State in turmoil – where does it stand?

Bhaskar Majumder

If one asks me, ‘Do you understand the state?’, I say, ‘Yes’. If one asks me, ‘Do you understand the state?’, I say, ‘No’. It seems my readers are partially confused. Let me explain to the best of my capacity in a brain-locked condition for past 50+days – state-sponsored. The state did not lock my brain – it got a positive correlation with being home-locked, the latter state-sponsored. Rather than talking on the circumference, let me come to the centre – I understand the state for I am an integral part of it. I do not understand the state for my torch fails to focus on changing position of the state. It was not exactly like Arjun in the Great Epic Mahabharata targeting the fish revolving above looking not at the fish but looking at the mirror image of the fish on water below.

Let there be no imagination that I located me on the pedestal where Arjun stood. It was at the maximum to say that understanding an abstraction that the state is is more difficult than the fish that Arjun could pierce in its eye. The fish was fixed by king Dhrupad or his men while the state is un-fixed that revolves around multiple ideas and the interesting part is it creates often its own inconsistency. Yes, inconsistency to get people involved in false debates like “state failed’’ or “state retreated’’ and all that. All these debates strengthened the state for it perceived its failure or success in advance on time axis.     

It is post-Corona 2019/2020 season – among many confused about the tenure of lockdown and all that, the state also decided to remain confused. The Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) March 29, 2020 issued an Order under section 10(2)(I) of Disaster Management Act 2005 that said: ‘All employers, be it in the industry or in shops and commercial establishments, shall make payment of wages of their workers, at their workplaces, on the due date, without any deduction, for the period their establishments are under closure during the lockdown.’ The Order backed by the Disaster Management Act, meant it was mandatory and violation would invite punitive action. The same Government withdrew the Order to firms to pay full wages when they were not in operation during the nationwide lockdown, which began on March 25, 2020. The government's U-turn strengthened the companies that revealed inability to pay wages to their employees. While issuing guidelines for  Lockdown 4, the Secretary of the MHA said, "Whereas, save as otherwise provided in the guidelines annexed to this order, all orders issued by National Executive Committee (NEC) under Section 10(2)(1) of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, shall cease to have effect from 18.05.2020." 

Interestingly, the Supreme Court on May 15 asked the Government of India not to take any punitive action against companies which were unable to pay full wages to their employees during the nationwide lockdown for these companies might be unable to pay. The SC issued notice on a plea by the Hand Tools Manufactures Association, comprising of MSMEs seeking quashing of the order of the MHA asking private companies to pay full wages to their workers for “no work’’.  It added that if the government does not help these companies, then they will not be able to pay wages. The SC wisdom was warranted for what the MHA thought a pre-emptive action through its first Order dated March 29, 2020 was really pre-mature that opened the path for capital to reach the door of the SC keeping the trade unions in the dark.  

The Apex Court observed that the Order of the MHA dated March 29, directing companies to pay full wages to workers was an omnibus order; it wisdomopined (opined wisdom-based) that there was a larger question involved that needed to be answered.  The larger question is yet to arrive to the public sphere. However, is there any question bigger than hunger for the workers? Perhaps no, if my work-experience with them proves right for every time they responded “roti-roji’’.

As argued by the companies, they were on the verge of shut down following lockdown; in parallel, Order of MHA aimed at persecuting them. The company representatives pleaded that the government must hold the hands of these companies and not handcuff them. The Association of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) said in its plea that the MHA had passed the Order without caring for the financial implications of the company. The small industrial units warned that full wage payments would lead to their shut down which, in turn, would lead to permanent unemployment. The Association further opined that such a blanket Order for payment of full wages was “arbitrary, unconstitutional and unsustainable”.

So capital was heard – one C. The Centre heard it – another C. CC – where were the workers on this Indian Drama? Workers were wretched – for it was W, and not C. At this point some may be inclined to opine that the state is a puppet of capital – the answer is not so linear. The state likes to control capital just as it controls labour. De facto, capital controls labour, so labour is controlled twice – once, by capital; twice, by the state. If labour is controlled by capital, then capital can be provided better privilege in the guise of state-control – it is “keep labourers under pressure’’. In case of migrant labourers, the task is very easy for they are not even voters in the political system and delinked from trade unions.

When it is state question post-1648, the canvas cannot be narrow for at least the dignity of the state. The age of the state is more than three centuries and a half – it learnt a lot and taught a lot like grandfather “pre-Sharosajja’’ Bhishma in the Great Epic Mahabharata. The throne has to be kept intact – but what if it goes against natural justice? While sufferings of Walking Bharat have been showing it for days more than 18, the right to life of common people has remained unquestioned or unanswered what the Apex Court rightly said, “larger questions’’. These larger questions revolve around the pathetic pauperization of the poor in India’s civilization. The poor survive in the locality not for the state but independent of the state – they survive because of the nature over centuries based on their customary rights what the modern state opposes, the latter based on Roman law or the theory of Eminent Domain. What I observed in unnumbered villages in many states in India was social-support or neighbour-support that keeps people alive. They migrate mostly when they feel forced – survival instinct. Corona 2019/2020 taught them a lesson – for some it was fatal not to learn for they breathed their last on road or railway track.

The state was stable till first 40 days post-Corona – it discovered Unity of India in being home-locked and discovered benevolence of entertainers in film industry and contributions of some corporate. It discovered turmoil for the death of the migrant workers on road post-40+ days. Otherwise, common people in India do not need ventilators-ICU beds-masks and all that – they lived and died rural. They were caste-distanced and now they will be a little bit social-distanced, the borderline between caste and society will be thin. That living was/is in faith-tradition-custom, that living was/is in belief of re-birth that has to be pure. People in India live in many centuries – the bottom majority live in Ramayanic era. They do not antagonize anybody – they are in non-comparative non-competitive mode. Once migration re-starts, say, after three years that is after the NSS-type recall period, the state will come out from the turmoil it has been swallowing at present. The state will rediscover itself; pending that the state will continue to take multiple U-turns.

Apology: I have full faith on the state, including the Judiciary.

Bhaskar Majumder, Professor of Economics, G. B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad - 211019

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May 22, 2020

Prof. Bhaskar Majumder

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