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India’s battling its biggest migrant labour crisis. And labour minister Gangwar is ‘missing’

Labour minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar has said little on the 8 crore migrant workers displaced because of the crisis. Colleagues say low profile is part of his working style.

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New Delhi: India is facing the biggest migrant labour crisis in its history but one will be hard pressed to find Labour and Employment Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar having much to say on the matter.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of a nationwide lockdown beginning 25 March triggered a massive exodus of migrant labour from industrial towns. Deprived of work and livelihoods, these migrants began their arduous journey back home on foot or bicycles. Over 55 days later, the migrants are still on the road.

In this period, India’s weekly unemployment rate has consistently been over 20 per cent, data from CMIE shows.

Yet, Gangwar, Minister of State (independent charge) for Labour and Employment, has largely remained silent amid this massive humanitarian crisis that the government roughly pegs involves 8 crore migrant workers.

His visibility is confined to microblogging site Twitter where he retweets PM Modi, the official handle of BJP and other government handles.

Even when many BJP-ruled states such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Goa carried out significant changes in labour laws this month, which the PM of spoke in his last address to the nation, the Union labour minister maintained silence. He has chosen to not even defend the party CMs who are facing flak from the Opposition, as also from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) outfits, over loss of social security for the labour force.

Gangwar’s history

It’s not that the eight-term Lok Sabha MP from Bareilly has ever maintained a high-profile or been known for pro-active policy-making.

Santosh Kumar Gangwar was Minister of State (independent charge) for Textiles before the PM demoted him in July 2016, making him MoS, Finance, a position he had held 17 years ago in the Atal Bihari Vapayee government, though with other portfolios.

PM Modi gave him independent charge of a ministry (labour) again 14 months later in September 2017, and retained him in the same capacity after getting a renewed mandate last year.

But Gangwar has continued to be a nondescript minister, choosing to follow the instructions from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

A seasoned politician, the minister from Bareilly represents the Gangwar community in Uttar Pradesh that can easily influence 15-20 assembly constituencies. He has been continuously elected to the Lower House since 1989 with the exception of 2009. His electoral success is unparalleled in the Modi cabinet.

But the last time he hit headlines was in April 2018 when he had triggered a row, saying that one “should not make a big deal” out of one or two rapes, although they were unfortunate.

In an interaction in his constituency in September 2019, Gangwar said there were enough jobs in India but people from north India lacked the qualifications.

Also read: Why Modi govt failed to give a big fiscal boost to economy hit by coronavirus

The Covid crisis

During the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic crisis, Santosh Kumar Gangwar conceded in an interview to ThePrint that the Modi government had been caught unawares by the migrant crisis.

On 16 May, he expressed his regret in a tweet over the death of migrant labourers in an accident in Auraiya and urged the migrant labourers to use the transportation facilities provided by the central government.


He held meetings with trade unions and industry on 6 and 8 May to discuss issues, including the migrant crisis and the steps needed to support workers and industry. Nobody heard of any follow-up action after that.

With Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman making all the relief announcements for different sections of people impacted by the Covid-19 crisis, including those falling under the purview of the labour ministry like government contributing the employee provident fund (EPF) contribution for some firms and employees, Gangwar has not had much to do.

In comparison, Rural Development and Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar and Consumer and Food Distribution Minister Ram Vilas Paswan have been holding video press conferences and explaining the nuances of announcements made by Sitharaman related to their ministries, especially the ones targeted at farmers, the rural job guarantee scheme and the free food grain scheme for the most vulnerable.

To be fair to Gangwar, like for many other ministries, decisions related to important reforms like the various labour codes are taken at the highest level.

For instance, the labour reforms initiated by the ministry were largely driven by the PMO. Any other decision that involves a substantial financial outgo needs the finance ministry’s nod.

Also read: Sitharaman says more support measures not ruled out but will depend on how pandemic evolves

Very much involved, say labour ministry officials, and colleagues

ThePrint reached Labour Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar through calls and messages for a comment but there was no response until the time of publishing this report .

Labour ministry officials, however, maintained that he was active “like any other minister”.

“Everyday, he takes four to five meetings with officials and takes stock of complaints received by the control room set up by the labour ministry to help migrants and ensure they get resolved at earliest,” said one official who didn’t wish to be named.

He added that while FM Nirmala Sitharaman declared the financial package with announcements related to EPF contributions and withdrawals, Gangwar ensured that the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation sent necessary instructions to its field offices.

Another official said the minister personally spoke to every hospital director to ensure easy availability of beds in Employees’ State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) hospitals during the pandemic and also dialled many doctors to understand the availability of health infrastructure.

ESIC has around 4,000 beds and 550 ICU beds in their hospitals all across India.

Before many of the BJP-ruled states government initiated labour law reforms in their respective state, Gangwar met several labour organisations including the RSS affiliate Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh and others to take their feedback on layoffs, migrant crisis and change in labour laws. The labour ministry also launched a helpline to address grievances of workers.

