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Being COVID Sanguine: Some Silver Linings to the Pandemic

Given the devastating effects the COVID 19 pandemic has had on the world in general and India in particular, you’re probably wondering about the title of this blog. Don’t get me wrong- I am in no way trying to diminish the massive damage to life, livelihoods and health that the pandemic has brought upon millions of people in India and around the world. Had I seen a similar title even 4 months ago, I too would probably have experienced thoughts similar to what you felt. 

So what has changed in a matter of a few weeks? There has been a major drop in the number of cases around the country; instances of serious infections requiring ICU care have also declined. The vaccination drive is going from strength to strength, with as many as 10 million people being vaccinated across India on a single day.

But the biggest change is in my own perspective. Earlier, I always saw only the negative and the bleak, but now I am beginning to see some positives. And that’s what prompted me to write this piece. Here are five specific areas in which I see positives.

Our people exhibited phenomenal resolve and resilience

The second wave (March-June 2021) was especially brutal on India. Our healthcare infrastructure was stretched beyond breaking point. Oxygen was in short supply, as were critical drugs. Medical experts were trying to firm up treatment protocols. Although vaccinations had begun for some people, the Cowin portal was glitchy and even vaccine supply chains were far from streamlined.

But we saw hundreds of self-help groups come up on platforms like Whatsapp and Telegram. Volunteers would man them 24×7 to ensure that across India, patients and their families got access to critical resources including food, oxygen cylinders and medicines. These supplemented (and often replaced) government measures. Technology was used to the fullest, to ensure that people knew where vaccine doses were available, so they could quickly register.

The pandemic has powered a surge of innovations

Almost every day, there were/are media reports around some innovative activity in India. Some emanate from the government sector: for example, in many cities, stadia and large school buildings were converted into makeshift hospitals or Covid Care Centres.

There are many examples of innovation emerging from private enterprise too. For example, given the large quantities of PPE waste being generated, someone came up with a way to convert used PPE kits (which would otherwise have to be incinerated or buried safely in landfills) into briquettes that can be used for constructing low-cost housing.

Around the country, different teams developed prototypes of low-cost oxygenators and ventilators. This will be a source of great benefit to the country because it reduces dependence on imports. And as we have seen, geopolitical triggers or maritime issues (like the ship getting stuck in the Suez Canal) can wreak havoc with global supplies.

Recently, I read about a woman-led team in Hyderabad inventing a fabric that has anti-virus and anti-bacterial properties. Imagine the wide range of applications at home, in workplaces and public spaces for such a versatile invention.

 

Public-Private Partnership (PPP) redefined

The notion of Public-Private Partnerships too has changed in the last 18 months or so. Whether this is a direct result of the pandemic or more the outcome of policy changes is perhaps hard to separate. But India as a nation is seeing much higher levels of collaboration between government laboratories and infrastructure and the private sector. DRDO collaborating with start-ups for developing drones that can be used for vaccine delivery is one example. Another is ISRO encouraging startups and even students to design satellites. A third is ICMR collaborating with Bharat Biotec in the development of Covaxin, India’s first indigenous Covid vaccine.

Passions are changing into professions, creating employment opportunities

On the one hand, the pandemic has killed many livelihoods. But with many people looking at new, home-based business ventures- and using digital channels to market themselves and deliver their products (and in some cases, services too), one can hope that they will be able to scale and over time, some job losses can be offset. Examples include food delivery, baking, making pickles etc.  Of course, India still needs contact-based industries, such as construction and manufacturing, to pick up and get back on track.

Attempts to harness the creative talent of our youth

This may not be directly linked to the pandemic, but I believe that greater participation will result because of the restrictions imposed by it. The government is looking for innovative ideas from our youth. The Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D) and The All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) recently announced Manthan 21, a “hackathon” aimed at getting our country’s youth to come up with innovative solutions to address the challenges faced by our intelligence and security agencies. Specific areas have been identified. (more details are available here: https://manthan.mic.gov.in/about-intellithon.php).

 

Experts say that the world around us has changed for ever, and there’s a “new normal” in the wake of the pandemic. There is no doubt about that. But hybrid working models or other changes visible in the organized sector (especially in larger firms and companies) are not the only changes to our world resulting from the pandemic. The impact of the less visible changes described above too will be felt by India and the world in the years ahead.

 

The second wave (March-June 2021) was especially brutal on India. But we saw hundreds of self-help groups come up on platforms like Whatsapp and Telegram. Volunteers would man them 24×7 to ensure that across India, patients and their families got access to critical resources including food, oxygen cylinders and medicines. 

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Highlights Of The Code On Social Security

The Code on Social Security, 2020 (“SS Code”) was passed by the Lok Sabha on 22nd September 2020, the Rajya Sabha on 23rd September 2020 and received Presidential Assent on 28th September 2020.

The SS Code consolidates the various employee welfare legislation such as:

 

  1. The Employees Provident Fund and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1952 – this law provided for contributions by employer and employee towards post-retirement savings.

 

  1. The Employees State Insurance Act, 1948 – this law requires contributions from employers and employees towards insurance that covers medical, disability, and maternity.

