Handling the migrant labor issue during corona, discuss

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Amidst a global pandemic, which has hit India especially hard, significant attention has been given to another major crisis that has broken out in India, namely the Migrant Labor crisis. Hundreds of thousands (of a total of approximately 40 million) migrant labourers have been seen returning to their hometowns on foot, under (literally) life-threatening circumstances.

It is a widely known fact that many Indians leave their hometowns (usually villages or small towns with very little opportunity for income and personal growth) and migrate to cities seeking jobs and better incomes; this move from rural settings to urban settings in search for ameliorated standards of living is explained by the Harris-Todaro model of migration.

However, what India has recently witnessed was reverse-migration, from urban settings to rural settings. This was the case because after the lockdown, these migrant workers in the city did not have jobs to earn money from, which deprived them of the basic necessity of food. Although the government had announced that all salaries must be paid, even with a 30% reduction from the payment agreement, this did not apply to these migrant labourers because they do not get salaries under contracts; they get wages per hour, per day or per job.

The fact that a vast majority of these migrant labourers belong to the informal sector is a massive problem. Belonging to the informal sector deprives them of job security and social safety net policies, for a simple (yet irresponsible) reason that they are unaccounted-for in the government systems. The absence of a central registry for migrant workers makes them almost invisible to governmental welfare schemes. Thus, before the crisis, the government had shockingly inaccurate and obsolete data on the numbers (5.6 million from a 2011 census), skills and origins of migrants labourers (who are mostly from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Rajasthan).

Apart from being excluded from a bona fide arrangement of income and from welfare schemes, many migrant workers did not even have their own homes to live in; they lived in factory-provided accommodations, which were also snatched from them due to the lockdown, resulting in another reason for why they migrated.

But even after realizing these major sustenance issues that the migrant workers were facing, the government did not take any immediate action, either to provide them with the basic necessities of food and shelter or to arrange transportation for them to move back to their hometowns. This was a consequence of insufficient labor laws for inter-state migrant workers and it is no less than a human rights abuse to be devoid of basic necessities.

This unsupervised mass migration caused a lot of migrant deaths on the way home, as well as many possible health complications that might arise from such a challenging journey. In addition to this, the mass migration has also been suspected to have aggravated the spread of Covid-19.

The response of the government to this crisis was rather reactive than proactive. The union government firstly decided to give free food supplies of 5 kg grain (rice or wheat) per labourer and 1 kg chana per family for 2 months; this measure was truly benevolent, however, not generous enough. Labourers usually have larger families, which will need more support than just the total of 6 kg of food supplies per month. Moreover, these provisions are promised only for 2 months, which is not enough for the workers to find sturdy employment to sustain their families, unless they risk their lives again by moving back to the cities even with the heavy contamination of those regions.

The union finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, has announced initiation of 25 schemes under the umbrella scheme of PM Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan, which is aimed at creating employment in various fields. Nevertheless, the Abhiyan will take about 125 days to come into effect.

Non-governmental experts have suggested that migrant workers should form cooperatives and unions in their respective hometowns because they can help each other gain business based on skills, and may later even re-enter urban markets with demands for social security and better working conditions. Moreover, having cooperatives and unions, as suggested by one 2013 ILO brief, will ensure that these workers do not have to work in sweat-shops. Creating jobs for themselves will not only empower these migrant workers, but will also aid in balanced regional development, which fortifies the Atmanirbhar initiative on a regional level.

To avoid a crisis as such in the future, there have been talks of creating a separate ministry and separate laws for inter-state migrant labourers, who are safeguarded neither by union or state laws nor ILO laws; this seems like a possibility now due to skill-mapping done by states during migration

-Purvi Soni

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