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Why the Supreme Court order on registration of migrant workers is welcome

Priya Deshingkar writes: It stands up for the rights of the weakest and recognises their critical contribution to the economy. But challenges of implementation remain.

Written by Priya Deshingkar |
Updated: July 22, 2021 7:59:52 am
The order is, therefore, a welcome indicator that the highest court is still looking out for the most vulnerable sections of society. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

The Supreme Court judgment on the problems and miseries of migrant workers (June 29) will go down in history as a radical judgment to reduce human suffering in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Rarely do we see government agencies being publicly admonished for their lack of performance, but Justice Ashok Bhushan did exactly that, and did not mince his words in this swansong judgment.

The order explicitly recognises the critical contribution of migrant workers to the economy, even though they are often employed in precarious jobs. It reminds us that workers in the unorganised sector (around 93 per cent, including most migrants in lower-end jobs) need to be able to access numerous welfare schemes in existence. The main barrier preventing access is the delay in registering workers on the national database of the Ministry of Labour and Employment.

The “pivotal” importance of the registration of workers is underscored by the June 29 order, which argued that without registration, none of the welfare schemes in existence can be accessed. Justice Bhushan lamented the lack of progress on this front and directed strong words at the Ministry of Labour for its “apathy and lackadaisical attitude” in registering workers following a previous order in August 2018. The court also stated that while “tall claims” have been made by various states about the schemes that they have introduced to help migrant workers, none of these will be effective without the registration of migrant and unorganised sector workers. It called for all stops to be pulled out to register workers under the three laws that are in place to protect labour and migrant workers, namely, the 1979 Interstate Migrant Workmen Act, the 1996 Building and Other Construction Workers Act and the 2008 Unorganised Sector Social Security Act, and issued a plea to intermediaries and contractors to do their duty in registering workers. Furthermore, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution has been ordered to allocate additional food grains to the states for disbursement of dry foodgrains to migrant workers under the One Nation One Ration Card scheme under the National Food Security Act. The rollout of this system requires beneficiaries to possess a ration card, an Aadhaar number, and electronic points of sale (ePoS) in ration shops.

It is evident that the Supreme Court wants to see real progress in this area, as this order follows three previous orders to address the plight of migrants. In a significant break with convention, the third order issued in May this year declared that authorities shall not insist on an ID card and accept “self-declaration” from workers to access welfare programmes (a similar provision was made in the 2008 Social Security Act). In a country where documents determine access to state resources and who is or is not granted citizenship, where entire bureaucracies and the kickbacks received rest on this exclusionary system, it is nothing short of revolutionary to issue orders to do away with paperwork. The SC order of June 2021 continues with this radical stance and says that the lack of documentation cannot be used as an excuse by the state to abdicate its responsibility, especially during the pandemic. However, the long-term goal is to get all migrant workers registered so that access to welfare schemes happens the way it is meant to.

The progressive boldness of the SC orders inspires confidence in India’s original socialist agenda at a time when neoliberal policies have eroded measures to protect the dignity and rights of the weakest in society and when industries are engaged in a nasty “race to the bottom” on labour standards to cut costs and stay competitive.

The order is, therefore, a welcome indicator that the highest court is still looking out for the most vulnerable sections of society. Nevertheless, one cannot help wonder whether the targets set out by the order are achievable, even though the whip has been cracked. The tasks set out in the order challenge entrenched patterns of labour recruitment and employment that have taken root in the current neoliberal context.

Employers and contractors collude to keep workers in perpetual precarity to protect themselves against losses caused by shocks such as Covid. Control over workers belonging to marginalised communities is exercised through class, caste and gender hierarchies. Pankhuri Agarwal, a researcher supporting the Working People’s Charter work with interstate migrants in Delhi, mentioned that migrants experienced a variety of problems with registration ranging from digital illiteracy, corruption, bureaucratic inefficiency and the requirement of multiple documents (even where only Aadhaar would suffice). Exclusion was markedly worse among the lower castes who were not treated with dignity by state functionaries.

Finally, the governance dimension needs much more serious consideration. Already, there are indications that coordination between state labour departments has been problematic. While we do have some understanding of the everyday interactions between the state and migrant subjects, we do not know enough about the inner workings of the government machinery and how this shapes outcomes for migrants. Jan Sahas, an organisation working with the most socially excluded groups across nine states, found that there are numerous barriers within the labour department, including a lack of guidelines on procedures related to registration, and delays in uploading data submitted in hard copy on the portal as it cannot be directly updated by others. Underlying these problems is the fundamental reality that labour departments are seriously short of staff and capacity to carry out the Supreme Court order. Various NGOs have pledged to monitor progress against the Supreme Court order. Hopefully, there will be learnings from the experience that can be applied to further such efforts.

This column first appeared in the print edition on July 22, 2021 under the title ‘Looking out for the vulnerable’. The writer is Professor of Migration and Development, University of Sussex

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