Schemes for Indian labour class must go beyond freebies, statistical reach

Scope and scale of existing labour schemes are still limited in penetrating intersectional layers of society

May 03, 2022 01:23 pm | Updated May 04, 2022 02:34 pm IST

Labourers at a construction site in New Delhi.

Labourers at a construction site in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: Reuters

An increase in budget and beneficiaries under a policy may not necessarily reach the most vulnerable, just like a growing GDP does not ensure development. A better policy goes beyond free giveaways and statistical reach, one that caters to both greater coverage and deeper societal penetration. While the Indian economy, when measured on the scale of total production output per year, has been fairly strong, the scope and scale of existing labour schemes are still limited in penetrating the intersectional layers of society.

A large section of labourers and their families misses out on basic employment standards such as minimum wage, maternity compensation and monetary support for education. Insufficient coverage for extreme illness, disability and death makes the outreach of schemes even more limited. The schemes get restricted in their reach due to their broad umbrella classification of beneficiaries, cumbersome application process and red tapism. Thus, the vulnerable labourers are either unaware of the benefits or have difficulty in accessing them.

Vulnerability can be further associated with intersectionality or the interconnected nature of social categorisations that result in an overlapping and interdependent system of discrimination and disadvantage. A multifactorial intersection is correlated and includes caste and gender, caste and employment, employment and gender, gender and ability and so on. Designing an intersectional policy requires administrations to take into cognisance the various social, economic and cultural factors that address the targeted individual’s needs and recognition.

BoCW schemes

On examining Building and Other Construction Workers’ (BoCW) education scholarship schemes, it was noted that Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh offer an average of ₹3,000 to 5,000 as scholarship amounts, classified under male-female categories. Himachal Pradesh, on the other hand, offers a high scholarship amount worth ₹35,000 for females and ₹25,000 for males. Though a great scheme in terms of coverage, it too falls short in going beyond male-female classification.

Delhi offers amounts ranging from ₹6,000 for primary school students to ₹1,20,000 for MBAs, but lacking even the said binary gender classification. Learning from Himachal Pradesh and Delhi, there is a need to increase scholarship amounts in other States, especially for higher grades. Unfortunately, however, considering the binary classifications in such schemes, there is hardly any attention given to the multifactorial nature of intersectionality.

An acute shortfall in the vulnerability index of such schemes can be highlighted while taking into account the beneficiary classification of members from the transgender community. The story of Radha (name changed to protect identity) is one such example. She says, “I went by the name Ravi for most part of my life. I was constantly teased for my mannerism and gait. Abuses were hurled and I was called demeaning names by everyone I met.”

Born into a labourer family, Radha spent sleepless nights questioning and doubting her own identity. Gender-based discrimination at school with no knowledge on support from government schemes eventually led to her dropping out from school. As she grew up, she realised the importance of identity representation and, more so, the cost of lack of it.

Distressing stories like Radha’s have come to stare at us even more since the arrival of the pandemic, and the lockdown that ensued after it. It has borne a deeper brunt in the implementation of schemes, making the labour class even more vulnerable. When workers migrated to different cities to work in factories during the industrial revolution, the German and British governments failed to notice the degradation in their health and well-being until they needed to recruit troops for a military campaign, only to find undernourished and often ill men volunteering for it.

Suddenly, the cost to society of poor nutrition and housing, and inadequate public health services such as clean water, air and sanitation facilities became a national problem, bringing about a revolutionary change in the way governments conceived their responsibilities. Globally, administrations can be slow to recognise the point when economic and societal change requires a rethinking of schemes and policies. They often are a result of a national or a political crisis, COVID-19 being the most recent example.

Chhattisgarh’s approach

The department of labour in Chhattisgarh, along with organisations such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), is currently taking steps to address these issues. A lifecycle analysis of labourers was recently carried out, exploring interventions available to them at every stage from different departments. The gaps in our research brought to the fore concerns regarding schemes where different vulnerabilities were under-represented. It also highlighted the need to clear duplication of existing databases to design policies embedded with both greater coverage and deeper penetration through classifications based on gender, class, caste and ability.

Our focus is on schemes with insufficient coverage and those not catering to the mentioned intersectionality. Chhattisgarh has a population of approximately 1 crore children in the age group of 6-25 years, representing close to 40% of the State’s total population. Despite this immense potential of a high demographic dividend, according to the Annual Status of Education Report survey, educational outcomes in terms of merit and attendance are poor. Children belonging to certain castes or tribes, those with disability and females/trans persons, fare much worse, both in enrolment and learning outcomes.

Our research found that while the department of labour, under the BoCW scheme, has provided for educational scholarships, it does not address the issues of enrolment and learning outcome. In 2019, a meagre 6% eligible children availed the Nainihal Chhatravritti Yojana, an existing scholarship scheme for children of labourers in Chhattisgarh.

This scholarship scheme is subsequently being redesigned with a focus on universal coverage of educational needs of the children of labourers and providing additional top-ups/gap fillers, prioritising the most vulnerable on the basis of fine-tuned classification of gender, caste, ability and parental occupation.

An existing maternity scheme is also being redesigned to provide wage compensation for pregnant and lactating mothers, both in terms of benefit amounts and coverage in case of miscarriage, while creating a system for the usage of minimum paperwork. Other than this, our current health scheme is being redesigned to ensure protection against the backbreaking out-of-pocket healthcare expenses for severe illnesses for the vulnerable but Above Poverty Line labour families within the unorganised sector (inclusive of BoCW), and anybody who does not possess a Prathmikta or Antyodaya ration card, as an aid to Chhattisgarh’s Mukyamantri Vishesh Swasthya Sahayata Yojana.

Labour market vulnerability has been a challenge in most industrialised countries, as they, in their own ways, constantly strive to ascertain an equitable mix of policies that could meet both the social goal of minimising vulnerability and the economic goal of enhancing competitiveness. While there is no universal answer to this problem, it is clear that newly industrialised countries such as India have considerable discretion to choose their own strategy.

Scheme redesign processes that look at the whole picture instil this sense among all individuals involved in sharing the same space. Dignity is fundamentally a social phenomenon that arises through representation, access and interaction. This becomes seamless when the ethical and moral compass of policymakers and society at large rests on constitutional values of equity, and this process of ingraining values must first begin by laying bare the fault lines.

(Alex Paul Menon, IAS, is the Labour Commissioner, Department of Labour, Government of Chhattisgarh. Gitanjoli Dasgupta, is an expert with the Labour Welfare and Social Security, United Nations Development Programme)

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