Some straightforward solutions to the migrant crisis

exodus of migrants after covid lockdown
Migrants returning to Odisha. An indispensable factor in managing home quarantine is cooperation from the returnee, family members and the neighbourhood.

By Krishna Kumar Sinha

On May 8, six weeks after the nationwide lockdown was imposed to curb the spread of the new coronavirus pandemic, 16 migrant labourers returning to their home in Madhya Pradesh were run over by a goods train between Jalna and Aurangabad districts. The victims were workers at a steel unit in Jalna and were walking by the track to escape harassment by police. They decided to stop after walking 36 km and slept on the track. This tragic incident shook the collective conscience of the nation and brought to the fore the plight of migrant workers in India.

All along major highways connecting important business centres with hinterlands, the scenario is similar. Migrant workers and their families walking home in large numbers. These workers, no longer wanted by employers, deprived of their accommodation and left with no money for even food, had no option but to walk as all transport services are suspended under the lockdown. These underprivileged citizens want to be with their dear ones during the time of the pandemic. However, their ill-luck seems to have accompanied them as many such tragic incidents are being reported. Also, many of them also succumb to hunger, dehydration and illness on the way.

READ: Covid-19: How Kerala fought the deadly virus

Lockdown, travel ban along with social distancing norms have affected the labourers, and more particularly the migrants. Even during pre-Covid days, migrant workers are subjected to harassment, non-payment of wages, accidents, and exploitation. The current crisis has engendered a new situation arising from the exodus of inter-state migrants, an unprecedented phenomenon. While the mass absence of skilled and semi-skilled workers has put a question mark on the reopening of economic activities ranging from construction to shop floor production line, it also exposed the vulnerability of the unorganised labour that comprise 80% of India’s workforce. Though the muddle of migrant labour problems has its origin in the early years of British rule under various types of indenture-meaning contracts, the migrant labour is not fully liberated from unfavourable contracts and bonded labour even after two centuries.

Migration of labour in India

In India, there is a lack of data on migration. Census is the primary source of information about migrant population and its pattern. But the census is conducted only once in 10 years. According to the Economic Survey of India 2016-17, the annual inter-state labour mobility averaged 5-6 million people between 2001 and 2011. Inter-state migration increased sharply in the next decade and was close to 9 million annually during 2011-2016. As per Census 2011, the size of India’s workforce was 482 million. If the share of migrants in the workforce is estimated to be even 20%, the size of the migrant workforce can be estimated to be around 100 million in 2011.

The pattern of migrant movement is that people migrate from less developed states to more developed states. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the biggest sources of migrants, followed by Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, and West Bengal. The major recipient states are Delhi, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala. Sector-wise, construction sector is the largest employer of migrant workers followed by textile/garments industries, brick-kilns, intra-city and inter-city goods carrier services, mines and quarries and agriculture. As is evident, most of the jobs fall under the informal sector, meaning that very few of them get a job contract, paid leave, or social security benefits. Though they are deprived of many benefits, it is stated that migrant workers are preferred over local labour because they are cheaper, more efficient and less organised.

READ: India’s storied middle class may be sliding into poverty

Migration itself is a sign of development and not an entirely undesirable phenomenon. What is worrisome is distress migration in the frantic search for a living. In India, the pace of labour migration has seen a sharp growth in the last 15 years. While high growth witnessed in the Indian economy since the year 2000 has created job opportunities for the middle class, it has also widened the gap between the developed and less developed states, agriculture and non-agriculture sectors, as well as rural and urban areas, leading to an increase in migration. Better availability of transportation and affordable communication facilities have also acted as catalysts. In short, economic reasons are the primary force behind migration.

Once at their new place of work, the problems encountered by the migrants emanate from differences in language and cultural identities, and lack of awareness about social and political rights, all of which lead to exploitation. The cities which are built by migrant workers not only ignore their contribution, but also discredit them for problems such as petty crimes, filth, and congestion. They are not on the radar of political parties or trade unions because they are mostly not on the voter’s list in their place of work. The current situation has also exposed the emptiness of the social security net for the poor who are left to fend for themselves or at the mercy of charity organisations. The local governments in UP, Delhi and some other states have set up shelters for migrant workers who could not get back home. Some NGOs and citizens groups are also working to help them. But, these measures are far from adequate and do not address the basic issues.

