Over the last few weeks many migrant workers have left for their native villages in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh, due to a nation-wide lockdown. With the rabi harvest for wheat set to begin in Punjab and Haryana and a few other states, and state governments considering opening APMC mandis and other procurement centres, absence of labourers is set to pose a big problem. Even if the lockdown is lifted by April 14, many of these labourers may not want to come back because of their traumatic experiences during transit and fear of the Covid-19 infection. When mandis open for procurement, there would be need for labourers to help with loading/unloading of grains, their weighment and packaging, and cleaning of warehouses.

The number of internal migrants in India in 2011 (as per Census) was 45.36 crore – that is 37 per cent of the population, up from 31.45 crore in 2001, when it was 30 per cent of the population, as per Census data. While about 25 per cent is movement between districts of the same state, 12-13 per cent is inter-state movement.

Inter-state movement of labour, though less when seen for the country as a whole, for certain states, it is high.

As per a recent report from Anand Rathi, a company engaged in financial market services and advisory, five states which have witnessed major inflow of migrants (inter-state) in the last two decades are Maharashtra, Delhi, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir and Tamil Nadu.


Purchase operations to suffer

Economic activities that require large number of elementary workers (unskilled and semi-skilled) including agriculture, trade and construction, will be the worst impacted by the shortage of labour in the next few months. As per data of International Labour Organisation, in India, the proportion of elementary workers in agriculture is large. Besides, almost 70 per cent of the workforce in agriculture are contract workers. Now, in this season, much of the harvest in Punjab and Haryana is likely to be done by Combines though usually there is also manual harvesting. However, when mandis open for procurement, it can’t be done without labourers. Speaking to a trader from Punjab, it is understood that during peak arrival times in a mandi, depending on the number of registered farmers, the count of hamalis (labourers) required go up to a few hundreds to even thousands. In Punjab, much of the work at the mandis is done by migrant workers from Bihar, he added.

MGNREGA workers can be used

Each state can consider using the holders of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) job cards for work at the mandis as they may be jobless due to the lockdown. This will be of benefit for both these workers, as they can earn some additional income: hamalis get paid for their work at the mandis, as well as help clear up the work at mandis. As per official data of the MGNREGA portal, there are about 6.08 lakh and 13.45 lakh active workers in Haryana and Punjab respectively. In Tamil Nadu, another state that is hugely dependant on migrant workforce, there are about 82.69 lakh active workers under MGNREGA. In Maharashtra, there are about 53.46 lakh active workers. It is time that the Ministry of Rural Department list the loading/unloading and other work in mandis as a permissible work under MGNREGA. The State Governments should hold discussions with Gram Sabhas and take this demand to the Rural Development Ministry right away. That said, bringing about this one change is easier said than done, says Nikhil Dey, founding member of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, an NGO closely working on MGNREGA.

“You can’t just one day pick up this idea and start using NREGA labour for work at mandis. First, the legal framework needs to be amended. Then, there is the need for a lot of careful thinking about how these workers can and should follow a protocol using masks and social distancing, and what additional benefits and safeguards they will be given for their security…”

He further added, “Unlike what’s been happening in recent years, the Centre should also ensure that the NREGA workers are paid their wages on time. While it is actually to be paid in 15 days, it takes even two to three months. Also, one should not try to disturb the existing structure for NREGA but put in place a new NREGA disaster management scheme with extra resources, more appropriate permissible works, and by allowing decentralised planning and use of the scheme to help people and communities overcome this disaster.”