Nearly one-fifth of India’s labour force consists of internal migrants. As per the 2011 census, a quarter of the urban population consists of migrants. These tend to be predominantly male, from the less developed northern states, in the lower income strata, and dependent on daily wages or precarious livelihoods. The impact of the lockdown, effected from midnight of March 24, has been particularly severe on migrant workers. Due to uncertainty over the duration of the lockdown, and about their own livelihoods and food security, the lockdown has led to massive reverse migration from cities back to villages. Further, due to the absence of train and bus services, many of these workers took to simply walking back. This was despite the assurances of food and shelter from various “host” state governments, which unfortunately came only after their images were flashing all over the media. The ground reality of inadequate preparation or insufficient provision means that neither their anxiety nor plight is assuaged. Migrant workers tend to depend on public eating places or community arrangements for food. Under a lockdown, there is simply no choice for them, except to depend on the government’s efforts or charitable organisations.
Fortunately, the government has a large stock of wheat and rice procured over the last three years. The buffer norm for April 1 is 21.4 million tonnes, against which the country had about 77.7 million tonnes on March 1: This comprises 27.5 million tonnes of wheat and 50.2 million tonnes of rice. In most districts of India, the Food Corporation of India and state agencies have a storage capacity of more than the three months requirement of the public distribution system. The warehouses are spread across all the districts in every state. The government has already announced that an additional quantity of five kg of foodgrains will be provided, free of cost, to all ration card holders for the next three months. Most of the unorganised labour and families migrating back from their place of work will probably have their ration cards in the villages itself. So, it should not be much of a problem for them to find food during the period of lockdown. But, for those who do not have ration cards in the villages, it is the right time to use this extra stock of foodgrains.
In villages, primary schools have facilities for cooking mid-day meals for children. Some anganwadis also have this facility. This infrastructure can be used to provide cooked meals to those who do not have ration cards in the villages. The government can easily offer to meet their requirement of wheat and rice over the next three weeks and panchayats can be asked to meet a part of the expenditure required to purchase vegetables, spices and cooking oil. Due to a steep drop in demand — especially from the hotel, restaurant and catering sectors — and due to the closure of mandis and difficulties in transportation, the prices of poultry, milk, fruits and vegetables have crashed in the producing areas. The village panchayats which take up such a feeding programme must be provided Rs 20 per person per day from State Disaster Relief Fund for the expenditure on vegetables, cooking oil, spices, which are not covered by the PDS. In some villages, the local community may also be willing to help the panchayats to feed such people. Efforts must also be made by the panchayats to raise donations in kind from the local community for rabi pulses like chana (chickpea), masoor (lentil), matar (field pea) which are available in plenty in pulse-growing states.
The most distressed at present are those stuck in the cities, or who have been walking hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes in small towns and villages. The district collectors should be allocated funds from the State Disaster Relief Fund to provide them with food and open all community buildings en route for them.
In urban areas, as per the Periodic Labour Force Survey, there were about 1.6 crore casual labourers and four crore self-employed persons in 2017-18. Even after the reverse migration to villages, there would still be millions of them who are stuck in cities at their place of work. These are people who do not have any savings or source of income which can sustain them during the period of the lockdown. These people living in slums, in the poorer areas of cities, are in need of urgent assistance for food, at least for the next three weeks.
The states must engage NGOs, factories and charities including religious organisations to raise funds for meeting the expenditure on milk, eggs, cooking oil and vegetables, and even soaps and sanitisers. More than 67,000 NGOs are registered with the Niti Aayog on their NGO Darpan platform — which was created to bring about greater partnership between the government and the voluntary sector, and to foster transparency, efficiency and accountability. This is the time to use such a platform. The Centre can easily provide free rice and wheat to the NGOs from its stock and the NGOs can provide cooked meals in urban areas for the next three weeks. For one crore individuals, for three weeks, the government needs to provide just about 75,000 tonnes of rice. Since the milling of wheat would be difficult due to the closure of flour mills, only rice can be provided at this stage.
The rabi harvest is expected to be a bumper one. The utilisation of the FCI stock — for not only the ration card holders but also the non-ration card holders, and for providing food to the poor stuck in urban areas — is the most appropriate use of the foodgrain stock with the government. This is urgent and must be done.
Hussain is former Union agriculture secretary, and Ranade is chief economist, Aditya Birla Group
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