READ: Treat migrants with empathy, allow them to go home

Since the quest for better living standards being the main push factor for the people moving from one place to another, addressing the issue of regional disparities is the obvious answer to reduce mass migration. However, it is easier said than done. Thus, it is unlikely that sooner, there would be any reversal or major change in the pattern of migration.

Legislative initiatives for migrants

An initiative was taken in the state labour ministers conference in 1976 which recommended the setting up of a committee to examine all issues and suggest measures to eliminate malpractices prevalent in migrant worker’s deployment. The committee recommended the enactment of a separate central legislation to regulate the employment of interstate migrant workers as it was felt that the provisions of the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act 1970 did not adequately take care of the welfare issues of migrant workers. Accordingly, the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 was enacted. The Act lists rights of migrant workers that are in addition to those under general labour laws, some of which are listed as under:

  • Equal or better wages for the similar nature of work.
  • Duration of work applicable to the local workmen.
  • Stipulated minimum wages under the Minimum Wages Act, 1948.
  • Displacement allowance.
  • Home journey allowance including payment of wages during journey time.
  • Suitable residential accommodation and medical facilities free of charge.

While provisions under the Act look adequately comprehensive in serving the purpose as outlined in the legislation, unfortunately, this piece of legislation remains one of the least implemented laws of the land. The arduous compliance requirements for the employer and the contractor in the Act appear to be one reason. In terms of wages and allowances too, the law makes the hiring of inter-state migrant workers more expensive than a local workman. Besides, contractors are obligated to provide residential accommodation and medical benefits for workmen. It has been seen that such tough and unrealistic compliance requirements often make the provisions counterproductive.

READ: Odisha’s quiet success in war on Covid-19 pandemic

The cost of implementation of such provisions goes up for the state agencies, and what is worse, the impracticality of the rules framed therein compel the employer and the contractor to look for loopholes for bypassing the provisions. The net result was limited implementation of the Act. To make the Act gender-neutral, the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Condition of Service) Amendment Bill, 2011 was introduced in the Rajya Sabha and was referred to the standing committee on labour. The standing committee recommended that the Bill should be returned to the government with the request to bring a comprehensive amendment in the Act so that the problems of the migrant workers could be addressed in its entirety. Subsequently, it was decided that four codes will be formulated, covering all the existing legislation on labour including that on migrant labour.

No doubt, poor implementation of the Act affected the migrant worker’s plight the most. But there was one more casualty — the planning process. Non-implementation of the Act resulted in the absence of updated data on migrant labour that could have helped anticipate the enormity of the mass exodus.

The Social Security Code Bill, 2019

The Social Security Code Bill, 2019, one of the four Codes proposed under the labour reforms, was introduced in the Lok Sabha in December 2019, paving way for universalisation of social security for 50 crore workers in the country. The Code aims to provide social security to unorganised sector workers. The relevant provision reads: “The central government shall formulate and notify, from time to time, suitable welfare schemes for unorganised workers….on matters relating to life and disability cover, health and maternity benefits, old age protection, education, housing, and any other benefits as may be determined by the central government”.

One Important aim of the bill is to set up a new social security fund that will provide many welfare benefits such as death and disability benefit pensions. Though the bill has been generally welcomed by the industry, experts feel that the draft Code needs to specifically cover inter-state migrant workers and it should also facilitate portability of benefits under the bill from one state to another. As of now the Bill stands referred to the parliamentary standing committee on labour.

READ: Indian economy needs a booster shot, not slow medicine

Financial stimulus package

The images of millions of the migrants walking to reach home hundreds of miles, carrying their small children and belongings, touched the conscience of the nation. A feeling of guilt that we have let down a large section of our people at a difficult juncture pushed the nation to clamour for providing relief. The government came up with the financial stimulus package of Rs 20 lakh crore which has a component for migrant workers. Some of these measures are listed here:

  • Free foodgrain supply (5 kg of grains and 1 kg chana per person) to 8 crore migrant workers without a ration card for the next 3 months.
  • “One Nation One Ration Card ” scheme, under which anyone, irrespective of where they are, can avail of ration, to be implemented by March 2021.
  • Under the PM Awas Yojana, a scheme to provide affordable housing for migrants.
  • A Rs 5,000 crore special credit facility benefit for 50 lakh street vendors, to avail a loan of Rs 10,000 to be launched within a month.

