A case of misplaced notions: Worker welfare and economic growth need a changed discourse in India

Economic Times, June 17, 2021

By Pradeep S. Mehta, Sarthak Shukla and Prashant Tak

As the nation emerges from the second wave of Covid pandemic, it faces the uncertainty of encountering a third wave or newer mutants, such as Delta+, in making. The Prime Minister coined another mantra of “One Earth, One Health” at the recently held outreach session of the G-7 summit. He rightly emphasised on the “whole of society” approach to tackle the pandemic. In our view the whole of society would include antyodaya, i.e. starting from the lowest rung.

If the grim realities of lives of people are any indicator, the approach of handling this crisis so far has been arbitrary at best and ignorant at worst. This is not a reflection on the governments only, but a dangerous pattern running across the society.

One of the egregious examples where we as a society have failed was the migrant workers crises, citizens at the end of line. The fact is that it took us a pandemic to understand the pathetic and precarious conditions in which a large section of our workers live. It is a glaring example of the need to adopt a “whole of society” approach to make the lives of our worker-citizens better.

Unfortunately, many of us are wrongly celebrating the fact that many of the workers are returning to the same jobs. According to Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, out of the 403.5 million jobs which were lost since the first lockdown, almost 390 million jobs have been revived. However, at the same time, immiserisation has shot up. Almost 97% of all Indians are estimated to be worse off now than before the pandemic.

This raises some crucial questions. What is the purpose of economic growth which is disproportionately serving only a small percentage of well-off constituents while keeping vulnerable sections at the same or even worse levels and worsening inequality? Is having any job, in spite of its precarity, the right metric of gauging the employment scenario? Since when does enterprise growth become the first step towards worker welfare, especially in a country where growth is consumption driven?

There is a need to address these questions in entirety and change the dominant paradigms and goalposts about them. For instance, the objective of economic growth itself seems to be defined as the growth of revenues of sectors, profits of businesses and well-being of enterprises only. Worker welfare is seen as an obligatory consequence and a secondary priority of doing business.

This stems from a flawed conceptualisation of productivity and growth. In a world of limited resources, the principles of equity and justice are likely to remain far-fetched aspirations as long as limits to growth are not defined. In order to do that, the objective of growth should be focused towards ensuring a dignified life to the last person in the line.

However, the jargon of “sustainable development” or “inclusive growth” and now even “just transition” are a testimony of how such idealistic objectives remain a mere rhetoric at best.

Therefore, changed goalposts require a changed mindset to compliment it. This implies that merely having a theory that talks about inclusive growth or resilient economy or human-centricity of efforts is poised to become a catch-phrase devoid of any credible plan of action. And lack of this credibility is what strengthens the perspectives of “pragmatic” stakeholders who advocate for having any incremental progress even if it comes at the cost of compromising the accepted norms.

Therefore, the notions of any job is better than no job, might seem like a beneficial proposition, but there are serious concerns with such an approach. Although this might seem to be a right step at a given time of distress, this is a myopic vision. It puts into motion a vicious cycle where first a job is created, which is highly likely to be of a precarious nature, and then concerted efforts to enhance its quality are adopted as band aid solutions. A better approach would be to address the mindset issues which make the job so created, a bad one in the first place.

Enterprise welfare is construed as the main representative of economic welfare, and hence, the policies and schemes for economic growth are targeted at solving the challenges of and providing opportunities to businesses. This has resulted in a minimalistic equilibrium of affairs where achievement and maintenance of minimal legal or regulatory benchmarks of rights and responsibilities of workers and enterprises is the sole objective of the state.

In such a setting, power dynamics play a significant role. This minimalist equilibrium thrives on the Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest, where the well-off, scaled-up enterprises with deep pockets exemplify the story of growth. At the same time, the small-scale enterprises either work on the mercy of markets provided by such large players or they die owing to cut throat competition and what not.

In all this, worker welfare is seen an afterthought of what happens with the enterprises. Instead, the endeavour should be to create a situation where worker welfare co-exists and drives enterprise growth and not necessarily remain its outcome. Because, as long as it remains an outcome, it will be treated as a charity case at best and a liability at worst.

Thus, the agenda of economic growth going forward needs to acknowledge at first, that it is not an economic agenda. Worker welfare is not a charity, neither a business case nor a checklist for the government to tick off. It is a collective responsibility which should translate to a shared vision of the ‘whole of society’ to do away with their selfish mindsets.

Thus, the means of growth and development should lay down the plan of action to enhance the conditions of healthcare, skill development and education ecosystem, particularly for the young entrants and marginal sections of the workforce. A resilient, inclusive and sustainable economy will be dependent on the performance of nations on these pillars of societal welfare.

The authors work for CUTS International, a global public policy think tank.

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