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The Hindu Notes for 22nd October 2018

Lip service to labour rights

The exodus of migrant labour from Gujarat highlights the indifference of States to their well being and rights

  • Gujarat is one of the top States in India that receive migrant workers, largely temporary and seasonal, on a large scale. In Gujarat, they work in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs in a wide range of activities such as in agriculture, brick kilns and construction work, salt pans and domestic work, petty services and trades (food and street vending) as well as in textiles and garments, embroidery and diamond cutting and polishing, small engineering and electronics and also small and big factories.
  • Scant data

  • These workers are from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and even from as far as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Assam and Karnataka. Employers send contractors to distant unexplored places to gather labour at the lowest possible wage rate. For example, a new township in Gujarat being promoted by a large industrialist is to be built with workers from Assam. Surprisingly, the Gujarat government has no data on/estimates of migrant workers coming to Gujarat. Informally, the figures are estimated to be between 40 lakh to one crore.
  • Segmenting the labour market and creating a separate labour market for migrant workers — who are easy to exploit — has been a common strategy of employers across India. The pathetic conditions migrant workers face have been widely documented. They earn low wages, work very long hours without any overtime benefits, and are almost without any leave or social protection. Lakhs of unskilled and migrant workers live on worksites in makeshift huts (usually made of tin sheets) or on roads, slums and in illegal settlements not served by municipalities. They are neither able to save much to improve their conditions back in their home States nor save enough to live comfortably in Gujarat. They go back home only once or twice to celebrate festivals. Semi-skilled workers with some education and skills (such as those in diamond cutting and polishing units, power looms and factories) get slightly higher wages and earn some leave. However, these workers are also exploited in multiple ways and are mostly unprotected. Factory owners, employers and traders are only too happy with such a situation as they earn huge profits from wage labour exploitation.
  • Embers of resentment

  • Local workers resent the presence of migrant workers who they feel take away their jobs in factories and other places on account of being cheap labour. The recent attacks on migrant labour after an incident in Gujarat late last month, involving the sexual assault of a 14-month-old girl, allegedly by a migrant labourer from Bihar, appears to be have been a consequence of this resentment. Many migrant workers have now rushed out to their home States out of fear despite several local people having been taken into custody on the charge of inciting violence against migrant workers. There have been reports of an estimated 60,000 to more than a lakh workers leaving the State. Those who have stayed back now live under constant fear.
  • The exodus is cause for concern as it is bound to impact Gujarat’s growth and create resentment among factory owners and other employers, especially at a time when the general election is drawing close.
  • Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani has blamed the Opposition for inciting locals to push out migrants while the latter have accused him of not stopping the migration. Some have even demanded his resignation. The anger on both the sides is essentially more out of fear that losing cheap labour will be at the cost of Gujarat’s prosperity than out of genuine concern for the welfare of migrant workers. The signals from the top leadership of the Chief Minister’s party are “to bring the situation back to normal”. This would also avert a crisis in the migrants’ home States which would have to cope with an army of the unemployed.
  • All this shows the utter indifference of States to the well being of migrant workers and their rights. The Gujarat government wants normalcy to return so that migrant workers can toil for the prosperity of Gujarat, while the Bihar government, which is at its wit’s end trying to manage the sudden inflow of returning migrants, wants migration to Gujarat to continue as before. It is not surprising that Uttar Pradesh has lauded the Gujarat government “for handling the situation well”.
  • Only on paper

  • Under the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act and other labour laws (for unorganised workers), migrant workers in Gujarat are legally entitled to all their basic labour rights. These include minimum wages, regular wage payment, regular working hours and overtime payment, and decent working and living conditions which include taking care of the health and education of their children.
  • Under the same Act, the governments of the States from where migrant workforce originate are expected to issue licences to contractors who take workers away, register such workers and also monitor their working and living conditions in other States. But most State governments remain indifferent to these laws. Gujarat has taken a few steps but these are far from adequate. In the political sphere, there has been hardly any mention about protecting the legal rights of migrant workers in India. The political impulse has been to maintain status quo — the continuation of the situation where migrant workers are exploited.
  • The Gujarat government passed a rule in the 1990s making it mandatory for industries and employers in Gujarat to give 85% of jobs to local people. This rule was never really implemented in reality, but watered down by the State government in its subsequent industrial policies, as new and large investors coming to the State did not like any such restrictions. Now there is a move in the State to introduce a law for industries and investors in Gujarat which reserves 80% of labour jobs for State domiciles and at least 25% for local workers. But those behind the idea are perhaps fully aware of the futility of such a move. As long as there are huge surpluses from the labour of migrant workers, employers will have no incentive in hiring local workers. The objective of such a move is to perhaps contain the anger of local workers — at least till the 2019 election.
  • A way out

