By Anoushka Chandra
COVID-19 Crisis Through a Migration LensThe economic crisis induced by COVID-19 could be long, deep, and pervasive when viewed through a migration lens. Lockdowns travel bans, and social distancing have brought global economic activities to a near standstill. Host countries/states face additional challenges in many sectors, such as health and agriculture, that depend on the availability of migrant workers. Migrants face the risk of contagion and also the possible loss of employment, wages, and health insurance coverage. After lockdown measures were implemented in India on March 25, over 4 crore migrant laborers began facing uncertainty at their place of work and the risk of running out of their savings. Without hope for the future, these workers began following trends that were last noticed during the 2008 recession — heading back home.“Most migrant laborers in India migrate to mega and metro cities in search of a better livelihood and better opportunities,” said Harsha Vardhan, a Project Consultant at Ernst and Young, “Although most migrant laborers would prefer to work in their villages or nearby towns, irregular jobs, huge debt burdens and lack of better opportunities compel them to leave their family behind and seek employment thousands of kilometers away” Now, the outbreak of the pandemic has forced these workers to take drastic steps.At last count, over a crore migrant worker has registered to return to their home states. Others have walked halfway across borders and journeyed over 500 to a thousand kilometers on foot. Most migrant workers have also said they would never come back, with their future continuing to remain uncertain.India, being a union of states, has never seen internal migration as a policy priority because although migrant workers are the heartbeat of ever-bustling metropolises, they are invisible. As part of the unorganized sector, they are not considered essential for the political economy. There are an estimated 139 million migrants in the country, according to the World Economic Forum. The International Labour Organization (ILO) predicted that due to the pandemic and the lockdown, about 400 million workers would be poverty-stricken. Most migrants in the country originate from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, followed by Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The cities of Mumbai and Delhi attract the highest number of migrants. While most men migrate for work, women migrate due to marriage.Maharashtra has the largest number of migrants, according to the 2011 Census of India. The State Government imposed a lockdown on 20 March in Pune, Pimpri-Chinchwad, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, and Nagpur, leaving the migrant workers with no work. Thousands then gathered at the train termini and bus stations, seeking transport to their hometowns. With the nationwide lockdown, all transport facilities were closed.Government’s Response:
Accordingly, the central government permitted state governments to utilize the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) for setting up shelters for migrants and providing them food. The Centre has also released Rs 11,000 crore of its contribution in advance to all states on April 3 to augment the funds in their SDRF. Soon after the central government directive in late March, state governments set up thousands of camps to house lakhs of migrants and stop the exodus. Delhi government provided free food to 4 lakh people every day, as of late March. As of 28 May, 91 lakh migrants had traveled back home in government-arranged transport facilities. In late March, the Uttar Pradesh government decided to arrange buses at Delhi’s Anand Vihar bus station to take the migrants back to their villages for free. On 1 May, the central government permitted the Indian Railways to launch “Shramik Special” trains for the migrant workers and others stranded. States/UTs have now been advised to provide work to the migrant workers going back home.The government will also allocate an additional Rs 40,000 crore under MGNREGA to provide work. This measure will help generate nearly 300 crore person-days in total and create a large number of durable and livelihood assets, including water conservation assets.Not so rosy and swift as it seems:
According to the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), migrants were confused about the exact procedures to register themselves for travel. Additionally, many state registration portals were either in English or the local language of the states they lived in, which very few migrants could understand. Further, the general lack of information from the government to the migrants had resulted in them paying large sums of money to register themselves. Due to lack of transport, these people walked down, with no money and with hunger. Social distancing could not be practiced. There were many deaths reported due to negligence by government and adequate policies, they have suffered a lot. While government schemes ensured that the poor would get additional rations due to the lockdown, the distribution system failed to be effective as the ration cards are area-specific, and fair price shops were largely inaccessible. Migrant workers who decided to stay back during the exodus faced assault from their neighbors, who accused them of being infected with the coronavirus. They thus could not venture out to buy food. Many also faced police brutality if they ventured out of their home. Despite government promises and schemes to generate employment in rural areas, some migrant workers began going back to the cities due to lack of employment in their hometowns, as lockdown restrictions were reduced as part of Unlock 1.0 in June. A study conducted in April-May stated that 77% of migrant workers were prepared to return to cities for work. This reverse exodus is again an issue as the employers are facing a shortage of labor, also it is now difficult for the migrants to back to work due to rising cases of Coronavirus and lack of safety net for them. The employers are themselves hit massively due to economic slowdown and the lockdown. Only when the laborers return, there is scope for economic revival.The magnitude of the crisis unleashed for migrant labor could have been avoided with a little forethought. Early announcement of cash transfers, shelter, and food availability, would have obviated the need for migration. It says something about us that we were given more time to prepare for the banging of utensils than migrant labor was given time to reach home.Some viable steps to address the issue
First, there is a need to reorient the working of the Construction Workers Welfare Board (CWWB) in each state. The CWWB provides social security to migrant workers. However, the funds’ utilization (ignoring interstate variation) is low, at 21 percent. Based on the records available with the CWWB of major states, where the influx of migrants is the maximum, the Centre can transfer a fixed monthly amount for the next three months. Some states like Maharashtra have given one-time payment to such workers.Second, a comprehensive database of migrant workers needs to be prepared on a war footing to establish a system akin to JAM. The immediate starting point could be the MNREGA enrolments this fiscal year, which can be compared to last year’s rolls and new additions could be treated as migrant laborers. This is not a full-proof system but a starting point. The PMJDY can also be extensively leveraged to find out the remittance transfers from source to destination. Such remittance transfers could be juxtaposed against the 54 districts (2017 report) that exhibit a high level of inter-state out-migration intensity.
Third, With the country now moving towards the One Nation One Ration Card, all the respective state governments can start working in unison to ensure the use of such ration cards for extending all benefits other than PDS. The portability of food security should be the first step towards the portability of healthcare, education benefits. A basic social security framework for migrants, preferably through a simple interstate self-registration process that can be authenticated through SMSs, can be developed. This could be enhanced to include migrant children in the annual work plans of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. Migrants can also have unrestricted access to skill programs.The time has now come for a complete overhaul of obsolete legislation regulating migrant labor in India. For example, in the Inter-State Migrant Workers Act 1979 (ISMWA), the inter-state migrant has to migrate through a contractor. Such laws create a serious challenge in extending stable employment and social security nets to this set of workers. What is thus needed is a clear articulation of a national policy of migrant labor in this era of digital technology. With help of so many social programs running in the country, the government should now create a comprehensive database, drawing on the databases of Ayushman Bharat, PM-KISAN, Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana and MUDRA for future social welfare initiatives.