Handling the migrant labour issue during corona, discuss

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Social distancing and ‘stay home, stay safe’ became the mantras when the nationwide lockdown1.0 was announced to contain the spread of Covid-19. But by the time lockdown2.0 was announced due to rise in infected cases, the potential to remain home and stay safe of one-tenth of the population had wiped out because they neither lived in what might be called as home nor they were safe inside their dwellings. These were the migrant workers who provide support services to each sector and across the classes. Their savings had dried out as they supported themselves without jobs. Gripped with fear, anxious about their families and no word from the government regarding their welfare forced them to steer back home as no conveyance was available. Many were stopped at state borders and sent to shelters. Others continued to steer along train tracks or on highways. 

On May 1, the government launched buses and special trains for them, but many continued to steer back home because they didn’t want to attend for the trains or didn’t have the documentation required to board them. On May 9, 16 workers walking back home to Madhya Pradesh from Maharashtra, and who had stopped to rest on railway tracks were run over by a goods train.

Issues faced due to lockdown

The Central Government announced the lockdown with just a 4-hour notice making it harder for the migrants to work out ways to face the challenge. Although this was essential given the very fact that a bigger delay would cause large scale movement of individuals and make it difficult to contain the spread of the pandemic. But this crisis could have been averted with a well thought out plan like opening up all schools, community halls, hostels, stadiums as temporary shelters, and opening community kitchens in each block of the country. Lack of necessary relief measures led to scarcity of trust in government which in turn forced them to undertake a journey on foot. And by the time the government provided the transport, many had succumbed to death due to their strenuous journey and the virus had spread across the country to a large extent which led to a rise in the number of infected cases.

The migrant workers form the backbone of the labor force but still, they are employed in casual jobs without any social cover ensuring that businesses could operate at low costs. Most of these workers live in cramped spaces that lack sanitation and hygiene facilities and difficult to maintain social distancing, hence making this section highly vulnerable to such types of epidemics. Lack of social security and job loss due to lockdown has created income security challenges for them which, in turn, put their lives more in danger.

Way Forward

After the implementation of Unlock1.0, several economic activities have taken a hit as most of the migrants have left the workplaces. It has taken India more than seven decades and a pandemic to realize how crucial migrant workers are. Hence India must make short-term and long-term changes to benefit the migrants and market.

Recently PM Narendra Modi launched ‘Garib Kalyan Rozgar Yojana’ and Atmanirbhar package to boost the livelihood opportunities of migrant workers. As a part of the scheme, 5kg of food grains and 1 kg of channa per family per month will be provided to these workers. The MGNREGA was enhanced to provide jobs for 100 days.

But this is often not enough. Boosting the consumption demand is the need of the hour since consumption expenditure constitutes 60% of India’s GDP. And ensuring decent earnings to the workers can only facilitate this. The MGNREGA provides jobs for limited days. Hence creating opportunities for gainful employment through co-operatives not only powers the Atmanirbhar engine but also promotes decentralization of the method of growth. The States may need to improve infrastructure, setup new MSMEs to make the project feasible. 

Next, the government should take measures like framing National Employment Policy to look into labor welfare, setting up of Migrant Worker’s Welfare Fund to address the requirement of accommodation and unemployment allowance just in case they shift job and enrolling them under Ayushman Bharat, to motive the workers to get back to work.

Last but not the least is to empower women educationally, economically, and socially to ensure universal access to health, education, local employment, and demand generation that’s critical for India’s economic building.

The samudra manthan of the Indian economy by Covid-19 pandemic has spewed the poison of a serious economic and human development setback for India. If we use the migrant labor crisis as a chance to rework our economy and society, the churning may yet bring up the amrit of immortal progress – the demographic dividend – a key goal of PM Modi’s Atmanirbhar Bharat.

-Monika Dash