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.
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.
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.
औरैया में हुई भीषण सड़क दुर्घटना बहुत ही दुखद है। मैं शोक प्रकट करने के साथ ही सभी श्रमिक भाई बहनों से निवेदन करता हूँ की सरकार द्वारा उप्लब्ध कराई जा रही यातायात सुविधाओं का ही उपयोग करें।
— Santosh Gangwar (@santoshgangwar) May 16, 2020
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.
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.