Guest Post: Is COVID-Lockdown Really Sabotaging Employment in India?

Covid and Employment
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When our government has convinced us and the world that we are in the “endgame” of the pandemic, the more precarious version of the contagion, constantly knocking on the doors, banged and created a catastrophe, which affected nearly every one of us. We all might not be in the same boat but we were in the same hurricane. Apart from the scantiness of oxygen, hospital beds, medicines, ventilators, and vaccines, we Indians are also continuously facing the dearth of necessity, from the first wave itself, that is known as the livelihood. Supreme Court and High Courts, raised their brows on the insufficiency of all the covid – related necessities. However, they didn’t show concern towards the breach of right to livelihood. It is an intrinsic and germane part of enforceable fundamental rights as well as unenforceable Directive Principles of State Policy [“DPSP”]. The issue of lack of livelihood or unemployment hasn’t surfaced today, at the time of covid, but has been present for years. However, due attention must be given to the loss of livelihood that has spiked in the pandemic. To add on, there is an inevitable third wave waiting round the corner.

Transgression of Fundamental Rights 

Even though the right to employment has not been recognised under Article 21 of the Constitution,  the Right to Livelihood has been heartily recognised as a part of Article 21. Life, under Article 21, doesn’t mean only an act of inhaling and exhaling (S.G. Subramanian, Indian Constitution and Indian Polity) but living with a stature. Nutrition, clothing and shelter over the head are the minimum requirements of a person. Thus, a person cannot live without means of livelihood i.e., work. Income is the bedrock on which a number of fundamental rights stand and when income comes only through the path of work,  right to work becomes even more sacrosanct.

Apart from Article 21, this blatant overlooking of unemployment also violates Article 19 of the Constitution as both the Articles are not mutually exclusive but are declared inter-linked. Additionally, the right to livelihood is well inducted under Article 19 by the Apex court. Article 19(1)(g) guarantees the right to practice any profession or carry any occupation, with reasonable restrictions. Profession per se is an occupation carried on by a person by the virtue of his qualification, skills, or training in which he is involved to earn his livelihood. Albeit, there are some reasonable restrictions which are imposed in the time of covid in the interest of the general public, which includes public health, under Article 19(6) but the restrictions must be from the standpoint of interest of the general public. Due to the sudden as well as undiscussed lockdown imposed upon the country, poverty was doubled in the country in 2020 and, there is no anticipation of positive news from the numbers of 2021.

There is a big NO upon the question, is only the covid lockdown responsible for the unemployment? The recent data shows that the manufacturing sector is bleeding jobs instead of creating them from the year 2016 itself. In addition to this, 70% of the manufacturing jobs come from the informal sector whose employees were on the roads at the time of the first wave. Due to demonetization and GST, unemployment was already increasing at a sharp rate, then came the lockdown which hit a major blow on the manufacturing sector. Today, although there is a growth of employment in the agricultural sector, this cannot be counted as employment but is a semblance of disguised unemployment. However, instead of increasing investment in the manufacturing sector, the government is shedding its hands in the cloak of being busy in covid related issues. In the enforcement of upholding citizens’ right to health, they can’t neglect all the other rights enunciated under Articles 21 and 19.

Disregard of Directive Principles of State Policy

The DPSPs are unenforceable instruments of instructions for the government (state) in the Constitution. They are the basic standards of national conscience and the social and economic order which the Constitution pursues to achieve. Even though the court can not issue any order or writ of mandamus for the enforcement of the DPSPs, these are elemental in India’s coast – to – coast development and must not be ignored by any wing of the government. Article 38 read with Article 39 and Article 41 casts a duty upon the government, to ensure adequate means of livelihood in one form or another. Being a welfare state, India owes an obligation to its government to act for the welfare of its people. Additionally, Article 43 asks the government to provide a living wage to all the workers or otherwise. A ‘living wage’ does not simply suffice the bare minimum of living. It includes means for the education of children (which is also a Fundamental Right under Article 21A), health security and requirements of essential social needs. Moreover, it also provides assurance in the most difficult days adding the dotage.

Prior to the time of the pandemic, there were 35 million naked unemployed, and the number of new job seekers increases by around 10 million every year, which could culminate in an increase in the unemployed to the number of nearly 40 million in the year 2021. India, being the youngest country in the world with a median age of 28.4 years, enters into the period of demographic dividend but there would be loss of talent if the scenario remains the same. Today, almost 66% of the job-seekers want a job in the government sector, but the government, in the Union Budget 2021-22, has given the slogan of “minimum government – maximum governance” which would only cut the jobs in the government sector. There are high vacancies in almost all the government sectors, but the government is not even exceeding the selection process and hiding its failure in the charade of lockdown. When Judiciary can function through video conferencing, the jobs whose recruitments are at the stage of interview can also be conducted via video conferencing. Today, the youth are so hopeless that India’s labour force participation rate has come down to 40%. This means, only 40% of the working-age group is actually searching for jobs. The result of this sheer ignorance was seen when Bangladesh has outmarched India in the matter of per capita income, which was half of that of India a decade ago. The government must not be ignorant towards its duty, whose violation does not cast an overt sanction upon it. It must not wait for the court’s admonition to perform its duties. They must not brush aside it as the directive principles are the accessory that acts as a short in the arm of fundamental rights.

Conclusion

Fundamental rights and DPSP together form the conscience of the Indian Constitution. The right to life i.e., livelihood is so inviolable that it could not be abandoned even at the time of emergency, but today it is completely ignored in the guise of covid lockdown. Notwithstanding, the Apex Court has reiterated in express terms that the right to life cannot be abrogated at the time of lockdown. In the covid phase, employment becomes much more crucial as many people have lost the sole bread – earner of their family and are in a deep hardship. Providing them a relief package would not be beneficial in the long run. It is not only the accountability of the central government but also the state governments whose recruitment processes are pending for years.

This massive unemployment outcome in the form of brain drains and those who are not well-off are bound to commit suicide under societal pressure. India is in dire need to take some strong as well as effective steps to shun this nightmare which is deep rot in the present time. This predicament is a time bomb that is not ticking but exploding. There is an exigency to look into its policies which are the root to the establishment of maximum companies, that have been shifted from China, in countries like Vietnam and other south-east countries but not in India. It must reassess its old age labour-intensive manufacturing ecosystem and infuse more capital.

The proliferation in capital would increase the business which would require more brains. This ensures creation of more employment. India must check that the blatant violation of the rights which are being performed in the veil of covid lockdown must not be carried even after this deadly pandemic.

This is a guest post by Utkarsh Shubham. He is a third year law student at Faculty of Law, University of Allahabad. You may contact him here.

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