A change in the labor markets | HT Editorial – Editorials
In his meeting with chief ministers on Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for the first time, spoke about the migrant worker crisis that has engulfed the country since the closure was imposed. He said the government had urged workers to stay where they were, but that it was “human nature” to want to go home. But the prime minister, correctly, marked two main challenges that will now emerge. The first is for states that migrant workers have left. As economic activity resumes, there will be a severe shortage of labor in these regions. The second is for home states, to which workers return. These regions, the Prime Minister acknowledged, did not have enough jobs, which is why migration had happened in the first place. Now they will have to create opportunities. These states should also ensure that the return of workers does not lead to the spread of the disease, particularly in rural areas.
What the Prime Minister underlined is an enormously significant moment in the political economy of labor markets in India. There is an opinion that these are unusual times; and workers who have gone home or are now returning will eventually return, given the economic constraints. This may be true. But what is undeniable is that the past month has been a healing experience for millions of workers. The relationship between companies and workers has been severed, and the latter is resentful of the way that employers did not provide the food and cash necessary to help them overcome the crisis. The relationship between the state and workers has also weakened, and the latter lost faith in the ability of governments to provide them with a social safety net in a time of crisis. In this context, all they feel they can trust is their families and community networks in their home countries. They can live on less, but taking them back to the cities will not be easy.
This also has a clear geographical dimension. It is the southern and western states that have received the largest number of workers. And it is the northern and eastern states that have sent these workers. This, in a way, is the key economic failure in India, as the northern and eastern states have more exploitative agrarian relations, low industrial growth and no opportunity. While this is a crisis, the North and the East must use this as an opportunity to rebuild their economies, even as the South and the West find new innovative ways to grow.