  • In the end, the real solution to this issue would be to enforce all relevant labour laws for migrant workers so that segmentation of the labour market becomes weak, and workers (local and migrant) get a fair and equal deal in the labour market. This will also weaken unfair competition between local and migrant labour and enable migrant workers either to settle down in the place of destination or to go back home and make a good living there. But are State and Central governments genuinely interested in improving the conditions of workers in the economy?
  • Time to hew a new antiquities law

    Cultural vigilantism threatens to cast a long shadow on the production of knowledge of the past

  • The construct around a civilisational history frequently emerges from untouched archaeological sites. Consequently, the premium has long been on archaeologists guiding a nation on what constitutes its history, memory and culture. This ingrained notion has foundationally resulted in the framing of India’s laws based on a singular view of what constitutes an antique. To hang onto this view in today’s age is destructive as can be seen from the fate of antique collecting across India. The prevalent assumption that is constantly alluded to is that every object held by an institution or a collector must have been surreptitiously removed from a shrine or a sacred site.
  • But a civilisational history cannot be constructed purely by an archaeological agency. While it is an important component, other groups such as littérateurs, historians, anthropologists and curators also contribute valuable insights into our material culture. However, the framing of our laws has not happened in conjunction with any of these disciplines. This was because at the time of law framing, the agenda was to preserve India’s material culture which was then under threat much like material heritage of several source countries across the world was. What was thus valid for India at the time of Independence no longer fits in with the requirements, reality and needs of a confident modern-day state that seeks to understand its past.
  • Need for reform

  • The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 has consequently long outlived the purpose for which it was drafted. While a promised amendment has been floated on the website of the Union Ministry of Culture, its status is still largely unknown. The laws that consequently govern the ownership of historical objects, their purchase and sale have, with increasing frequency, been a disincentive for the average collector. Cultural vigilantism and the presumption of guilt without trial, public shaming and the resultant media trial have led to a state of affairs that is dangerous — casting a long shadow on the production of knowledge of our past.
  • Registering antiquities with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has long been a cumbersome and difficult procedure for most collectors, with the state simply not equipped to handle the needs of a growing populace of collectors.
  • Compounding this is the rule that every object over a 100 years is an antique. To ascribe importance by virtue of religious sentiment, age or provenance (seldom proven) to every significant and insignificant work of art will sound the death knell for scholarship or our understanding of what constitutes a beautiful work of art or even a significant national treasure worthy of appreciation. To promote a view that once sacred objects today only belong to temples and thus deny the process of regeneration of these living cultural sites is a myopic view stemming from a lack of understanding of the role and purpose of these objects, the temple economy that maintained them, and also the constant process of renewal that occurred within historic sites.
  • Questions for the state

  • With every passing year, the number of objects that shift from 99th year to a 100 year status will soon result in the transfer of vast numbers of objects to a status of national antiquity. Is the state geared to handle and maintain this vast emerging enterprise? This is where the role of private connoisseurship, individual collectors, trusts and foundations come into play. Their proactive agency has safeguarded the heft of ancient Indian art from being channelled abroad or, worse, being destroyed. It is well within the rights of every citizen to acquire and collect objects of their past that they feel imparts a sense of memory, history and an understanding of our culture. What should definitely govern this acquisition is a legal process of buying. However, vigilante movements claim temple robbery provenance without a shred of proof, emerging as a bullying tactic and becoming the dominant narrative on artefact ownership. These movements neither follow the rule of law nor do they respect the ASI’s time-honoured process of registration of such artefacts.
  • The present situation also gives rise to an interesting question. If, as is being presumed, every object in a private collection is the result of temple desecration and robbery, then what of objects that have been registered under similar norms across all our public institutions? Is the government of India ready to repatriate the several idols in its various collections or give up the Aurel Stein collection of Central Asian antiquities at the National Museum, New Delhi, to the Buddhist communities of China? To hold public institutions to one standard and private collectors to another is just one of the several anomalies of the current narrative. Why is there a blanket assumption that every public institution holds treasures that were not pilfered or acquired through the same channels that are available to private collectors? An urgent amendment to existing laws is a need of the hour to save our material culture from being examined purely from the prism of religious sentiment and to foster the creation of secular spaces where everyone can enjoy and appreciate our past.
  • The pilgrimage’s progress

    The rules of worship are made, unmade, and remade over time and Sabarimala is no exception

  • I remember seeing the ‘birth’ of Ayyappa on stage during a Kathakali performance. Following the drama of Bhasmasura’s destruction by Vishnu as Mohini, Shiva’s fear turning to gratitude, the two ‘male’ gods retreated behind the curtain drawn across the stage. The curtain trembled to the clash and roar of cymbals, drums and singing, before being lowered to reveal an image of Ayyappa. We were overawed by the performance and did not think of raising questions about the ways of the gods. I remember too, in the late 1960s, participating in the ‘kettanara’ rituals (the placing of the bundle of offerings and some items for sustenance on the pilgrim’s head before he sets off on the pilgrimage) of young cousins departing for Sabarimala on foot. The ritual involved all the women in the household. The young men were unshaven, in black, had donned the mala, and were ready to walk the long route barefoot after having observed their 41-day vrathams. I was overawed by the faith of the young ‘Ayyappa’, the women, and was too young to raise any ‘why nots’.
  • Shortcuts and compromises

  • In the 1960s, the young ‘Ayyappa’ would have been among the 15,000 or so who made that arduous journey. No longer. In the past five decades, as the numbers have burgeoned to millions, Lord Ayyappa has been witness to, and extremely tolerant of, every aspect of the pilgrimage being changed beyond recognition. Let us begin with the most important reason being cited for prohibiting women pilgrims of menstruating age: that they cannot maintain the 41-day vratham. Yet, as we know from personal knowledge, and from detailed anthropological studies of this pilgrimage, the shortcuts and compromises on that earlier observance have been many and Lord Ayyappa himself seems to have taken the changes in his stride.
  • Not all those who reach the foot of the 18 steps that have to be mounted for the darshan of the celibate god observe all aspects of the vratham. A corporate employee, such as one in my family, may observe the restrictions on meat, alcohol and sex, but has given up the compulsion of wearing black or being barefoot. I recall being startled when I saw ‘Ayyappas’ clad in black enjoying a smoke in the corner of the newspaper office where I once worked; I was told that it was only alcohol that was to be abjured. My surprise was greater when I saw several relatives donning the mala about a week before setting off on the pilgrimage, a serious abbreviation of the 41-day temporary asceticism. Though this has meant no diminution in the faith of those visiting the shrine, clearly the pilgrim’s progress has been adapted to the temporalities of modern life.
  • Lord Ayyappa has surely observed that the longer pedestrian route to his forest shrine has been shortened by the bus route. From 1,29,000 private vehicles in 2000 to 2,65,000 in 2005, not to mention the countless bus trips, this has resulted in intolerable strains on a fragile ecology. In other words, pilgrim tourism, far from being promoted by women’s entry to Sabarimala, had already reached unbearable limits.
  • One of the most vital practices of this pilgrimage enjoins the pilgrim to carry his own consumption basket: nothing should be available for purchase. Provisions for drinking and cleaning water apart, the sacred geography of the shrine was preserved by such restrictions on consumption. But like many large religious corporations such as Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams, the conveniences of commerce have pervaded every step of the way, with shops selling ‘Ayyapan Bags’ and other ‘ladies’ items’ that can be carried back to the women in the family. In addition to the gilding of the 18 steps, which naturally disallows the quintessential ritual of breaking coconuts, Lord Ayyappa may perhaps have been somewhat amused by the conveyor belt that carries the offerings to be counted. Those devotees who take a ‘return route’ home via Kovalam to relieve the severities of the temporary celibacy would perhaps be pardoned, even by the Lord, as much as by anthropologists who have noted such interesting accretions. And in 2016, according to the Quarterly Current Affairs, the Modi government announced plans to make Sabarimala an International Pilgrim Centre (as opposed to the State government’s request to make it a National Pilgrim Centre) for which funds “would never be a problem”.
  • The invention of ‘tradition’

