Earlier, 27 laborers died in a fire that broke out in a four-storey building in Delhi’s Mundka area. Then a worker died in the fire of the factory in New Mustafabad. These deaths have drawn the nation’s attention to the criminal complicity and negligence in running the factory and business activities without fire safety NOC and fire prevention measures in the capital. It has put the lives of hundreds of innocent workers at risk. It is clear from these tragedies that the state government and municipal corporations as well as other responsible agencies have not learned any lesson from the Anaj Mandi fire that took place three years ago, in which 40 laborers died in similar circumstances.
Deaths become routine news
On the other hand, 13 workers, including four women and three children, were killed when a wall collapsed in a salt factory in Morbi, Gujarat. Last week, two sweepers died of suffocation in Noida Phase-2 without safety gear to clean the sewer. According to the Safai Karamcharis Andolan, some 60 sanitation workers have lost their lives due to suffocation in the sewer or septic tank since Independence Day last year. Ironically, deaths due to suffocation in sewers and septic tanks have become routine news in the newspapers, which does not even break a leaf. According to government reports themselves, 300 sewer workers have died while cleaning sewers or septic tanks in the country in the last five years.
But Mundka, Mustafabad or Morbi is also the dark corner of the glare of the booming economy of the post-liberalisation-privatization era in which the common workers have been made ‘invisible’. There is no value of their lives here, nor any dignity of their labour. They have to work and live in conditions worse than that of animals. Not surprisingly, out of the 27 workers killed in the Mundka fire, 21 are women workers who were forced to work in suffocating conditions at much lower wages and worse service conditions than a daily wage worker with long hours of work.
Such workers and their working conditions are known in social science terminology as the phenomenon of ‘precarious labour’. It refers to such workers whose job is neither secure, nor salary nor life. These are the laborers who are working in the informal or unorganized sector to earn their livelihood in some way, but they have no future in that work. There is no dignity for his work. They are outside the purview of labor laws, the social security provisions for them are only on paper and the governments don’t care about them. How dangerous are the places and conditions of their work, it can be gauged from accidents like Mundka.
The truth is that most of the cities and industrial areas of the country, including the capital Delhi and the entire NCR region, have become hundreds of thousands of mundakas, which are usually invisible until a major accident occurs. Otherwise, in these ‘Mundkas’, one or two laborers keep dying, which no one notices because they have been taken as ‘normal’.
In a sense, the thriving business in areas like Mundka and Anaj Mandi, which is called the informal sector of the economy, is, in effect, the ‘underworld’ of the neo-liberal economy that is not only thriving just beneath the glowing Indian economy, Rather, it also has a big role in giving fast pace to the economy. Its contribution to GDP is about 50 percent. According to an IMF estimate released last year, the contribution of the informal sector to the country’s GDP was 53.9 percent in the year 2011-12, which remained marginally lower at 52.4 percent in the year 2017-18. About 90 percent of the total labor force of the country is employed in the unorganized or informal sector.
On the other hand, among the claims of formalization of the Indian economy, the truth is that formalization of labor force i.e. minimum wages announced by the government, fixed working hours, benefits of leave and social security provisions, etc., are still far-fetched. On the contrary, in the last few years, even in the formal and organized sector of the economy, workers are being forced to work in informal structures through ‘outsourcing’ where everything from ‘job’ to life is insecure.
That’s why Mundka is no exception. In the services sector other than trade and manufacturing, especially e-commerce and app-based services in the new digital economy, take those delivery agents or partners whose nature of work falls entirely in the category of ‘preacherous jobs’. Where nothing is certain, from pay, service conditions, working hours, weekly off and social security to safety at work. Take sewers and sweepers whose jobs were as unsafe as they were before, continue to be equally unsafe in the world’s fastest growing economy.
Despite this, it is difficult to say that the Mundka fire or the daily deaths in sewerage will draw the country’s attention to the compulsion of lakhs of workers in the unorganized/informal sector working in difficult, uncertain and dangerous conditions. It is indeed a matter of regret and concern that the rapidly growing Indian economy in these three decades of liberalization has failed even to provide safe and dignified employment to its crores of workers. But an economy that creates and sustains ‘precarious jobs’ cannot prevent itself from becoming an insecure or ‘precarious economy’ in the long run. Remember, the quality of any large and developed economy is determined by the quality of employment it generates.
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are those of the author.