors, pushing them to walk home en masse. Photo: Vikas Choudhary

The first lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in March 2020 revealed deep fissures in our societal systems. Saving one set of lives from COVID 19 pushed a million others into the jaws of death after economic systems — supposedly designed to guarantee roti-kapada-makaan (food, clothes and shelter) — shut overnight.

Clearly, economic systems are dependent on discretionary consumption beyond the basic needs of food, water, electricity, communication, waste management, healthcare and policing. COVID-19 made visible a large section of our population who were employed in menial conditions in an ‘informal sector’.

Working in sectors like construction — that remained lucrative for urban builder lobbies — migrant workers laboured for survival without any predictability or security. While many labourers were supported by local non-profits, most had few means to leave for their home towns and villages or even live.

Several series of graduated phases of ‘unlock’ and multiple scattered lockdowns in several large cities later, the situation for the informal sector is as grim as those early, uncertain days and nights of the first lockdown. The need for serious discussions around newer, sustainable and healthier avenues of employment that are not only financially rewarding but are also humane and caring, is more critical than ever before.

Such employment sources should ideally be able to buffer themselves from future pandemics and other large-scale disruptions caused by extreme weather and climatic hazards such as cyclones, floods and heatwaves, whose frequency is predicted to increase in the near future.

Clearly, cities are not the places to find such gainful employment. The current crises clearly showed global cities, especially the poor living in crowded conditions, were the main targets, as if the virus conducted a pre-determined strike at our current global economic hotspots.

On top of this, unhygienic, unethical and exploitative working conditions thrive in our cities. This is particularly in developing economies such as India and Bangladesh. In short, our cities are too crowded and may have crossed the threshold. The largest and busiest cities became our greatest liabilities, particularly for the precariats.

Precariat: Worse than informal

In his widely acclaimed book The Other Path, economist Hernando de Soto identified several ways in which the informal sector gets created and how a large section of society is excluded from the economic mainstream.

Massive bureaucratic barriers and toothless legal structures led to the creation of a parallel underground informal economy in Peru. Actors in the informal economy operated outside the formal economic and governance structures and fostered the growth of slums and violence in urban areas.

Similarly, we became comfortably numb to the informally employed: The situation in India is worse. Thirty years since liberalisation, over 93 per cent (more than 450 million) of India’s total workforce, concentrated mostly in and around Indian cities, took the other path in informal employment.

Migration to cities offered an opportunity — despite the exploitation — to exit an endless cycle of rural poverty with no voice to oppose discrimination.

COVID-19 exposed the magnitude of their plight in the starkest way possible. It betrayed their hopes by stripping off any last shred of dignity they had left in urban squalor, as cities shut their doors on them, pushing them to walk en masse back to their home towns and villages. We know now the informal sector carried not just the costs of exclusion that de Soto wrote about, but all the risk as well, thereby becoming a new social class: The precariat.

Dignity in short supply

Urban super-echelons still showed little mercy by trying to prevent trains from leaving and by making access easy foremost for liquor shops, with an undeniable eye on keeping the precariat effectively in bondage.

Clearly, bondage in Indian cities is far from gainful employment with dignity. The urban fear is many informal workers may have ‘reverse migrated’ and will not come back to their erstwhile jobs. COVID-19 demonstrated the lure of a daily wage cannot offset either its risk or an insulting treatment in congested cities. That are, thus, no longer places to find gainful employment.

Conventional rural living, meanwhile, leaves us with a limited view of the agrarian crisis where employment, or work itself, is no panacea. In the limited view of rural life, economic value is extracted from enforced monoculture, rapacious industry and rent-seeking land development.

This limited vision continues to impose massive land use changes and unsustainable practices that irreversibly deplete some of the most precious natural assets, keeping the agrarian sector in perpetual crisis. This risk is borne by the poor.

Restoring Dignity

There is hope, however, if we choose to learn from nature and employ people to restore our natural asset base. More specifically than the general call for green jobs, nature showed us the principle mechanism of reducing risks is through biodiversity — something we have been losing at an unforgivable rate for many years.

There are two concrete ways of using biodiversity to create gainful employment while restoring our natural assets.

First, our forests are crying for help as developers extract value through mining, fragmentation and other activities with no thought to what they leave behind for nature and people. India’s forest management sector is woefully under-funded and under-staffed to enable balanced development and conservation.

There are good examples where we have created a protection and management infrastructure, both under the umbrella of forest departments and through decentralised forest management bodies such as the Van Panchayats of Uttarakhand and the village level forest management committees of north-eastern states.

It should be possible to target resources to enable the precariat to provide this service to protect our natural assets for nation building.

Second, India has a substantial amount of degraded land. The restoration of degraded landscapes to regain biodiversity offers great opportunities for sustainable employment.

Even before COVID-19, analysis of landscape restoration in the United States showed it was at least twice as effective at creating jobs as the oil and gas sector. An initial estimate in the Brazilian Amazon indicates restoration projects generated 8-22 jobs per $1 million invested.

India had nearly 140 million hectares of potential for forest protection and landscape restoration that can potentially create gainful employment for at least 100 million additional precariat, according to the Restoration Opportunities Atlas 2018.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s commitment to restore 26 million hectares is a good start for both the environment and the precariat. The precariat must have better choices than to be forced back to the old normal: Urban or rural. An exemplary Bhutan is training their citizens in sustainable agroforestry techniques to cope up with the ongoing imported food shortages, but also for restoring dignity through self-sufficiency and self-reliance in food production.

Interventions to restore our biodiversity open up opportunities for restoring our natural assets and co-benefits of tenurial reforms, soil and water management and natural protection against emerging diseases like COVID-19.

Looking at the pandemic, world leaders recognise that employment rate and gross domestic product have very little relationship with people’s lived experience on the ground.

Away from traditional societal bondages that tie the precariat to urban and rural India, humbling lessons about nature’s biodiversity can provide the Union government ways to design a large-scale employment program based on the dignity of work for the precariat.

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of  Down To Earth.

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