In May 2020, the Union government announced that it would expedite the implementation of the “one nation, one ration card” scheme to allow citizens to get subsidised food from the public distribution system no matter where in the country they found themselves. But the roll-out across states to enable this portability of benefits has been uneven. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court was prompted to direct all states and Union Territories to implement the scheme by July 31.

The Supreme Court intervention is a most welcome step.

However it is difficult to ignore the fact that last year’s announcement about implementing the one nation, one ration card scheme had come as a damage-control measure after media reports about the plight of the migrant workers who found themselves stranded in India’s cities. They had been left without money for food or rent when their work dried up following the hasty announcement on March 24, 2020, of lockdown to prevent against the spread of the coronavirus.

Responding to a petition seeking relief for the migrant workers, Chief Justice of India SA Bobde had inquired, “If they are being provided meals, then why do they need money for meals?”

Reviewing the judicial response to petitions seeking assistance for the migrants, commentators had observed that the Supreme Court’s approach at the time had helped reframe the migrant question as an issue to be addressed not by the state but by the charitable efforts of private citizens.

That in May 2020, pitted against the combined weight of public discourse at the highest levels of state, judiciary and policy, India’s migrant workers did not qualify as civil, political or social equals, forced the realisation that the precarity of India’s migrant workforce was no mere coincidence.

In March 2021, for a second time in a year, India witnessed the spectre of a new migrant exodus as workers were forced to flee our cities on account of loss of work and all sustenance in the face of a renewed wave of Covid-19.

In Delhi, little came of the the chief minister’s appeal to workers not to leave the city nor the efforts of the special branch of Delhi Police to “counsel” migrant workers and send them back to their homes or shelters if found roaming around without authorisation.

Such cosmetic efforts at amelioration bear out the utter absence of course correction since the exodus of 2020. Rather, returning post-lockdown, workers had in fact reported a worsening of their working conditions. The second exodus is stark proof that the new Labour Codes, hurriedly passed in September 2020, hold out not even palliative hopes to millions of Indian workers in informal employment.

How do we recall, except with the most painful irony, the frequent refrain through the migrant exodus of 2020 that the Covid-19 pandemic had exposed the so-called invisibility of migrant labour to Indian planners and policy-makers?

The precarity of Indian labour has been underscored for nearly a decade now, as studies to classify economies according to the degree and intensity of their employment of informal labour have shown the country to be at the top of the global table. The very large proportion of the workforce in vulnerable employment – nearly nearly 90% – make for a distinctively Indian pattern of development, notes economist Barbara Harris-White.

India’s lockdown of 2020 elicited much criticism – and rightly so. Yet, it is amply clear the migrant exodus was not caused by the lockdown alone, nor is the migrant worker crisis entirely the outcome of the insensitivity of the current regime. Even as exodus 2.0 unfolds, the key question is this: how do we have a discussion about the deeper logic embedded in policy discourse that extends beyond ideological differences espoused by particular governments and specific policy regimes?

The challenge is to find historically-sensitive ways to map continuities in labour policy since 1947 against the story of political mobilisation and marginalisation in contemporary India.

There are many reasons why this is important. Several social science disciplines have contributed significantly to debates on planning, economic development and the making of state-society relations. Yet for India and elsewhere, economic policy analysis remains largely governed by perspectives and methods tied to development economics.

This somewhat exclusive alliance with the field of development economics has had important implications both for inputs available for policy formulation and towards its analysis.

Such restrictive frameworks have only been narrowed further as, even within development economics, an engagement with the changing agendas of Indian labour policy has largely come through the sub-field of labour economics.

Such division of intellectual labour into neat niches makes for several disabling consequences. Chiefly, it has allowed other domain specialists doing theory, trade, finance, agriculture, health or environment a free hand to go about their analyses with less than a passing reference to the massive evidence on the actual terms of work and employment through which production and growth are indexed.

Skewed situation

This state of affairs adds up to a peculiarly skewed situation. It makes for a mismatch between widely pervasive social phenomena (such as the overwhelming dependence of the Indian economy on informal employment) and the ways in which these realities get captured through our knowledge forms, and prioritised/ addressed through our policy frameworks.

The resulting terrain of understanding can only inhibit efforts to forefront historical continuities between policy formulation and emerging patterns of marginalisation and exclusion. For all these reasons then, to engage meaningfully and concretely with the enduring consequences of and continuities in policy contexts and agendas, is also to simultaneously argue for a reorientation of social policy from its exclusive commitment to the terrain of development economics.

To get a handle on the present state of labour policy in India, a first move is to revisit its foundations through its formative years.