 

  1. The Maternity Benefit Act,1961 – paid leave to employed women in the event of childbirth.

 

  1. The Payment of Gratuity Act, 1972 – statutory payment for long-service by an employee on non-stigmatic separation from employment.

 

  1. The Building and Other Construction Workers Cess Act – a fund for providing benefits to construction workers and their dependents.

 

  1. The Employees Exchange (Compulsory Notification of Vacancies) Act, 1959 – requires notification of job vacancies.

 

  1. The Cine Workers Welfare Fund Act, 1981 – the welfare of certain cine workers.

 

  1. The Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008 – welfare measure for the unorganized sector including self-employed, work from home, and daily wage workers.

 

  1. Employees Compensation Act, 1923 – payment of compensation of injuries causing disablement/death arising in the course of employment.

 

Salient Features of the SS Code

 

This section points out some of the key provisions in the SS Code with a focus on the aspects which are different from applicable law.

 

  1. Applicability and Beneficiaries – The section on Provident Fund (PF) is applicable to all establishments with 20 or more employees as opposed to certain scheduled establishments. Employee State Insurance (ESI), Gratuity, and Maternity Benefit are applicable to all establishments with 10 or more employees & establishments carrying on hazardous activities. Building or other construction work now additionally excludes works employing less than 10 workers or residential construction work of up to INR 50 lakhs. Social security is also intended to be extended to the unorganized sector, gig, and platform workers. Also allows for voluntary adoption of the provisions where establishments do not meet the thresholds mentioned for PF and ESI.

 

  1. Wages DefinitionWages, which is being made uniform now, include all remuneration except for certain specific allowances such as conveyance, HRA, overtime, commission, bonus, and the consistent social security contributions and gratuity with a caveat that the excluded components cannot exceed 50% of the total salary paid. Any exclusions in excess of 50% shall be treated as wages. This concise definition of wages now removes the ambiguity in the earlier definition, especially in PF, on what components are required for purpose of calculating contributions. Employers will find this particularly welcome, in view of last year’s Supreme Court judgment which increased the PF contribution drastically by including the most regularly paid allowances for calculation purposes.

 

  1. PF Contribution – The employer and employee contribution have been reduced from 12% to 10%, with options for different percentages to be notified by the Central Government as and when it deems fit.

 

  1. Gratuity – While gratuity is still payable to all employees who have completed at least 5 years of continuous service with the company, the SS Code also allows for payment of gratuity on a pro-rata basis for fixed-term employees. Further, the threshold years for working journalists have been reduced to 3 years. Gratuity payments could increase if the basic salary amount in salary structures is not 50% of the gross salary.

 

  1. Authorities under the SS Code – The authorities under the SS Code are: Board of Trustees of Employee Provident Fund, Employees’ State Insurance Corporation, National Social Security Board for Unorganised Workers, State Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Board, and State Building Workers Welfare Boards.

 

  1. Creche Facilities – SS Code clarifies that common creche facilities may be opted for by establishments having 50 or more employees.

 

  1. Unorganized Sector, Gig and Platform Workers – The SS Code requires the National and State Social Security Boards to specifically create schemes/funds for providing benefits (life and disability cover, health and maternity benefits, old age protection, education, and discretionary benefits) to workers in the unorganized sector (self-employed or home-based), gig workers (workers outside the traditional employer-employee relationship) and platform workers (who access organisations or individuals through an online platform and provide services or solve specific problems). They are required to register themselves with self-declaration and AADHAR.

 

  1. Aggregators – The concept of ‘Aggregator’ has been introduced and means a ‘digital intermediary or a marketplace for a buyer or user of a service to connect with the seller or the service provider’. Aggregators are intended to help fund schemes for the unorganized sector, gig, and platform workers with a 1-2% contribution of their annual turnover. Identified Aggregators in the SS Code are:
  • Ridesharing services
  • Food and grocery delivery services
  • Logistic services
  • E-marketplace (both marketplace and inventory model) for wholesale/ retail sale of goods and/or services (B2B/B2C)
  • Professional services provider
  • Healthcare
  • Travel and hospitality
  • Content and media services
  • Any other goods and services provider platform

 

  1. PF Appeals – The deposit for filing an appeal has been reduced from 75% to 25% of the ordered amount.

 

  1. Penalties – Stricter penalties have been imposed, especially for repeat offenders. However, an opportunity is provided for rectification of non-compliance prior to initiation of any proceedings.

 

SS Code Implications

 

With regards to the Rules and Schemes developed, specific implementation will have to wait. However, the SS Code does appear to be a sincere attempt towards broadening the net and covering a much larger section of the workforce by recognizing unconventional work models as well as formal ones. While there could be an increased financial burden on employers, there is also an easing with respect to compliance requirements.

Image Credits:  Photo by sol on Unsplash

With regards to the Rules and Schemes developed, specific implementation will have to wait. However, the SS Code does appear to be a sincere attempt towards broadening the net and covering a much larger section of the workforce by recognizing unconventional work models as well as formal ones.

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