Govt's piecemeal steps of little use, migrants need immediate help: Experts

Migrants ride a truck to reach their native places, during the ongoing Covid-19 lockdown, in Mathura. Photo: PTI
Experts called for more measures to take care of the needs of migrant workers from the Central government that announced a set of measures on Thursday.

There are two types of migrant workers that may need further assistance - those who have gone back to their home states and are in search of jobs there, and the other set who are still stranded in cities with lack of income and resources, experts said.

“The piecemeal approach adopted by the Central government to deal with the Covid-19 crisis will be of little help. The migrant workers need immediate relief. There was no announcement from the government on guaranteeing a minimum basic income which is the need of the hour,” lawyer and activist Anjali Bhardwaj said. Bhardwaj, who has been helping the migrant workers since a national lockdown was enforced in March, had moved the Supreme Court, along with activist Harsh Mander, seeking a direction to the Centre and states on payments of minimum wages to all the migrant workers.

Bhardwaj said that by ensuring a minimum basic income for migrants, the government will be able to also push demand in the economy. “The announcements related to portability of ration card and to provide affordable housing rent to workers is for the long- and medium-term. These are welcome steps but the workers need immediate relief,” she said.

She suggested that the government should universalise the distribution of food grains, instead of giving it on a targeted basis to the needy as it leaves behind a scope for exclusion of a large chunk of population, as has been witnessed during the lockdown.

Migrants who are not covered under the National Food Security Act or are not beneficiaries of any state government schemes will be provided 5 kilograms of grains and 1 kg of chana per family in a month. The benefit will be passed on to 80 million migrants and they can avail it for two months, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced in a press conference on Thursday. “How did the Centre arrive at the 80 million figure? Who will be considered as a migrant for availing this facility? We will have to wait for the fine print,” she added.

Sitharaman said that the government will incentivise manufacturing units, industries, institutions and associations to develop affordable rental housing complexes on their private land. This will be done through the the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana.

XLRI Jamshedpur professor and labour economist K R Shyam Sundar pointed out that the Inter-State Migrant Workers Act of 1979 already has a provision which requires every contractor to provide and maintain suitable residential accommodation for migrant workers. One of the key issues faced by the migrant workers during the lockdown was their inability to afford the house rent during the national lockdown and to get proper housing facility for stay.

The FM reiterated an existing plan for ‘one nation, one ration card’ which, she said, will be completed by March 2021 and is expected to benefit 670 million beneficiaries who can avail ration from any state, even if other family members are using the identification card to seek some benefits in another state.

The FM emphasised that the workers who have returned to the villages will be given jobs through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MGNREG) scheme and the Centre has already written to the States for the same. In fact, MGNREG work will be continued during the monsoon season.

Radhicka Kapoor, senior fellow at Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) suggested that the government frame an urban employment guarantee programme to incentivise migrant workers to come back to cities, along with increasing the number of days per household for work under MGNREG scheme.

“Reverse migration will compound the agrarian distress in an absence of non-agricultural jobs in villages. It will affect the income levels and to avoid the problem of crowding, MGNREGA needs to be strengthened. The government can increase the number of days from 100,” Kapoor said.

The MGNREG scheme provides at least 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in a financial year to every rural household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work. However, the number of household members who would be willing to work in villages may go up due to the reverse migration seen during the national lockdown.

“We require an urban employment generation scheme, especially looking at the difficulties faced by workers to get back to their home and the level of unemployment that will follow. The workers will be incentivised to get back to cities, thinking that they will be able to get a job with a guaranteed minimum level of income,” Kapoor added.

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