Scale Up Skilling

Santosh Mishra, a resident of Bhubaneswar, has stopped his house construction as the masons from West Bengal have left for their native place due to lockdown. A good set of skilled manpower from different states are engaged in construction, hotel, hospitality and many other sectors in Odisha. Their departure has halted developmental activities in the state. 

Similar is the situation in other states where Odia migrant workers worked until the other day. Now due to COVID-19 pandemic more than one lakh skilled workers are back in the state and their number is likely to swell. These people include semi-skilled, skilled and highly skilled workers. Many of them are experts in diamond cutting, spinning mills and ship breaking yards in Gujarat. Likewise, plumbers from Odisha are now indispensable in many parts of the world.

And all of them are now back or on their way back to their villages. Odisha is expecting the return of around 15 lakh strong work force belonging to different categories. 

However, why did these people leave their families in villages and rush to faraway places? The reply is very simple. They could not get adequate job opportunity to work in the state and earn a handsome amount. As such labour is considered cheap in Odisha while it fetches better returns in other states. If a mason gets Rs 1,000 a day in Odisha, he can earn not less than Rs 2,500 in Mumbai or Delhi. This is one of the reasons for which many people leave the state and go to other places.

Now COVID-19 has changed the world. Therefore, the state should also take advantage of this disadvantageous situation. Can’t the state retain the workforce in Odisha and make its proper utilization for a brighter future? Though it may sound farfetched, it is certainly not impossible if a 20-year-old stable government has the will and vision. This is a golden opportunity to translate Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s dream of ‘Skilled in Odisha’ into reality.

The centre has already announced a special package and the state government’s responsibility is to ensure that maximum people from Odisha get benefit. The state must facilitate creation of new opportunities for the army of workers, who returned empty-handed, but have retained their skill. Their acumen needs to be utilized in a proper manner so that they not only get jobs for themselves but also create employment for others. Now that the state has the data bank of the migrant workers, it should be very easy to identify their expertise and provide them work opportunity. For this, the state needs better managers and persons with vision who should prepare a roadmap for a largely self-reliant Odisha.

Odisha already has a State Skill Development Authority headed by Subroto Bagchi, now familiar as the chief spokesperson of the state’s COVID-19 management. Mr.Bagchi has already shown his acumen in speaking and making people understand the complicated things concerned with novel coronavirus. However, one of the founders of the Mindtree, a reputed IT firm, is not meant for speaking on television, but for preparing a roadmap for the returnees, giving them the source of livelihood with proper backing of the state government.

It is high time experts like Mr.Bagchi concentrated on meaningful tasks like providing jobs to those who have lost their livelihoods. With Asit Kumar Tripathy, a pro-poor and effective Chief Secretary at the helm, Mr.Bagchi, an expert in skill development, and others can form a team and turn the disadvantage to an advantage. This apart, the state also has a number of experts and policy makers, who can properly guide the government. The government must pick them up and set up a core group to draw a proper roadmap for the future.

It may be mentioned here that the state government has meanwhile announced to increase the MGNREGA work to 10 lakh person days. This might not attract the migrant workers as they were not digging mud or constructing ponds and roads in Gujarat or Karnataka or Delhi.

A majority of the migrant workers are skilled or semi-skilled. Therefore, they may not opt for road construction, but wait for the opportunity to return to their earlier workplace after the situation improves. The state’s prime objective should be to retain them and utilize their skill for the development of Odisha. An assistance of Rs 1,000 or Rs 1,500 or a bag of rice a family will not solve their problem. The real solution lies in creating meaningful job opportunities for them.       

After the return of migrant workers, a different situation will certainly emerge. Those returned to villages in haste will search for work after their quarantine period is over. The increasing number of workers looking for jobs has already raised the labour participation rate, but unavailability of sufficient work for them will further shoot up the unemployment rate in the state. If these people do not get job, there is no doubt that Odisha would face an acute socio-economic problem along with rise in law and order situations. Meanwhile, news has already started pouring in that some migrant worker committed suicide out of frustration.  

This is not that only migrant workers will suffer; s
mall traders and vendors are also among the worst hit due to the lockdown. Crores of people will lose their jobs, which includes hawkers and daily wage-earning labourers whose livelihood
depends on a functioning economy.

This apart, the lack of work opportunities and weak financial conditions of the workers may make the job environment more vulnerable.  In a post lockdown period, there will be work deficit zones and work surplus regions. In the work surplus areas, the situation will be grim as there is going to be an abundance of returning workers with relatively higher skills, which will lead to exploitation of workers.

Therefore, it is time the state government set up a think tank and scale up skill development to generate job opportunities for the returnees who may turn out to be our assets. 

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