Another component of the package dedicated to revive MSME units can help mitigate problems of the migrant labour since a sizable number of them are employed by the MSME sector.

READ: India’s Faustian bargain: Alcohol revenues trump health, welfare

  • Rs 3 lakh crore collateral-free loans to MSME units with up to Rs 25 crore outstanding credit and Rs 100 crore turnover with a four-year tenor and a moratorium of 12 months on principal payment. The scheme can be availed till October 31, 2020. The government will provide a complete credit guarantee.
  • Rs 50,000 crore equity infusion in the equity of MSMEs through a Fund of Funds. The Fund of Funds will be set-up with a corpus of Rs 10,000 crore to give equity-based funding to MSMEs having growth potential.
  • Under the revised definition, MSMEs will be categorized under a common matrix that will be a mix of investment in plants and machinery and turnover. This is intended to address MSMEs fear of overgrowing to receive benefits given by the government exclusively to MSME units falling under current MSME definition.
  • The government and central public sector enterprises will release all pending payments to MSME units within the next 45 days.

The Way Forward

These measures offering direct relief have the potential to improve the lives of the migrant labour currently left at the mercy of charity, though these schemes will have to tackle logistic and implementation challenges due to lack of a reliable database on migrant labour. As regards the measures announced for MSME units, these are aimed at solving the liquidity problem faced by them through collateral-free credit from banks to meet their regular expenses at a time when the cash flow has dipped due to lockdown. Let’s hope that these measures will provide the much-needed comfort to migrant workers who keep the wheel of the economy moving. The following inferences could broadly define the roadmap for the restoration of normalisation:

READ: Online learning is the new normal; government must ensure access to all

  • Free foodgrain supply for three months is the most desirable measure proposed under the package to provide immediate relief to migrant workers. Luckily, India has enough foodgrain stock to cover a year’s requirements and the scheme for free foodgrain to migrant labour at no cost could be considered for another three-months. A bumper rabi crop production has further strengthened the government’s capacity to continue such a welfare scheme.
  • Need to prepare an authentic database on migrants including their numbers, age group, gender, main livelihood, skills acquired, and mobility records. Recently, a news report stated that the government of UP has directed the officials to prepare a database of all the returnees based on their skills. This will include details such as name, address, and contact number of all the migrants who are now returning to UP due to the coronavirus crisis. Once their quarantine period is over, all migrant workers will be given employment at local level at par with their skills, and the government would utilise their skills to revive the state’s economy. This is a step in the right direction and should be taken up by other state authorities.
  • Additional credit facility for MSME units engaged in labour intensive work at a lower interest rate would facilitate a quicker reopening of these units.
  • On the lines of faster clearance of pending payments to MSMEs by PSUs, GST refunds and duty drawback refunds to MSME units may be given topmost priority.
  • Ensure that all migrants workers interested in going to their native villages are provided suitable transportation free of cost to reach their destination.
  • Those willing to stay back should be assured of all help including free ration and subsidised accommodation.
  • For those preferring to stay back in villages, revitalising the rural economy is needed to create additional employment in rural and semi-urban areas by facilitating agro-based industries. Besides, the creation of rural infrastructure projects such as clean drinking water for each village household, construction of village clinics, laying of rural roads has the potential to create jobs and generate incomes to ensure better returns of agri-produce. While industrial, manufacturing, and services sectors affected by lockdown are likely to take a longer period for recovery; India’s rural economy dominated by the agricultural sector has the resilience to provide the stability to the economy and the distressed migrant labour as well.
  • PM-KISAN Nidhi which assures ₹6,000 per year to each poor farmer does help, but more money needs to be put in circulation to increase the purchasing power of rural folks.

The most important task today is containing the spread of the virus and saving lives. As healthcare warriors across the nation continue their efforts to control the pandemic, a parallel effort to bring the economy back on track is necessary. The above courses of action while assuaging the hardships faced by migrants will also help rebuild their confidence in the system that lies shattered today.

(Krishna Kumar Sinha is an industrial policy expert based in New Delhi. He retired from Indian Engineering Services in 2017. His last assignment with the government was as an Industrial adviser in the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion, DIPP, currently known as DPIIT.)

Recommended For You