E-shram: Gateway or gatekeeper to social security 

Are we celebrating this database creation event more than it deserves? 

The need for registration of unorganised workers for linkage to social protection cannot be emphasised enough. The e-Shram portal launched for creating the National Database of Unorganised Workers is the latest step in this direction following the Supreme Court of India’s 29 June 2021 order to register 42 crore strong unorganised workforce in the country to enable this provisioning. The order also earmarked the end of 2021 as the deadline for this leviathan task. 

The initiative to register workers in India is however not novel. Numerous such initiatives have been attempted over several years. These include the en-masse registration following the notification of the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act in 2008 and the 2015 U-WIN smart card scheme. Some of these drives have also been conducted at the behest of the judiciary, such as after the directions of the Supreme Court in National Campaign Committee for Central Legislation on Construction Labour v. Union of India & Ors. on 19 March 2018 to register construction workers, or those of the Gujarat High Court in Bruhad Ahmedabad Adivasi Bhil ShikShit Yuvak Mitra Mandal v. State of Gujarat & Ors. on 4 July 2011 to register unorganised workers in the state. The development of a portable universal access number scheme for informal workers was repeatedly proposed by the central government in response to questions about the abysmal level of registration, in the NCC-CL case. 

However, how many of these have resulted in smooth and persistent linkages? Why did these past exercises fade into inaction? What perhaps distinguishes the commencement of the current initiative from the past ones may only be that this has been subject to more scrutiny given the crisis – the exodus as an exposition of the lack of enforcement of labour and social protections – brought out by the covid induced lockdowns. Its endurance, however, will see the same fate as the past ones till provisioning continues to be subject to schemes as against statutorily mandated entitlement. This is not to argue that schemes are inherently ineffective or that under statutory mandate, provisioning is foolproof. The lack of statutory right of each individual to social security means the absence of an enforceable claim against the employer or the state for their inaction to extend or ensure coverage, or a denial in any other form.  

Even with the new code, this right has not been truly recognised for the unorganised workers. The way in the which the Code on Social Security, 2020 (SS code), is designed legitimises the curious bifurcation of workers into organised and unorganised ones by continuing the application of the (pre-existing) statutory social protections only to the organised sector, and not extending them to the unorganised sector. The rule of thresholds continues to ensure this by dictating applicability. The route for linking much of labour social protections is still obstinately only through eligible workplaces, which results in the exclusion of unorganised workers that make up at least 93% of the country’s total workforce. 

Instead of rethinking this manner of provisioning or universalising social security coverage, the SS code mirrors the mechanism of the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, 2008 (UWSS) of relying on the executive to formulate and implement schemes on popular subjects that form social security. As these subjects are distributed between the central and state governments, a variety of beneficiary identification criteria and benefits would continue to remain. A big reason why inter-state migrant workers face exclusion from availing scheme-based benefits at their work destinations is because of these differences. How e-Shram registration will then enable removal of these state-controlled barriers and allocation between state-specific entitlements is up in the air. 

While section 113 of the SS code that relates to registration of unorganised workers could be interpreted to say that on registration workers will become automatically eligible to avail benefits of all central and state schemes framed for them, the section is yet to be notified and cannot be enforced in isolation. Moreover, once completed, a national database of unorganised workers will indeed be created, but what regulations and guidelines would apply to that database to clearly define the linkages to existing or future schemes are also unknown. 

Section 142 of the SS code that was recently notified relates to Aadhaar enabled identification of beneficiaries. If one were to argue that the collection of Aadhaar details was in pursuance to this development, then even a plain reading of the section makes it amply clear that that could only be undertaken in relation to the code itself or rules or schemes framed under it. As of today, the implementation of the SS code, like the other three, stands in suspension. Yajat Kumar explains further why the selective enforcement of section 142 is not maintainable in law. 

On the other hand, the judgment of the Apex Court that jump-started this drive specifically referred to registrations under existing laws – the Building and other Construction Workers Act, 1996, Inter-state Migrant Workers Act, 1973 and the UWSS Act, along with the creation of a database. The current discourse however seems to have shifted gears towards the latter. None of these legislations carry provisions that correspond to the current modalities of registration, data collection and Aadhar-seeding under e-Shram. This massive registration seems to be occurring in a vacuum without any connection with the codes, or any labour legislation that mandates worker registrations. It seems more to be a database creation event alone. 

As recently remarked by Reetika Khera that while our policy space and imagination is currently enslaved by databasing, protection to workers under even existing labour laws is barely enforced.  

Without addressing these pre-existing fundamental loopholes, e-Shram may very well become another gatekeeper to a fractured social security system. 

-by Shubham Kaushal (Aajeevika Bureau). Shubham is a lawyer and researcher focused on urban issues.

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