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  • Raghav Sand

Flight and Plight of Migrant Workers 2.0

Socio-economic factors force people from villages and towns to look for work in metros and state capitals. Very few individuals or families willingly resolve to relocate. The ones who eventually make it, live a life of acute poverty and redefine the phrase ‘hand to mouth’. Last year, during the early weeks of lockdown, migrant workers gathered essential belongings and marched back home. Few of them succumbed to the heat, while others starved to death. The reverse migration had two major implications – firstly, the daily wage earners lost their livelihood, and secondly, when the lockdowns were eased sequentially, households and industry couldn’t immediately replace their workforce.

Migrant workers contribute to growth and development, while their region of origin greatly benefit from their remittances and the skills acquired during their migration experience. Yet, the migration process implies complex challenges in terms of governance, migrant workers’ protection, migration and development linkages, and regional cooperation.

Not Essential and Surplus

Cooks, cleaners, plumbers, drivers and many more were not termed as essential workers. Few were let go after being labelled as ‘surplus to requirement’. Most medium and small-scale industries operate with thin margins and have negligible working capital at their disposal. As production and sales dried up, migrant workers had no choice left. Legitimate concerns like, “How would we pay for food? And, sooner than later we will be evicted by our landlord”. Lack of social safety schemes and a credible database made matters worse. A select group of individuals tried to help those in need of food and shelter, but the sheer depth and width of the problem made any effort appear like a drop in the ocean.

Flawed Parameters of Progress

The moral critics of income inequality often begin their argument by pointing to the sheer magnitude of inequality in our country. The economy was not doing well even before the pandemic hit, and the situation at the ground is much worse now. We, as a nation should not be content with record-breaking GST collections or the $3 Trillion market capitalisation of our stock market. Numbers can be presented in ways which suit the narrative of the speaker. The lack of empathy towards the lower and middle-income group is disturbing. It seems the governments, both at the central and state level, are hinting citizens that they are on their own.

Out of 1.23 crore migrant workers who returned to their home States during the Covid–19 lockdown, 50 per cent (61,34,943) were from three States — Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. Add Rajasthan and Odisha’s workers to the list and these five States together recorded 67 per cent migrant workers returning home.

Government Apathy

In a written reply in Rajya Sabha on 17 March, Minister of State (I/C) for Labour & Employment Shri Santosh Kumar Gangwar proposed to develop National Database of Unorganised Workers (NDUW). He said “NDUW which will be a comprehensive data base of the Unorganised Workers including the Building and other Construction Workers and Migrant workers, seeded with Aadhaar. It will have details of name, occupation, address, occupation type, educational qualification, skill types & family details etc. for optimum realization of their employability and extend the benefits of the social security schemes to them.”

The proposal looks good on paper, but lack of tangible improvement in the last fifteen months shows lack of political will. In a country like India, we cannot obsess about the rising fiscal deficit as a percentage of GDP. A depleted and disenchanted workforce is surviving on past savings and is forced to liquidate gold and silver. Inability of citizens to pay EMIs on housing and vehicle loans is being brushed under the carpet. Why is the union government shying away from providing direct cash support or a loan amnesty scheme? Whenever the Covid-19 storm subsides, it will leave millions indebted and erase bulk of the economic progress made in the last two decades.

From the Judiciary

“Whether it was the national lockdown in 2020 or mini lockdowns in 2021, psychologically the attitude of migrant workers remains the same — they would want to go home,” Justice M.R. Shah (Supreme Court of India) addressed the Centre. Justice Shah’s remark came when the government said the situation in 2021 was different from last year, when the entire nation was shut down to curb infection. Words like free will and liberty have been erased methodically from the minds of migrant workers.

A Bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and Shah was hearing a suo motu case to provide dry rations, cooked food and public transport to migrant labourer families stranded in big cities.

Perform or Perish

If the elected representatives and bureaucrats feel they are overwhelmed with work and are doing as much as possible, then they should be relieved of their duties. Being a public servant or minister was never about getting your name etched in stone or cutting the ribbon while inaugurating a public utility. Instead of waiting for the situation to improve on its own, the incompetent men and women getting paid from the consolidated fund of India should focus on cutting the red tape.

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