A cabinet colleague in the Modi government also defended Gangwar.

“It is his way of work. He is not vocal. He always keeps a low profile. He listens to everybody and never shows resentment,” said the minister on condition of anonymity.

A BJP leader who didn’t wish to be named pointed out that states should be blamed to a large extent for the labour crisis.

“States are responsible for providing food, shelter and transportation. The Centre’s role is to only provide trains and this the Union government has provided in sufficient numbers,” he said, questioning how Gangwar is responsible if states are doing politics in the name of migrants.

Also read: India’s tractor industry expected to recover from lockdown ahead of others


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  1. Thanks to the writer who remembers that India has one labour ministry and one labour minister . It is happy that the writer has reminded me and perhaps Gangwar also. I am sure he still remembers that he was labour minister. I also thought he is a minister without portfolio.

  2. There is a lack of English speaking Ministers like Ms Irani or late Shri Jaitley in the Govt. People do get impressed along with mainstream Eng media. Afterall v r so enamoured of the foreign language. Shri Tharoor was good but Congress did not make him a fullfledged Cabinet Minister. Ms Irani is also not allowed to spk. Shri Goel would speak but he is not as fast as Ms Irani in fluency. Shri Prasad does not speak that much; may b party discipline. Congress had a good no. of fluent speakers. Labour Min is fairly a neglected Min with no Communist party dominating. Who cares for labourers in the survival of the fittest env or politics? Even ILO is rotten. There is surely talent deficit in many a Min. PMO bureaucracy (mostly retd) holds sway from late Rajiv Gandhi’s time. It is zero in NITI Aayog. Young talent is reqd in Cabinet. It is worst in States. It is not in public glare. That is why Scheme implementation is also poor. Bureaucrats hold the field. Ministers ought to give interview. Public gets a good picture from response. For e.g., today (21.5.20) Shri Puri Civil Aviation Minister spoke so well giving sufficient respect to bureaucrats. Marvellous. V also need strong spokesperson like Dr Patra though he also looks weak now under stress.

  3. government told that lockdown time is paid full salary for maigrents but most of company are not paid why can we know this and what is the acction take for the company’s

  4. Have ministers any value or recognition in the Modi government? They are in the cabinet for the namesake only. It is the PMO which is running the country.

    • A pertinent question. In the previous government of khangress, the PM had no value or negative value, meaning the PM used to go and approve the files instead of files being sent to him by ministers. Now it is just reverse. Times are changing. That is why somebody long ago has told that democracy is a dictatorship by elected representatives, otherwise called a suicidal act, anyway , unless the vote is used with discretion .

  5. Are we are not responsible for the present state of migrants? It has become fashion for us to be critical sitting in the comfort zones.
    Why did we not respond when large number of labor was migrating. For the past 70 years we were sleeping not questioning the planners and implementors on exodus of leaving their states and going to far of places for work. Why the respective states didnot provide the similar works in their own states.
    The “Garibi Hato” slogan of 1971 remaind as election slogan. We see the result of this slogan after 50 years.
    We all eager to shed tears for them now. Atleast now the states should provide them jobs in their own states. It will enable them to stay with their families in difficult sotuations and earn their living.
    Some states who are giving freabies for votes should change their priorities by giving them work not make them lazy or beggers.
    Nothing should be free but they should provide some work to live with dignity.
    We all should impress the state govts to provide them work in respective states. Why the poor workers should go from north to south and south to west or east to south.
    It is the responsibility of every state to give some work and avoid freebies. Once we make them depend on freebies, migration from other states start. No one should be paid if they donot do some work or the other, if we have to realise “Garibi Hatao” in real sense of the term. Please think loudly.

  6. No minister of Modi goverment has submitted his progress card so far.All we get to hear is PM modi’s bhashans .Not a single minister has published his ministry’s or his own accomplishments.that is the tragedy of Modi Govt.Let somebody tell prime minister modi India cannot be ruled solo.First of all Modi has to Resurrect entire indian judiciary which has collapsed/broken.It is the judiciary which is main pillar and runs the country in an orderly manner.this fact has escaped from the mind of indian politicians and they are ruling with mindset of I,Me,Myself.It is a great tragedy of indian

  7. From what one can understand from this article, unless a minister is actively visible in the press and social media, he is deemed to be hibernating. So much for journalists and their rational, for coming to a certain conclusion. No wonder people have lost faith in these intellectual and professional lazy, caricature of the real thing. Wither Indian journalism?

  8. Govt . should do the helpful things for poor migrant , Everyday the migrants are suffering a lot many lost their lives ? this is a critical time for nation. It is not the time of criticize govt or criticize any one ? as a Indian we all should do some help for poor migrants. BECAUSE PRESENT MODI GOVT . NOT DOING ANYTHING FOR MIGRANT THEY SEEMS BUSY IN TELEVISION PROPAGANDA. VERY VERY WEAK GOVT IN INDIAN HISTORY.

  9. After the Editor’s tweet, I did actually use a Google search to learn the gentleman’s name.

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