Migrant workers’ relief package: Too little, too late

Shyam Sunder | Updated on May 28, 2020

The steps preferred by the government will face implementation challenges and do not address adequately the woes of migrant workers in a short- and longer-term perspective

The lockdown, imposed to control the outbreak of Covid-19, has impacted the lives and livelihoods of a large proportion of India’s nearly 45 million internal migrant workers. In fact, it has turned into a human tragedy now. In the absence of livelihood, the quest of migrant workers to reach to their native place by any means — even walking hundreds of kilometres battling hunger and fatigue — reveals their sense of survival security at their native villages. These migrant workers are mainly engaged in the informal sectors. A large number of them are casual, daily-wage workers and street vendors.

Initially, government policy responses to the Covid-19 crisis largely excluded migrant workers and their families back at home. Ever since lockdown 1.0 was announced around two months ago, the Central and State governments failed to reach out to the migrant workers for their survival-related challenges. Some efforts in this regard eg providing food, establishing temporary shelters etc were attempted only when the crisis worsened and migrant workers started travelling on foot from major Indian cities such as Delhi and Mumbai. The government has been at the receiving end of strong criticism, especially in the way it handled the migrant workers’ crisis.

However, recently, the second tranche of announcements made by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on the May 14 towards building an ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ has attempted to address some of the concerns of migrant workers, street vendors, small traders, self-employed people and small farmers. The objective of these announcements seems to be protection of the vulnerable sections of society against the ongoing crisis, including migrant laborers who are essentially from rural India, and the urban poor.

At another level, these announcements can also be read as a political statement by the government to show its concern for people at the bottom of the pyramid, the vulnerable and the marginalised. Many commentators read this move as a political response to the issue.

Various measures

The economic package preferred by the Finance Minister comprises short-, medium- and long-terms measures as damage control. Surprisingly, the government has not extended any immediate relief in the form of providing cash support through DBT, which could have eased the hardship being faced by the migrant workers.

As part of three short-term measures, government has announced the distribution of food grains to migrant workers for two months, and enrollment of the returning migrants under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) to provide jobs during extended time period up to monsoon season. In fact, in the measures announced on the May 17, the FM provided an additional allocation of ₹40,000 crore towards MGNREGA in the current financial year. The third short-term measure is focussed on the creation of job opportunities in urban, semi-urban and rural areas as well as for tribal people, by engaging them in environment-related physical work under the Compensatory Afforestation Management & Planning Authority (CAMPA). Around ₹6,000 crore will be utilised under this scheme.

Similarly, three medium-term measures announced relate to the concessional rental housing support scheme under Pradhan Mantri Awash Yojana (PMAY) for migrant workers near their workplace, and a portable ration card scheme a la “one nation one ration card”, which is a technology-driven system that will allow migrant workers to use their ration cards across India. And the third medium-term measure include support to the self-employed and street vendors by way of easing out credit access for 50 lakh street vendors.

The only long-term measure comes under the labour law reforms. Finance Minister has indicated that rules under the Code of Minimum Wages Act 2019 shall be notified soon. This will ensue universalisation of the right to minimum wages and timely payment of wages to all workers, including unorganised workers.

Inadequate interventions

Overall, these interventions are too little and too late. The provision of free food-grains distribution to poor and marginalised population would serve its purpose only if the entire food distribution scheme is universalised to deal with the widespread distress situation. The MGNREGA and CAMPA are not new schemes. Higher allocations under these schemes alone are not sufficient to address job-related woes of the migrant labours.

Concessional rental housing support scheme under the PMAY for migrant labourers are useful steps. However, a complete blueprint of the proposed scheme and its scale are yet to be seen. Also completely ignored ARE the pains of circular migrants, who migrate from one rural area to another for work related to agriculture harvesting, brick kiln and sugar-cane cutting.

The idea of portable ration cards is not new. More campaign needs to be launched to make the people aware about the scheme. Success of this endeavour will also depend on the political economy of the States. The effectiveness of the financial support to self-employed and street vendors via special credit facility and a partial interest relief of 2 per cent for Mudra loans up to ₹50,000 is rather uncertain, since getting credit from financial institutions is still a complex matter.

In a crisis such as the current one, the government should have considered simpler and impactful policy response with a human touch to address the miseries of the migrant workers. Accordingly, immediate focus should be on addressing hardships of poor migrant workers. Therefore, providing cash relief in the form of DBT could have been a better option. The lockdown has meant non-payment of wages and non-availability of work for workers.

The present situation due to Covid-19 is not going to be reversed soon. The process of recovery would not be over any time soon and the pains of the migrant workers are only going to increase. The possibility of migrant labours to return back to their workplace in short to medium run is rather bleak. Some of the economic sectors where a large number of migrant workers was employed before the outbreak of Covid-19 are not going to recover soon.

Moreover, the sudden flow of reverse migration shall have far reaching impact on the agrarian economy which is already in a bad shape. There may be a second wave of homecoming of migrant workers once the lockdown is lifted. Many migrant workers who have returned back to their native place after going through immense suffering and humiliation might prefer not to return at all to their respective workplaces. The phenomenon might create disruption in labour markets in terms of labour shortage leading to higher wages for small- and medium-sized units, which are already struggling to survive and largely depend upon the services of migrant labourers. On the other hand, there could be excess supply of labour in the rural sector, depressing rural wages. In sum, the steps preferred by the government would face implementation challenges and do not address adequately the woes of migrant workers in a short- and longer-term perspective.

The writer works with a leading Indian corporate. Views are personal

Published on May 28, 2020

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