  • Lest this be mistaken for a cynical recounting of the countless ways in which the pilgrimage has been ‘corrupted’, let me hasten to say that my point is far simpler. Anyone who studies the social life and history of religion will recognise that practices are constantly adapted and reshaped, as collectivities themselves are changed, adapted and refashioned to suit the constraints of cash, time or even aesthetics. For this, the historians E.J. Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger coined the term “the invention of tradition”. Who amongst us does not, albeit with a twinge of guilt, agree to the ‘token’ clipping of the hair at Tirupati in lieu of the full head shave? Who does not feel an unmatched pleasure in the piped water that gently washes the feet as we turn the corner into the main courtyard of Tirupati after hours of waiting in hot and dusty halls? And who does not feel frustrated at the not-so-gentle prod of the wooden stick by the guardian who does not allow you more than a few seconds before the deity at Guruvayur? All these belong properly to the invention of ‘tradition’ leaving no practice untouched by the conveniences of mass management.
  • But perhaps the most important invention of ‘tradition’ was the absolute prohibition of women of menstruating age from worship at Sabarimala under rules 3(b) framed under the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act, 1965. Personal testimonies have shown that strict prohibition was not, in fact, always observed, but would such a legal specification have been necessary at all if everyone was abiding by that usage or custom from ‘time immemorial’? It is a “custom with some aberrations” as pointed out by Indira Jaisingh, citing the Devaswom Board’s earlier admission that women had freely entered the shrine before 1950 for the first rice feeding ceremonies of their children.
  • Elsewhere, the celibate Kumaraswami, in Sandur in Karnataka where women were strictly disallowed, has gracefully conceded space to women worshippers since 1996. “The heavens have not fallen,” Gandhi remarked in 1934 when “a small state in south India [Sandur] has opened the temple to the Harijans.” Lord Ayyappa, who has tolerated innumerable changes in the behaviour of his devotees, will surely not allow his wrath to manifest itself. He will be saddened by the hypermobilisation that surrounds the protests today, but would be far more forgiving than the men — and those women — who make, unmake and remake the rules of worship.
  • Best at home, not abroad?

    Until favourable results come away from home, India’s No. 1 Test ranking ranking may slowly become irrelevant

  • The question of whether the current Indian Test team is the best of the past 15 years, as claimed by coach Ravi Shastri, was apparently a sensitive one following the recent series against England. “We have to believe we are the best in the world, why not,” captain Virat Kohli replied to a question from a reporter. Perhaps somewhere in the back of Kohli’s mind was the thought that India’s No. 1 Test ranking, held since October 2016, has recently become a source of embarrassment.
  • The top ranking came during a bumper home season in 2016-17, during which India hosted an unprecedented four teams across 13 Tests. Since September 2016, India has won 17 Tests, including 15 in the subcontinent, and excluding the recent home Tests against West Indies. This explains why India, despite being hammered 4-1 in England and 2-1 in South Africa earlier, has not only managed to consolidate its ranking but still maintain a 10-point lead over the second-placed team in the latest ICC rankings. Playing in your comfort zone may yield plenty of wins, but it could also create a sense of false confidence. Teams are better judged by how they tour, so this No. 1 ranking may not be an accurate reflection of how superior this Indian Test team is.
  • While the players have, predictably, faced flak, factors beyond their control need to be examined as thoroughly, including the absurd team selection, and catching and batting vulnerabilities that contributed to India’s defeats. The proliferation of T20 leagues has choked up an already crowded cricket calendar, making it unrealistic for touring teams to play a handful of warm-up games ahead of a Test series in conditions alien to them. Kohli has said tour games serve little purpose unless the opposition’s bowling and conditions are of a decent standard. In South Africa and England, India was unhappy with what it was given and hence, began both series undercooked.
  • In the upcoming Australia tour there will be just one practice game ahead of the Tests. The prior T20s should never be treated as “practice,” because playing a clump of games with the white ball isn’t necessarily going to prepare batsmen for fresh challenges against the red ball.
  • Shastri’s call for additional warm-ups may not be logistically possible in the time available. High-intensity net sessions against quality bowling is the best option. Last-minute tinkering with itineraries can be avoided if the BCCI treats foreign tours with care. Working out tour schedules with the host country, with attention to warm-ups, should happen at the negotiating table in the planning phase. Importantly, this should be reciprocated. Given the clout that the BCCI enjoys dictating schedules, an opportunity has been wasted yet again.
  • Until favourable results come away from home, the No.1 ranking may slowly become irrelevant.