TIMES OF ASSAM
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COVID-19 epidemic and Assam’s Migrant Labourers

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The outbreak of the dreaded COVID-19 infection worldwide has afflicted millions of people across the globe, cutting across rich and poor, old and young, powerful as well as the underprivileged. India too has been seriously affected by this epidemic and the Government was quick to declare a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the infection. The lockdown has however brought in its wake serious economic challenges that have hit the poor the hardest. Almost immediately after the lockdown was announced, hoards of migrant labourers in several states hit the road to go back to their homes.

Since buses, trains, planes and other means of transport were grounded, many had no option but to try and walk hundreds of kilometers from their cities of work to their home-towns and villages. Media was replete with heart-rending images of migrant labourers gathering in huge crowds at inter-state borders, hoping for state authorities to make some arrangements to take them home. Some did manage to reach home although the majority of them were sent to camps where arrangements for their stay and food were made.

Assam too is a state which has over the last decade or so, seen a large number of youth migrating to other states in search of jobs. This has probably happened due to the state having remained predominantly agriculture-based. There has not been any significant increase in industrialization in spite of the Government’s various incentives like tax-exemptions and tax-holidays extended to new industries being set up in the North-East. The service sector too, despite having grown over the years, does not contribute significantly in terms of offering gainful employment to the local youth. Agricultural holdings are small and the productivity in the agricultural and allied sectors is not large enough to absorb the ever-growing members of unemployed youth in the state. The lack of employment opportunities in Assam has therefore led to a major migration of young boys and girls to other parts of the country. The paradox, however, is that there is also a reverse migration of labour taking place into Assam from other regions to fill in the local demand for jobs such as construction workers, plumbers, electricians, and so on. This shows that the skills of the local manpower can be upgraded in these professions so that they can meet the demands for such jobs.

But what do the above issues of migration of labour have to do with the COVID-19 epidemic in Assam? The epidemic has triggered a reverse migration of labour from Assam back to the safety and comfort of their homes. Many of them are stranded in their cities of work. There are also disturbing reports of inhabitants of the North-East being racially discriminated against in other states. Once the epidemic subsides, the fear of the contagion is likely to linger on in the minds of the workers and they may not choose to go back. This will create more pressure on the state’s economy which is likely to worsen in the post-epidemic scenario. It is therefore imperative that the state authorities put in place a robust employment scheme for the migrant workers and for the unemployed youth.

The starting point in drawing out such a plan is to have an idea about the exact number of such people who have migrated out of the state for jobs, how many have returned and do not wish to go back, their educational qualifications, the skills they may possess, whether they require any skill up-gradation to make them employable and the like. The state’s Labour Department’s website does not reveal any such information. Having an authentic database is an absolute necessity for any agency to prepare a roadmap to address the issue. Technology has to be leveraged to collect and analyze such data.

The websites for Assam Skill Development Mission (ASDM) and the state Labour Department must be user-friendly and preferably in English, Assamese and other vernacular, giving all information required by people seeking jobs, skill up-gradation, etc. While their goal is to help under-skilled citizens, the ASDM website mainly aims at the skilled and educated subset of unemployed people. The target audience of the various training and employment schemes should also include the illiterate or semi-literate population.

Graphical presentations like short videos and slideshows will be easier to understand. It should be coherent with what one sees on posters and advertisements without having to jump through various menus and buttons. For the illiterate or visually impaired, the ‘screen reader’ option is a useful way to have the text read out loud. The user interface should be understandable and navigable by the labour-community. The websites can be further enhanced to be an interactive platform with a buyer-seller concept. The portal could act as an effective platform for job-seekers and potential employers.

There is a lot of scopes for improvement to get relevant information to the right section of the population. Since mobile phones are ubiquitous nowadays, a simple mobile app could be developed wherein anyone seeking employment in Assam registers and answers some basic questions. This should be in local vernacular with security features such as generating OTPs. Every Indian citizen today owns an Aadhar card or voter ID card which could be made an essential requirement for filling in the information. Every time one moves out of Assam to take up a job elsewhere, he or she should be given the option to update their information regarding the place, address, and nature of employment. Such information could prove vital for the state authorities in reaching out to its citizens in times of crisis such as this pandemic. Arranging logistics like travel and shelter, providing security in case of social discrimination and communal disturbance, etc. can be done in a better way. This data can be used to fine-tune the training requirements and be linked to the specific Industrial Training Institutes for skill development. The concerned state government authorities can use the present COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to put in place a proper rehabilitation and employment package for the lakhs of its job-seeking youth

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COVID-19 epidemic and Assam’s Migrant Labourers

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