The issue of migrant workers has evoked widespread debate in the development discourse in India. I have a deep and abiding interest in this issue because Uttar Pradesh and Bihar account for the highest outflow of migration. Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Rajasthan are the other important source states of migrants, who are mainly employed in construction, factories, domestic work, textiles, brick-kilns, transport and agriculture. Further, Rajasthan, now my karma bhoomi, has a huge migrant population, which depends on tourism, manufacturing and mining industries and agriculture for livelihood.
Migration is neither unique nor new to India. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel predicted that the refugee crisis would be the defining feature of the decade back in 2015. In India’s case, the Five-Year Plan documents bring out that migration was not adequately factored in development plans. This is surprising because migration impacts competitiveness, productivity and jobs. This issue has, however, acquired heightened significance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The exodus of migrant labour is visible and their suffering is palpable. We need to provide undivided attention to the working conditions of migrant workers. Out of the total labour force of 465 million workers, around 91 per cent (422 million) were informal workers in 2017-18. The Economic Survey (2017) estimated 139 million seasonal or circular migrants. Circular urban migrants perform essential labour and provide services that many people want but are unwilling to provide themselves. Hence, this issue has implications for livelihoods, agriculture, food security, and safety net policy as well as programme responses.
Migrant labourers, who are mostly from rural areas but live most of the year in cities for work, lack regular salaries or incomes. Many have no savings and live in factory dormitories, which were closed during the lockdown. There is no central registry of migrant workers, despite the existence of The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act of 1979. The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code of 2019 has been introduced in Parliament to promote the welfare of migrant workers and legal protection for their rights. The proposed code seeks to merge 13 labour laws, including the Inter-state Migrant Workmen Act, 1979 into a single law.
The COVID-19 lockdown hit agriculture, supply chains, food and nutrition security and livelihoods, and adversely impacted harvesting of crops across states. Major agrarian states are facing an acute shortage of labourers. The COVID-19 urban hotspots will face a labour shortage of seasonal migrants, affecting the construction and manufacturing sectors. The cost of moving people is roughly double that for goods in India.
The workers would benefit from a “one nation one ration card”, which addresses the problem of ration-card portability. The move would benefit nearly 670 million people and will be completed by March 2021.
The current situation can brook no delay. The government has taken cognisance of the issue and announced measures to contain the impact on the migrant workers. The finance minister’s second press conference on May 14 focused on migrant workers, small farmers, street vendors. She announced a provision of Rs 30,000 crore through NABARD, in addition to the already existing Rs 90,000 crore allocation, for the rabi harvest and post-harvest rabi-related work for small and marginal farmers. Further, Rs 2 lakh crore concessional credit will be provided to two crore farmers across the country. About Rs 11,000 crore was allocated for the urban poor, which includes the migrant workers, for building shelter homes for the homeless.
Several government-funded housing projects in major cities would be developed into affordable rental housing complexes on a PPP mode. Further, the Centre will transfer 8 lakh metric tonnes of grain and 50,000 metric tonnes of chana to state governments to provide 5 kg of grain (wheat or rice) per labourer and 1kg of chana per family per month for two months free. This is expected to benefit up to eight crore migrant workers.
The issue of migrant workers needs to be considered in its entirety to formulate a speedy and effective response. For many migrants, staying home is not an option. We must devise a programme for survival and a medium-term blueprint for growth and structural transformation. This is a tall order and requires a review of national legal, regulatory and institutional concerns in resettlement and rehabilitation of migrant labourers. There is a need to adopt a human rights approach to address the socio-legal issues.
The resolution of contradictions in trade, fiscal, monetary and other policies — for example, the implementation of the report of the task force on migration (2017), expansion of the outreach of the Integrated Child Development Services–Anganwadi (ICDS-AW) and auxiliary nurse midwives (ANMs) to include migrant women and children and inclusion of migrant children in the annual work plans of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan — would also be helpful.
Given the overarching environment of uncertain livelihoods, wage losses and layoffs, it is necessary to strengthen the resilience of the financial system and skill workers.
The issues and challenges of migrant workers require leveraging information and communication technologies and the JAM trinity. The debilitating physical effects of the coronavirus necessitate coordinated and concerted efforts by all stakeholders to meet the challenges of the present and the expectations of the future. We shall overcome.
This article appeared in the print edition on June 20, 2020 under the title ‘What the migrant worker needs’. The writer is the governor of Rajasthan.
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