“The woes of us, informal workers in border areas, fall on even god’s deaf ears”

The challenges faced by the participants of the informal economy in India remain grave, and a basic solution that can simply protect their dignity remains out of popular discourse.

Due to the instability of income and an absence of formal social protection provisions, informal workers face several challenges that put their social dignity and development at risk.

These issues multiply when they have to work at volatile locations, such as in border areas. These are volatile yet critical locations, particularly from the perspective of involving the participants of the informal market including labour from both trade and transport infrastructure development and management. They hail from communities where such infrastructure is emerging and are majorly involved as tea-vendors, truck drivers and housekeeping staff.

Their human development is already compromised in view of difficult terrain, security issues, poor connectivity, inadequate employment opportunities and swamped education and health facilities. Their involvement in the development of cross-border trade and transport infrastructure contributes extensively to lifting their socio-economic status.

The quality of their experience inside such infrastructure can make them goodwill ambassadors that, in turn, can enhance the political economy.

Tripura in Northeast India is an ideal example to substantiate. This state is surrounded by Bangladesh on three sides and thus, is reliant on our friendly neighbour for both essential and non-essential goods.

In order to facilitate seamless connectivity and pursue a harmonized approach for the movement of goods and people, concerned authorities in the State and the Union have undertaken several initiatives.

These include establishing Integrated Check Posts in Agartala and Srimantapur in Sepahijala district and developing a special economic zone in Sabroom bordering Bangladesh in south Tripura besides the construction of the Indo-Bangla Maitree Bridge over the Feni River.

These initiatives have created several informal jobs and providing the border communities with economic opportunities to improve their socio-economic conditions. For instance, Srimantapur ICP provides livelihood opportunities to more than 100 local inhabitants and their families.

They are involved in the truck-to-truck transfer of goods, running tiny eateries inside the ICP premises and doing housekeeping staff. These families completely rely on the income generated in these premises on a daily basis. However, despite such efforts, the facilities available to local labour and vendors in such an establishment remain un-utilized at its best.

The working conditions are visibly appalling. There is no provision for them to acquire food or even drinking water, inside the premises. Even if there is a provision they are not implemented. This is despite the fact that workers are not allowed to access the nearby markets during the day, owing to security reasons along the border areas.

They have to forcibly rely on tea and light snacks sold at a small makeshift shop in the establishment. This implies spending a significant amount of their daily earnings on quenching their thirst and hunger.

They are sometimes even forbidden to use washrooms inside the ICP. Furthermore, they lack a designated resting area for themselves. Thus, their mobility is restricted to the goods yard for the better part of the day.

The restrictions on their movement are sometimes harshly imposed by the enforcement agencies, in the garb of managing security issues. Therefore, more often they find themselves unable to withstand adverse weather such as scorching heat or heavy rain.

Moreover, the nature of the work conducted in such establishments is extremely laborious and on certain occasions, they are prone to injuries and accidents. To make it further troublesome, the existing infrastructure lacks the availability of proper first aid or medical services for the labour force.

In contrast, the officials in the very same premises have the majority of the facilities that cannot be accessed by on-ground workers. To illustrate, there is a kitchen in the Srimantapur ICP that caters to the hunger pangs of the upper management.

This highlights a long-debated issue of accessibility versus the availability of resources for the benefit of the bottom of the social pyramid. This hugely impacts their human dignity and development.

Evidently, the efforts made to establish efficient infrastructure is unable to provide a suitable work environment for the informal workers. It has serious implications on the future development agenda as well.

It is well known that for any policy to function effectively on the ground, the confidence of the locals, the on-ground stakeholders, is imperative. A troubled workforce with a lack of basic amenities results in a huge loss of local goodwill.

Therefore, enforcing basic provisions for human dignity such as drinking water, food and restrooms for informal workers will not just build their confidence in developing such infrastructure but will also enhance the quality of their participation in managing them.

More importantly, it will create goodwill among the border communities, which will, in turn, result in a bottom-up demand for such infrastructure and enable their active role in conveying the same to the people on the other side of the border.

Let more and more such infrastructure be developed keeping in mind the needs of the last person of the queue – a basic tenet of the Antyodaya philosophy.

Srijata Deb is research associate, CUTS International, a global public policy think- and action-tank on trade, regulations and governance. She can be reached at srd@cuts.org

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