As the world’s largest democracy, we have failed in ensuring the very purpose of Article 39 of the Indian constitution (which directs to eradicate inequality of economic development). Since our first five-year plan, the country’s focus has been to end developmental inequality among the states. The differential development of States (Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Delhi developing fast while others are left behind) defeated this purpose. These developed states provide a better livelihood platform to the poor population of the backward States. This led to interstate migration in India.
The recent pandemic due to the SARS-COV-2 has brought to the fore the true nature of India’s socio-economic structure. The total number of internal migrants in India, as per the 2011 census, is 45.36 crores or 37% of the country’s population. A study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies(CSDS) and Azim Premji University estimates that 29% of the population in India’s big cities is of daily wagers. The same studies show that more than 85% of daily wagers earn less than ₹10,000 per month. The share of migrant workers is highest in the construction sector, which also contributes to around 5–6% of India’s GDP.
The state dictated sudden lockdown deprived the most vulnerable community (such as daily wage migrant workers) of accessing the means of livelihood opportunities. Unavailability of food and other essential services at the doorstep of workers went against their right to life (Art 21). The state failed to assess the situation beforehand, keeping in mind the migrant worker condition. Assessment by the state could have started by the time India faced the first imported coronavirus case on 30 January, 2020.
By forming a committee in advance and formulating a policy which would have accommodated the best practices of several countries (South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, etc.) would have been the best idea. The poor healthcare infrastructure of our cities couldn’t provide poor people with enough avenues for taking sanitation or social distancing measures. They live in the most congested setups, which makes the recovery process altogether difficult.
The decision to suspend the inter-state movement was a disaster for them. When they tried to leave for their homes in this hunger crisis, they were seen as carriers of coronavirus and were subjected to police brutality. Even their home states didn’t empathize, and the conditions of the government-run quarantine centres showed the apathy of our leaders towards poor people. Reverse migration on foot showed us a picture of India which we never imagined after 72 years of independence.
These panics could’ve been avoided to some extent by communicating the right message (addressing the pre-occupied fear of the virus) as well as providing them with resources (food, cash, etc.) before the lockdown was forced upon them.
The central government’s first tranche of package consisting of 1.7 lakh crore relief lacked the intent and proved too little considering this unprecedented situation. Its free 5 kg food grain and 1 kg pulses, free cooking gas and direct cash transfer (₹500 per month in every woman’s Jan-Dhan account) benefits failed to achieve its goals.
The free food grain scheme lacked a provision to avail free ration to migrant workers in the states they were stuck in. Women had to travel to the bank to withdraw ₹500 as most of them didn’t have an ATM card. Only 13% of the allocated free food was distributed among migrant workers who didn’t have a ration card.
Early nationwide implementation of the “one nation one ration card” scheme and doorstep delivery of financial services to the vulnerable classes could have eased this situation to a large extent. Even migrant workers who returned to their villages on foot couldn’t get a job under MGNREGA due to extension of the lockdown guidelines till 19 April, 2020. The central government revised these guidelines to allow MGNREGA related work only after 20 April onwards.
This situation could have been avoided with the advance release of adequate funds to the state. The situation required the state to develop a strategy to absorb surplus returnee workers under MGNREGA and provide them compulsory work or either pay them mandatory unemployment allowances under the scheme.
Despite a visible policy gap by the Centre and State, dome states showed a little more empathy. UP was the first state that arranged food, temporary shelter and buses for stranded workers. In a pragmatic and progressive policy decision, they also initiated the “mapping of the skill set of the migrant workers in the government database” to realize them a better and sustainable livelihood opportunity. However, these decisions didn’t make much of an impact and left large migrant workers to struggle on their own.
Also, the inconsistent policy directives by the central government confused the states and harmed the idea of cooperative federalism. It’s high time we empathize enough with the plight of migrant workers who drive much of the demand/consumption in the economy and also act as the foundation of a prosperous India.
The idea of development needs a rejig, which could see the migrant worker as an equal partner rather than an object to exploit. We need to imbibe Gandhi’s idea of a self-sufficient village economy in addition to the idea of smart city and urban development. The delicate balance between these two ideas can ensure the welfare of migrant workers. The way forward could be skilling our human resources (especially the poor working-class) and seeking technological leap through industry 4.0.