The scene is no different from what it was a fortnight ago. The streets within and outside the cities bear the same eerie and deserted look with very few people moving around, often interrupted by the sights of small huddles of men, women and children of all ages queuing up on the roads with stretched hands in the hope of getting some food and water.
Dashing hopes of thousands of workers and daily wage earners, economic activities have not resumed—be it in the cities or the rural areas despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assurance a week ago.
Modi, in a televised address to the nation on April 14, had said that several businesses will be allowed to start operations following widespread coverage of the plight of the migrant laborers. There was hope among many who have been stranded at various places without adequate food or money—that they would be able to get back to work from Monday.
Several sectors such as agriculture, mining, construction, oil and gas, coal and micro small and medium enterprises (MSME) were slated to open up, albeit gradually from April 20. But economic activities have not resumed. Promoters and entrepreneurs said that adhering to the stringent guidelines issued by the ministry of home affairs is not possible as that requires diligent planning.
Companies and business establishments that decide to start operations will have to follow the detailed Ministry of Home Affairs guideline. Many establishments have been stipulated to make arrangements for their staff to stay within the premises or make arrangements at nearby places. Companies will also have to stick to strict norms of regular temperature screening, social distancing, sanitization, pick up and drop, etc. Importantly, they will now have to provide medical insurance for their workers.
“To follow these norms, businesses need a lot of time. On top of that, we are not sure if there will be any penalty in case there is any breach even if it is unintentional,” an industry representative said.
Desperation and anxiety are starting to show among those who until now have shown resilience and patience. Jesmine Bibi, a migrant worker from West Bengal, said she has been regularly calling up her employer to check if there was any threat to her job. Bibi works at a construction site in Gurgaon.
“I was hopeful that work would restart from Monday but now that it hasn’t happened I am getting worried as I have no more money left even for my rent..at least if I manage to go back to my native village, I won’t have to pay rent but that too is not possible,” she added. The patience of thousands like her is now starting to wear away.
Over 60 per cent of India’s population are of the working age, with about 12 million individuals queuing up as job seekers every year. India has been struggling to find jobs for a million citizens every month in its workforce at even as the 6.5 per cent GDP growth rate.
Consider this: GDP forecasts brought out by think tanks and rating agencies for the country now ranges between nil or even negative and just above 2 per cent. Our employment challenge has just become even tougher. Modi has to remember that one of his main promises to the youth of the country was employment.
He has to move fast to ensure that the lockdown is lifted for economic activities to resume. Or else the demographic dividend that India has always been proud of can turn into a demographic disaster..