Migrant labourers, abandoned by employers and the state, undertaking an arduous journey home, in many cases walking hundreds of kilometres on the highways, became the defining image of the national lockdown during the pandemic. The exodus from the cities exposed the gaping holes in the safety net. The Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979, required all establishments who hired inter-state migrants to be registered, as well as all contractors who recruited these workers to be licensed. Proper implementation of this law would have ensured that information on inter-state migrants would have been readily available to aid the state machinery in its relief efforts. However, no such detailed records were maintained, and information on the number of migrants, and their whereabouts, was unavailable to both central and state governments. To address this glaring failure, in a welcome move, the government has now decided to create a database of migrant workers.
As reported in this paper, the labour ministry will build a new database of migrant workers, as well as those in the informal economy, which it hopes will be up and running by May-June next year. The plan entails tapping into existing databases of government schemes such as MGNREGA, and the one nation-one ration card to create a unique registration of migrant workers. Details of those working the gig economy, and other unorganised workers not covered by such schemes, are likely to be added separately. While the issue of duplication is bound to arise, the use of the Aadhaar platform could help address the problem.
However, several questions will need to be addressed. So far, the conversations have centred largely around inter-state migrants, sidestepping the issue of intra-state migrants. But as the lockdowns affected the mobility of both, the scope of the database will need to be expanded to include both sets of migrants. Migration itself is a very fluid concept. The extent of migration in the country depends on the definition employed. For instance, the definitions used by the NSS and the Census are different. Considering that the crisis has affected both long-term and circular migrants, a comprehensive definition will need to be worked out. Merging the existing databases at the state level may be problematic as the softwares and structures of data storage may be different. There is also the issue of registration and updation. Will the registration of migrants be voluntary? And will the database track migration flows? Governments will also have to examine the issue of portability of benefits across states. Merely creating a database of workers will not be enough. This Aadhaar-linked database should be the first step towards creating a social security architecture for workers in the unorganised sector.