Expert Speak India Matters
Published on May 04, 2020
To die hungry or die sick The ability to socially distance oneself, in the wake of the pandemic, is a luxury not available to many in India. This is especially true for migrant workers who come to urban areas in search for better lives and end up living in close quarters. When the Covid-19 crisis became apparent in the country, the Prime Minister took the only step India could, to avoid a full-blown disaster – A countrywide lockdown. While this was hailed by many, the large-scale walk-backs of migrant workers to their homes revealed certain grave loopholes in the planning and execution of the immediate lockdown. The migrant workers returned because they knew that before the virus could infect them, starvation would kill them. The stories of the long walk back that cost more than 20 people their lives, led to the prime minister admitting, for once, the failure of the government to fully think about the weakest in the country – the migrant workers, who are estimated to be over 100 million in the country. The remedies were presented gradually in the form of economic and social relief to the poorest. Both direct cash transfers and doling out food were steps undertaken by the state. The relief was extremely essential and rightly undertaken but the handout scheme was limited.

Limited Social Protection

Only constituting 0.8 per cent of the country’s GDP, the government’s actions were just not enough. This can be contrasted with other developing countries, who are spending at least 3 per cent of their countries’ GDP to fight the pandemic. Whereas, the average for the developed world is as high as 11 per cent of their GDP. Furthermore, even this limited relief package did really less for the migrant workers. For instance, the direct cash benefits of the meagre Rs 500 were accessible only to women having a Jan Dhan bank account and of benefits Rs 1000 were accessible only to those pension holders who are senior citizens, disabled or widows. Given that 17% of the workers surveyed in a recent rapid survey conducted by Jan Sahas didn’t have bank accounts and the non-universal nature of these scheme leave out many migrant workers without any help from the state.

Issues with Identification

The lack of valid documents, frequent movement and the increasing informalization of work imply more often than not, the exclusion of migrant workers from government databases, leading to issues of proper identification. The relief measures were often conditional on the availability of some form of identity. However, the survey conducted by Jan Sahas revealed that 14% of labourers surveyed didn’t have ration cards, while a whopping 94% don’t have BOCW (Building and Other Construction Workers) cards. Hence, targeting the poor in order to provide aid could not be completely successful. Moreover, a survey conducted by The Hindu revealed that the aid didn’t even reach enough people. 96% of the workers surveyed did not receive ration from the government, while 70% did not get cooked food from the government.

Risky Shelter Camps

While the migrant workers were not allowed to move back, shelter camps were opened for them. However, these camps have been reported to be crowded making it almost impossible to carry out social distancing and the advised hygiene measures. The situation was so bad that around 30-60 people shared one toilet in one of the shelter camps. This implies an increased risk of transmission among the poorest of the poor.

Wages to Workers

While the government urged employers to continue paying wages to the workers, The survey conducted by Hindu revealed that 90% of the workers surveyed did not receive wages from their employers. Not only does the informal sector work on verbal contracts, that rarely leaves room for contestation, even when employers want to pay wages to their workers, these firms also do not have enough cash to do so without their operations running. Since, many of the micro, small and medium enterprises, who employ a majority of these workers, haven’t been provided with direct economic relief from the government, they haven’t obliged to the government’s urges. All of this meant that even if the aid reached the poor, it was rarely enough. This is substantiated by the fact that 42% of workers surveyed by the Jan Sahas revealed they did not have enough ration to sustain themselves even for the day.

Relief Measures and the Extended Lockdown

However, in order to ensure that the curve flattens, the government extended the lockdown further on 14th April. Huge protest against this extension was held in Mumbai and Surat by migrant workers. These workers were stranded in the city, without work,  pay, food, money, and many without their families. The woes of the migrant workers reflected through the protest saw the government’s attempts at providing more relief. Notifications to permit stranded labourers to go back to their places of work with movement limited to within a state; construction workers to resume work with restrictions on locations of construction sites and most recently to allow local shops to open with certain essential conditions, post-clearance from state ministries were seen. Finally, the state realized that their insistence on keeping workers in shelter camps did not make sense if the migrants do not have work in the cities and do not test positive for the virus. Hence, after five weeks of lockdown, migrants were allowed to go back to their respective homes. While all these measures constituted definite relief to migrant workers, there is still a huge vacuum left to fill and more efforts need to be made.

Steps Ahead

The migrant workers like scrap collectors, manual labourers, auto-rickshaw drivers, rickshaw pullers, amongst others are still in grave danger of starvation owing to the lockdown. If the lockdown keeps extending without expanding the target and scope of benefits in order to provide adequate relief to help the most vulnerable to stand back on their feet, the situation after would be much grimmer. The issue of identification can only be dealt with, if all conditionalities on provision of free grains and cash benefits are waived off. A worker’s presence in the region should be treated as enough to provide them with ration. Jean Dreze suggests using the centre’s overflowing food stocks to ensure adequate ration to be delivered to the poor. The migrants can then use this ration to run and manage community kitchens, which will also provide employment to the workers out of job. These are already in operation in Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, etc. Furthermore, the scope of direct benefit transfers must be expanded. Thus, the need for a universal social security net is urgent at present. Similarly, benefits should be extended to small and micro enterprises as well and action should then be taken if wages are not paid to the workers. Even after the lockdown is lifted, steps should be taken to provide support by streamlining money to the most vulnerable. This will be possible via more decentralized targeting. Most importantly, all of the above is only possible when India spends much more than just 0.8 per cent of the GDP. While concerns over the fiscal space the government has, to increase aid are surely valid, crises do call for radical measures. Estimates indicate that 40 crore people might be pushed into poverty after the pandemic. If steps are not taken now, not only will the state be deferring responsibility to the future, but it would also cost people their lives. Every delay in undertaking improved measures put the poorer citizens of India under the dilemma of letting hunger take them, or the virus.
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