State-led capitalism in the post-Independence decades had the active backing of industry. In January 1944, a prototype of the planning exercise to be initiated by the postcolonial state called the Bombay Plan was authored by six of the foremost major business houses of the time.

Its proposed vision was centrally premised around the role of “enterprises owned wholly or partially by the state, public utilities, basic industries, monopolies, industries using or producing scarce natural resources and industries receiving State aid [and] normally be subject to State control”. Propelled by this partnership, the Nehruvian imaginary of social change through economic planning had envisioned industrialisation as the primary path to lead the nation out of poverty and its low agricultural productivity.

Labour and education were seen as key adjuncts to the goals of achieving increases in industrial output, national income and per capita income; these sectors would lead the social transformation that economic growth would bring through planning.

Through this phase, social and industrial transformation was premised on approaches to labour based on principles of tripartism. Also the cornerstone of the model advanced by the International Labour Organisation, tripartism was the approach to labour policy evolved through dialogue and cooperation between governments, employers and workers.

Within such a tripartist framework, only organised workers and employers were represented. As a consequence, participation in industrial and social reform was confined to the most representative organisations of employers and employees.

Through the 1940s, the final years of colonial rule in India saw major efforts to institute this state-led tripartite model as a useful mechanism to secure industrial production during World War II. Particularly in our context it was already clear through this early phase that workers in organised industrial establishments constituted only a very small minority.

Institutionalisation of tripartism

Even so, given the transformative opportunities for dignified employment, as Labour Member in the Viceroy’s Council, BR Ambedkar was greatly invested in the inherent possibilities opened up through foundational structures institutionalised through India’s participation in the International Labour Organisation. He played a pivotal role in the founding of the Indian Labour Conference in 1942 and other tripartite channels floated by the Ministry of Labour.

Equally, however, he was deeply aware that these steps excluded agricultural, cottage industry workers, a majority of whom were Dalits and women and not sufficiently organised section of workers to secure a direct representation in the Indian Labour Conference.

As a structuring filter, tripartism served as an inbuilt safeguard for the state to engage with only the kinds of labour and employers relevant for the wartime economy. In important choices, these tripartite mechanisms were leveraged after 1947 to privilege the workforce in the organised sector as an industrial vanguard.

Simultaneously, tripartism successfully placed crucial emphasis on the role of the state within the industrial relations machinery and for regulation of conditions of employment. In recognising and strengthening selected segments of the workforce for administrative and legislative intervention by the state, tripartism also served as a check on the spread of labour radicalism in organised industry.

Retrospectively, we can see that the institutionalisation of tripartism provided the post-colonial state with important structural possibilities.

Furthermore, tripartism was in conceptual continuity with the basic tenets of the model proposed by Carribean economist and Nobel Laureate Arthur Lewis that proved foundational to development economics. As less developed economies sought to advance from agrarian colonialism to modern industrial growth, this model envisaged the interaction between the traditional subsistence sector and the modern capitalist sectors.

As the capitalist sector expanded, the model saw it drawing unlimited labour from the surplus reservoir in the non-capitalist sector at the existing wage rate. Here, employment in the capitalist sector was constrained only by demand, not labour supply.

As these tenets rapidly acquired prescriptive force, the modelling of production relations in India’s postcolonial economy on the Lewisian perspective fundamentally reinforced the rationality of the dualism in the labour market that tripartism had legitimised.

Flagging the conceptual links between tripartism, development theory and informal employment is important.

It is also worth recalling social scientist Partha Chatterjee’s insightful account of how planning derived its distinctive authority as much from its demarcation as a domain shielded from the direct influence of representational politics.

These moves enabled the planning establishment to strategically position itself as key to the regulation of economic forces and social relations in postcolonial India, while allowing development economics to emerge as the foremost among unequals within the disciplinary pecking order.

As a consequence, we can see how the roots of the dualistic labor market are tied both to the basic tenets of development thought and to the institutional structures of planning that operationalised India’s development model.

Tripartism reinforced the bifurcation of the labour market into the dual sector model comprising a minuscule organised sector and an extensive unorganised sector; the resultant dualism was further sustained and structurally elaborated through the exercise of planning.

Cumulatively viewed, the models of tripartism and institutionalised planning were of foundational significance in structuring economic divisions impacting the terms of employment, upward mobility and social security for India’s workers.

Policy choices and strategies adopted by various governments have been key in determining the extent of reliance on informal employment. India’s distinctive pattern of economic growth modelled on 90% of our workforce in vulnerable employment is an intrinsic part of this policy.

How then do we join these dots to arrive at a better understanding of the underlying choices implicit in labour policy agendas pursued since 1947? The way forward on this can lie only through committed research based on an inter-disciplinary approach to policy analysis.

Veena Naregal is Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi.