The coronavirus pandemic created global chaos and fear, bringing the world to a standstill. The virus brought even the most advanced economies to a calamitous state. Scientists, doctors, policy makers and the best global brains were left in a state of helplessness. We saw everyone join hands to endure any amount of suffering to support respective governments in combating the emergency. Governments, policy makers, NGOs, doctors, nurses, common men and police played their roles remarkably well.

In India, the contribution of underprivileged labourers in making the lockdown successful by initially staying put at one location so that the virus did not spread was beyond exemplary. On the call of the Prime Minister for a total lockdown, underprivileged labourers were left stranded without places to stay. Within a few days of the lockdown, employers shut down operations and stopped paying them, and landlords threw them out. This happened despite the Prime Minister’s appeal that all employees – permanent or daily-wagers – should be paid during the lockdown.

Employers blamed closure of their businesses (factories or construction sites) as reason for non-payment of salaries. The unfortunate labourers not only lost their wages but were left with no resources to feed themselves. They struggled to contact families in their villages to enquire about their health and well-being. They spent days sleeping on roads with no food, in the hope they would get relief when the lockdown was lifted. It is the impoverished labourers who lost everything and were the most gravely affected. Their distress and agony are hard to express in words.

However, despite their state, many remained in cities obeying lockdown restrictions. But successive lockdowns exacerbated the uncertainty. Finally, they lost all hope and started to trudge to homes hundreds and thousands of km away in the scorching heat. Pregnant women, infants and the elderly were among those seen moving despite being severely famished, a sight so miserable that even the stone-hearted shed tears of compassion.

The question that arises in my mind is who are the true corona warriors – doctors, nurses, police personnel, sanitary workers or NGOs? Yes, they all are. However, they all were performing their duties and were duly compensated for extra efforts. It is imperative to also laud some organisations and individuals who donated, but then they were not the ones tortured in utter and desperate desolation. Thus, in my view the underprivileged labourers are equally corona warriors because despite their suffering they did not move in crowds till the time they could resist. But for their sacrifice and suffering, we would never have come to terms with the war on coronavirus.

Doctors, nurses, policemen and volunteers were all showered with petals in appreciation of their services. However, now we should acknowledge these unsung warriors as it is high time that the sacrifice and torture that underprivileged labourers endured is recognized. They are the true pillars of our industrial sector. It is their productivity which determines the size of output and stirs manufacturing growth. In other words, they are the true ‘Sherpas’ for India’s industrial growth.

More than 19 crore daily wage labourers have been in a despicable state since lockdown and it is high time that their morale and self-esteem is raised.In view of this, I submit the following suggestions:

All labourers should be included in the list of corona warriors. They should be treated on par with doctors, nurses and others.

All daily wagers and workers who lost their earnings during lockdown should be compensated by the government. Recognising the importance of life of every Indian and their contribution to the growth of the nation, government should also provide adequate compensation to those who lost their lives, during these extremely difficult times.

Government should ensure improvement in living conditions of labourers as well as their career progression, to be enforced by each employer. This unorganized sector should be given the status of organized sector for better working and living conditions.

It was painful to see that few of these 19 crore workers had minimum basic education. It is imperative to have a programme where they and their children are educated.

Currently, the private sector is riddled with massive inequality of wages between the labourers and the CEO of the company. This disparity should be narrowed. At least minimum salary should be guaranteed so that they can manage a reasonable living.

While lauding the government’s programme of providing free food grain for 80 crore poor people, it is important that their plight get focused attention.

The writer is a distinguished scientist.