Forget not the least of the last
By Valson Thampu & Swami Agnivesh
Bonanzas under the 7th Pay Commission Recommendations are being distributed. The lucky ones are getting luckier, if not happier. We see them; for they have a knack to remain visible and audible. It takes no greatness, Gandhiji would say, to see them or hear their clamors.
What proves who we are is whether or not we have eyes to see those who go, otherwise, unseen. Gandhi called them God’s people, Harijan, because only God sees their misery. God is the only refuge for those who are unwanted by all else.
Maybe, it is not our blindness, but our cowardice. We lack the gumption to look at the 500-odd millions of our fellow Indians who languish in what is euphemistically called the ‘unorganized sector.’ It is not that we don’t want them to eat two square meals a day.
It is that if they do, the bounteous abundance on our banquet tables could be compromised. Will we be able to graduate from midsegment cars to their luxury variants, if the needs of these lesser mortals are hitched to India shining? Will we imperil our dreams by providing for the bottom-line needs of our work force, and opening the doors of the future to their children?
Euphemisms are like Madame Tussaud’s wax models; they are fixed forever in waxen serenity. They showcase a world sans hunger and deprivation, common cold and untold suffering. So, let’s ask, “What, for God’s sake, is this ‘unorganized sector’?”
Strange, it is made up of human beings! “Sector” could make you think otherwise. A disconcertingly large portion of our fellow citizens remains forever vulnerable to the vagaries of unemployment, exploitation, insecurity, poverty, social degradation, cultural exclusion and developmental disenfranchisement within the ambit of this sanitized expression.
This ‘sector’, by the way, is wholly man-made, though we have come to thinking of it as willed by fate. The lesser mortals who inhabit this no-man’s land are susceptible to improvement, given a ghost of chance! Should be so; for they contribute hugely to the wealth of our country, though we think of them as a national liability.
Look closer, if you don’t mind, to “Pay Commission.” How easily we forget, in the massive consultations and microscopic fine-tuning revisions of pay undergo in our country, that ‘wage’ needs to be deemed as honorable and dignified as ‘pay’ is, in a society with even rudimentary notion of justice and fair-play.
Salaries have undergone astronomical enhancements in our country. Government and private sector salaries have gone through the roof, while corporate emoluments have shot right through the sky! Wages remain, in real terms, where we left them before we began our growth story.
Wages, let us say, that the so-called ‘unskilled workers’ are paid vary wildly from 850 rupees per day in Kerala to a third of it in several other parts of the country. How any work done by anyone can be insulted as ‘unskilled’ is a question that we rarely ask. Skill is involved even in sweeping the floor and washing utensils.
Only those who have done no manual work will continue to harbor the insensitivity of belittling the ‘skill’ involved in doing any kind of work. Since Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan forced soft and delicate hands to wield brooms – with what order of skills and to what effect we know- this argument need not be pressed any further.
Truth to tell, we did hope, when the PM announced his Clean India Mission, that valuing and adequately rewarding the vast army of wage-earners in India would be its most significant spin-off. Modi, on his part, did speak knowledgeably on the nexus between hygiene and health, with particular reference to the poor.
It cannot be that the PM does not know the connection between our poverty and the systemic injustice done to those bracketed in the ‘un-organized’ sector. Surely, health and hygiene make no sense in dens of destitution. It is our fervent hope that the PM will turn his attention -which is the only way anything can happen in India- to bringing a modicum of justice to the long-neglected and much-wronged ‘unorganized sector’.
Our main hope in this regard is the political acumen of the PM. He knows how grateful the poor are; or, for that matter, that only the poor are grateful. We, therefore, await the PM to take bold steps in the following direction.
Evolve a national and rational minimum wage policy. What is ‘rational’ involves standardization of sorts. The counterpart to those maligned as ‘unskilled’ labor in the unorganized sector is, say, the peons/attenders in the organized sector. In the wake of the 7th Pay Commission, they will carry home monthly salaries in excess of 25,000 rupees per month, besides a slew of perks and benefits that include pension and medical reimbursement lifelong.
We insult ourselves if we recompense the back-breaking, day-long work done by our fellow citizens below this level. Such a policy needs to be given effect urgently as it has a bearing on the education and health of millions of our children who will, otherwise, be blighted by malnutrition and illiteracy. The correlation between the sub-human conditions under which workers in the unorganized sector live and the high school drop-out rates of their children is too well-known to need any argument.
We make this appeal not only to the government but also to our fellow citizens. Rather than relish the fleeting euphoria of hikes in incomes, it behooves us to embrace a voluntary salary freeze for a period, until minimum justice is done to those who toil and sweat to make the wheels of development move in this land.
As the Father of the Nation said with a larger frame of reference, we have enough to meet everyone’s need, but not enough to quench anyone’s greed.