on April 2021, Bheru Lal Gameti, a professional chef from the Udaipur district of Rajasthan, was on his way to work at the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar. He was carrying a couple of packages beedis at the request of his neighbor and cook colleague Bhawar Lal Gameti, a 45-year-old who had worked there before the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Bheru Lal never had the chance beedis Bhawar Lal, when he died the same day after suddenly collapsing in a van and bumping his head on cooking utensils.
Bhawani Shankar, the contractor who had hired Bhawar Lal on behalf of a catering company, quickly arranged for the body to be transported back to his village in Udaipur.
When Bhawar Lal’s family (consisting of his wife and five children) and neighbors received the body, they were shocked to see around 100-150 of their Brahmin neighbors, who otherwise never attended Adivasi funerals, and forced them to remove the body to cremate immediately without having to conduct an autopsy. According to Bheru Lal, they said: “Last my pareshan mat karo” (Don’t bother him in the end.)
Shankar refused to pay Bhawar Lal’s family his outstanding wages of approximately 17,500 rupees for a period of 25 days. Instead, he only gave them Rs 1 lakh ex gratia. Even the Haridwar hospital refused to issue a death certificate or perform an autopsy due to lack of time.
The recently launched e-Shram portal is allegedly designed for such accidental deaths; that occur in the workplace in the disorganized sector. The state has taken responsibility to provide a sum of Rs 2 lakh as compensation and a sum of Rs 1 lakh as assistance in the event of a disability in such cases.
The Union government plans to link the e-Shram card with other systems such as the Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana (PMJJBY) and the Public Distribution System (PDS). However, the e-Shram portal only provides information about the eligibility and benefits of these programs, without mentioning the process or plans for funding. For example, if you do not have a bank account, the e-Shram card will not give you direct access to the PMJJBY as it is a scheme implemented by the Department of Financial Services through Banks.
This begs the question: What benefits are workers entitled to just from an e-Shram card? Beyond that, is the responsibility for providing them solely with the state?
Rajendra Sharma, program manager at labor rights NGO Aajeevika Bureau (AB), is wary of the benefits e-Shram claims it will offer migrant workers or day laborers, as the database only asks for information about the workers, not the employers. While the update option can help with the dynamic nature of the job, Sharma believes that keeping a record of the employer’s details will also help increase accountability.
In addition, it would help regulate employers’ liability to their employees in the event of accidental injury or death in the workplace, or even in the event of a national emergency. This would reduce the state’s responsibility to provide additional relief to workers in emergency situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic or to provide them with social security or benefits.
There is no doubt that the database will make a previously âinvisibleâ part of the population visible. However, the information requested, such as bank account numbers, telephone numbers, full and secondary occupations and training, does not exactly reflect the level of employment or the specific skills of the employees. This will make it difficult to understand the exact nature of the job or the terms of employment, and the database will remain just that; a database.
According to Sharma, the database will be as it is fail, effectively one “ankush” (Review / control) for informality. Speaking of his experience with the e-Shram registration camps that AB held, he said: “âHum digital India ho gaye hai pura ka puraâ¦ dekha kya digitization tha gaon mei? (We have completely become a digital India … but did you see how much âdigitizationâ there was in the village?)
During a week-long registration campaign organized by AB, over 200 workers were helped to register on the e-Shram portal. Of them, only about 10% had their correct cell phone number linked to their Aadhaar card. Several people’s bank accounts were not linked and in some cases their biometrics were not updated either, automatically excluding them from the registration process entirely.
Through these camps and ongoing registration efforts, AB was able to understand these additional problems people faced when registering, apart from the existing problems of illiteracy, lack of internet connection, lack of information on the portal, and lack of access to electronic devices. If this is the case on the ground in Udaipur, one can only imagine what it should look like at the national level.
Bhawar Lal is just one example of many where legal and fundamental rights such as compensation, insurance, wage payment and access to justice are violated and no action is taken against contractors or employers. How will the government be able to maintain the new e-Shram enterprise for an estimated 38 million workers in the unorganized sector if existing legal structures and labor laws are not effectively implemented anyway?
While the establishment of a database is admirable and urgently needed, with 9 million of the targeted 38 million e-Shram registrations completed by November 25, 2021, it remains to be seen how it will be used. As for Bhawar Lal, the cause of death remains a mystery to this day.
Shifa Zoya is currently a Field Fellow at the Aajeevika Bureau in Udaipur, working on issues related to labor migration. She holds a BA in Anthropology and Psychology from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.