Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Pandemic Changed India

 "you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone" Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

The monsoon officially arrived in Mumbai, India last weekend.

The men who cleared the drains so that the rains don’t cause flooding and water-borne diseases. The electricians who came to fix blackouts caused by wind and rain. The sanitation workers who used to spray neighbourhoods with mosquito repellent before the monsoon to prevent vector-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and chikungunya. All are missing. Many of these workers and handymen were migrant labourers. For the first time in 125 years, most of the 5,000 dabbawallas have gone home to their villages, defeated by the virus and the lockdown. 1.2 million migrant workers left the city during lockdown.

They fled the city when the pandemic left them destitute and hungry. Before their mass exodus, well-heeled residents had never noticed them. They were always there, cheap cogs labour, their presence visible only when needed to fix a blocked toilet or deliver pizzas, and instantly forgotten. Now their absence is felt. A city already buckling under coronavirus and facing the annual ritual of catastrophic flooding from the rains is realising its dependence on daily wage labourers and informal casual workers.

The labour shortage means business cannot find technicians, electricians, sweepers, packers or assembly-line workers. Foundries, mills, shops and malls are looking for labour. Construction of roads, flyovers and metro lines is delayed. Half-built buildings need to be finished. A survey carried out  for the Economic Times newspaper estimates a labour shortfall of 40–50%.  Employers have sent out “contractors” who, for a commission, scour villages in the states around Mumbai for skilled and semi-skilled workers to work for daily wages.

The chief minister of Maharashtra, Uddhav Thackeray,  has urged employers to hire local workers rather than those from other states. Few want to take him up on this suggestion.

“Migrant workers accept less pay, longer hours and harsher working conditions. Local people will not tolerate this – they have a sense of justice, are rooted in society and enjoy social support. Migrant labourers are herded into factories and hostels and feel cut off and isolated from the society around them,” said DL Karad, national vice-president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions. “Most of them aren’t coming back. First they were treated like slaves by employers and then they were treated like stray dogs by society during the lockdown. Some, perhaps, may return. But only if they are starving,” said Karad.

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