Saturday, May 30, 2020

Indian Migrant crisis – an avertable failure of business, government and society ?

The world has been fascinated by stories of migrant workers caught in the unforeseen COVID-lockdown in India. After Indian government announced a drastic country-wide lockdown on 24th March, stories of the plight of migrant workers began making the rounds.

Netizens around the globe were captivated by the plight of workers through pictures – thousand s of migrants marching on desolated highways with a few personal belongings and toddlers in tow. Indians were appalled when foreigners like Ivanka Trump tweeted pictures of the crisis - the picture of a migrant girl cycling thousands of kilometers with an ailing father.

We were also shocked but helpless to read about dozens of tired migrants being mowed down by a speeding train. (link) The plight of migrant workers was front-and-center during the initial phases of lockdown in India.

Failure of business, government and society

There is a lot of hand wringing and finger pointing about this crisis from politicians of different stripes and government officials. Much of it is attributed to the failure of government and bureaucracy; some of it justified. This was after all an unintended consequence of lockdown intended to save scores of Indians from the impending pandemic. What went unsaid was the role of business leaders and commercial enterprises in contributing to this fiasco.

 © Danish Siddiqui | Credit: REUTERS

The other day, I was zooming with a friend who owns a mid-sized steel rolling mill near Jaipur in Rajasthan. He was lamenting over the plans for reopening his plant that was challenging since most of his workers – migrants from Bihar – had returned back ‘home’ and were reluctant to come back to work.

When I casually asked why he couldn’t hold them back during the lockdown, he admitted that he had stopped paying them after the plant shut in March. Afterall he had a business to run and couldn’t pay workers when he wasn’t generating revenue. What went unsaid was the fact that his business generated tremendous profit margins during normal times, that was sufficient for him to tide over this crisis easily.

Businesses have been unwilling or unable to pay workers during the extended lockdown. This is a story that has been amplified across urban India millions of times, aggregating to a humanitarian crisis.

Commerce: at the intersection of Business and good Governance

This crisis has also exposed the dark underbelly of the Indian growth story – shiny new gated apartment complexes, malls, flyovers and Metros are being built by legions of faceless migrant workers – many from improvised states of Bihar, UP and North East who migrated to urban metropolis en masse.

These undocumented daily wage earners hired and managed by subcontractors and agents live in shanties hoping to save enough and eventually return back home. The construction companies, builders and factories pay these middlemen a tidy sum to source and manage these workers from other parts of the country.

The builders and industrialists also lobby governments to ensure a laissez faire hire-and-fire policy and scant social security for migrant workers. Creative hiring under layers of sub-contractors ensures diluted worker benefits and protections.

During past few months when images of mass migrations began surfacing, there were large debates on the ineptitude of the government and the lack of preparedness in addressing this humanitarian crisis. There was a grain of truth to this as the government machinery was totally unprepared. To be fair, the Prime Minister, while announcing the lockdown had urged businesses not to withhold worker wages. Such an appeal by the government leader didn’t come with a teeth of enforcement. Needless to say, the appeal was totally disregarded by business leaders – including my friend – who were focused on self-preservation. Such is the nature of commercial enterprise. 

Commerce beyond lockdown

Large hearted philanthropists from across the country have been announcing donations to help PMCARES and other charities. The Digirati and media has been tracking and applauding the donations, conveniently forgetting the root cause of this crisis. 

Forget donating to PMCARES and other crisis funds, one wonders if things would have turned out different if business enterprises had just paid their workers and assured them of normalcy during surreal times? Things may have been different as we look at the world beyond lockdown; businesses leaders – like my friend – wouldn’t be out struggling for workers to restart their operations.  

As we look at the green shoots of economic activity looking past the crisis, it may also be worth reflecting on the role of benevolent business practices. Pillars of commerce are dispassionately focused on numbers – topline and bottomline, profit and loss – but businesses are also run by humans. Perhaps business leaders should be taking a page out of noted industrialist Ratan Tata’s playbook. At the end of his entrepreneurial life, The Economist obituary (link) quoted the essence of Tata’s management philosophy "I want to be able to go to bed at night and say that I haven't hurt anybody."

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