Amidst coronavirus pandemic induced sudden lockdown had left stranded the migrant workers into the cities and their plight has been discussed repeatedly in the discussions. Center for Work and Welfare, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI) organized a special lecture by Prof Irudaya Rajan, Professor, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram on July 11, 2020, covering the topic Migration and the State amid the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Prof Shakti Kak, Chairperson, Center for Work and Welfare, IMPRI in her opening remarks highlighted how the economic closure started on 25th March 2020 affected these migrants who are also workers in the unorganized sector who lack the resources such as employment contracts for their labor and pay the highest price in case of epidemics.
She exemplified the workers involved in Surat, Tamil Nadu in power loom, handloom, brick kiln industries, who are not seasonal but are employed in contract jobs that lack welfare measures. She opined that this nationwide lockdown has compelled the workers across the country to march back to their villages with their families in search of humanity, food, and a place to live. It is the unorganized sector laborer and seasonal secular workers who really bore the brunt of economic closure. Their place of work has been inhospitable to them.
Though the NGOs have provided them meals it is the responsibility of the state, which has remained deficient and inhumane to them as evident by the fact that these workers have to reach the Supreme Court to demand safe passage to their homes. She emphasized the role of development policy in the employment system ensuring that they have minimum wages, employment contracts, among others.
She further added the provisions in the Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Package were not implemented properly. The distribution of reliefs is not properly streamlined. The ignorance and apathy showed by contractors towards the workers are not acceptable. Lack of data constrains policymakers to formulate policies. Moreover, there is no recognition of the economic significance of migrant workers.
Prof Irudaya Rajan, Professor, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram stated that facilitating safe migration requires data and policy but both don’t exist in our country. There is no policy for migrants. Migrants in today’s scenario are concerned more about livelihood than the COVID-19 pandemic. Many countries experienced lockdown but migrants in India were seen dying through the railway track, begging for food, and coming in large numbers to railway stations. But this country lacks the number of people who suffered the brunt of lockdown.
He said the government should have given a hint before lockdown. The government should have given a week of time before the lockdown, like the Government of Bangladesh. The government should have arranged special trains, buses, flights to get migrants to move back. This lockdown highlighted the borders among the states within the country.
According to the census 2011, 450 million people in this country living at the place they aren’t born. We can predict that 150 million people are added to migration in every decade. So, it can be predicted that in the 2021 census, about 650 million people would be living at the place they aren’t born. Out of these, 1/3rd of the people, that is, 200 million accounts for interstate/inter-district migrants, and out of these, only 140 million migrants would actually be working. So, 140 million are affected by the lockdown. The economic review says that 9 million move back by train and buses in a year. We never knew these people were moving but it is highlighted in this pandemic
There exists a distress migration. On the one side, there are policies to promote urbanization and on the other side, there are policies to keep poor people in rural areas. He opined, people are given 100 days of employment under MNREGA and the state tries to give urban facilities in rural areas but people are still pouring into cities because they want to earn more money than the state is providing them in rural areas. This shows the unhappiness of these workers and the failure of the state to provide them the required facilities.
He questioned what they will do in the remaining 265 days of work? We never give them enough time to move back to their origins but they faced the brunt of a series of lockdowns. Middle-class people can earn by working at home but poor people have no source of income. He defined the trains as corona express who took initiative to move back the migrants.
He interviewed one migrant, who said “I went to my village and was transported like livestock; I was moved in a lorry”. He further added that nobody seems to care about the migrant, that’s why they are walking on the streets. “Migrants are not beggars; we made them beggars because we don’t have policies for them.” PM Fund is used for buying ventilators for COVID-19 patients which is obviously important but migrants also need food to survive, they are dying with starvation.
“Migrants are not beggars; we made them beggars, because we don’t have policies for them”
Prof Rajan during webinar at IMPRI
He questioned who is responsible for the plight of migrants- employers, their state of origin, or the state providing them work? But corona shows nobody is responsible for their situation. These people are heroes in the cities and most of the economic activities are carried out by them but this pandemic made these heroes zeroes. First time in the history of them, migrants left the cities empty-handed. This is not only accompanied by the stigma that they are the carriers of coronavirus.
PM Care fund of about Rs. 20 crores are being used to buy ventilators which is important but they should also spend on efficiently providing food to the migrants. Giving people oxygen is as important as giving food. Relief package of Rs. 20 lakh crores were announced but they provide only 5 KG rice per people which indicates that it is spending Rs 3000 crore. Still, they are on the roads begging for food. Then they added money in MNREGA, but how will they work in lockdown and pandemic?
According to him, the government should give a direct cash transfer of Rs. 25000 per month per migrant which would be 3 lakhs crore as a whole for a quantum of 140 million. This will be a step towards self-reliance.
He concluded by saying that not giving salaries to migrants is a daylight robbery. Indians and the government are responsible for this. Migrants should be provided with social security and pension. Secondly, NREGA is an appropriate program but migrants need more to move out of poverty. Thirdly, there should be no limit to work (100 days). Migrants can work for 365 days. There should be no restriction. Migrant Special Card should be introduced like we have a debit card or credit card. There should be an incentive for them which will also be used to have a database.
Prof RP Mamgain, Professor, S. R. Sankaran Chair, National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, Hyderabad states that migrants have faced a permanent loss of their incomes. He said that decline in the overall income would lead to a decline in the living standards of the people because they won’t be able to invest in better education and health facilities. He says that if now government makes the policies for migrants, what is the guarantee that these policies will be taken forward as there are weak implementation and monitoring in our country.
80-90% of the migrants will come back because there is no other way for them to survive in cities. Agriculture has declined over the years. Thus, there is a need to ensure that these people return to urban areas with the assurance that they will receive dignified wages and life. The state should have a database of all the migrants including the minimum wage, working conditions, social security benefits, among other indicators.
Another challenge lies with the unskilled cohort of people in India. To overcome this challenge, in Uttar Pradesh, a survey is done on migrant worker’s set of skills and trying to give them jobs in the industries which is a good idea and should be done on a larger scale.
He emphasized that there is a need to ensure that people will come back to work in cities. We need a permanent solution to the problem. In the current scenario, it is important to do away with the 100 days limit in MNREGA, and rather than households, individuals should be allowed to work under MNREGA.
Prof Arvind Pandey says safe migration needs planned and well-managed policies which is a responsibility of the state. He says that there are policies where migrants were mentioned but when the policies were enacted the migrant word was removed from those policies. The 4Ds – Dirty, Dangerous, Difficult, Discrimination are the characteristics of migrant workers. Due to the lack of a registration system, migrants don’t know their employers. The lockdown has also shown that workers have not received payments for the work they have done. The government should at least pay the compensatory wages to them.
Migrants, when moving back, increase the serious risk of spreading COVID-19. This led migrants into a vulnerable position without any financial aid from the government. Also, Migrant workers aren’t mentioned in policies or considered by the policymakers because there is no registration, database, secondary data resource that does not provide updated data of migrants and in most of the policy discourse, migrants are invisible.
Acknowledgments: Tulsi Bajaj is a research intern at IMPRI. She is pursuing BA Hons in Economics from Delhi University
By Anshula Mehta, Ritika Gupta, and Dr. Arjun Kumar, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI)