You Have Got It Wrong, Mr. Prime Minister

You Have Got It Wrong, Mr. Prime Minister

A friend told me this story. His five-year-old daughter put a quiz to him (only kids can imagine such situations!): ‘A man falls from the twentieth floor of a building and another one falls from the second floor. What difference will you notice?’ My friend gave up! He could not answer. The kid had the answer ready – ‘The man falling from second floor will first hit the ground with a thud and then shout ‘mar gaya, mar gaya’. But the man falling from the twentieth floor will first shout ‘mar gaya, mar gaya’ and then hit the ground with a thud!’

Moral of the story: Time lapse inverses things!

People were voicing the need to change the labour laws, Mr. Prime Minister, and the noise only got shrill from the early nineties with liberalization. The seventies and eighties saw violence and crippling resistance in industrial relations. ‘Ease of Doing Business’ was a concept not even thought of, though the need was felt and voiced at many levels.

Then the winds changed. The Government finally acknowledged the constraints and complications of labour laws. ‘Labour’ is a subject in the concurrent list. This meant three things: (a) The Central Government can make labour laws, (b) The State Government can make laws, and (c) The State Government can amend the Central laws. Effectively industrial relations were governed by different set of laws in the various states.

To cite one example: Some state laws, like those in UP and Rajasthan, have a different definition of ‘Employer’ than the one in the Industrial Disputes Act. In some states the employer must give twenty-one days’ notice to the workmen to effect a change in service conditions, but in some other states it requires forty-two days’ notice. With several organizations setting up plants in more than one state, and wanting to create a cohesive policy, is it good to have one set of rules or many?

Have you provided a solution to the avoidably complicated situation this reality creates?

Okay, we understand that it will require amending the constitution of India. And understandably there will be reluctance to take that step among political leaders. But there is a more important aspect you have simply ignored. And we cannot understand why!

If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: ‘Thou shalt not ration justice.’ – Sophocles

What matters in the industrial relations is a quick resolution of disputes and differences. The Government has already abdicated its role. There are complaints that the labour department acts slowly, if at all it does, in disputes. And it takes ten to fifteen years to obtain conclusive and binding decisions of labour disputes. This works grossly against the interests of the workmen. In the situation today, where some employers (there is no dearth of them) disregard labour laws with impunity, and implementation of labour laws is not the agenda of the Government, the only option for the workmen is to seek justice from Labour and Industrial Courts.

(Labour laws are not seen as constraints for closing down industries any longer!)

And as I said earlier, it takes ten to fifteen years before ‘justice is delivered’! Some workmen reach the other world before the judge signs the judgment. The disputes die with the workmen; they might not in the eyes of law, but not in reality!

If the system of justice is not overhauled for quick redressal of disputes, what is the use of any law, new or old, for the workmen? And will such a situation create ‘ease of doing business?’ These are, in my eyes, the basic issues.

The need for changes in labour laws was voiced in the nineties. Revised laws finally came in thirty years later, this month! A lot of water has flown under the bridge. Contract labour appointment on a massive scale, redundancies and retrenchments, closures are happening with scant regard to law. These have ceased to be the issues for the employers. Now they are big issues for the workmen. Time lapse made labour law constraints redundant. The insight of the little girl that ‘time inverts things’ has come true.

The US ambassador to India and a renowned economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, had called India a “functioning anarchy”. The country somehow does well, no matter the chaos within. But somebody is paying cost. In the industrial relations scenario, it is the workmen who do! They will continue to pay!!

Reforms are essential. But there is no word on rigorous implementation of laws and quick delivery of justice. You have got it wrong, Mr. Prime Minister!

Vivek S Patwardhan

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”

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Photo courtesy: Feature: TingeyInjuryLawFirm on Unsplash, Poster Equality: JonTyson on Unsplash. Demonstrators: copyright author.