Reviving the farm economy

For the first time in years, the general population in India seems to have become aware of the importance of the migrant workforce. As per the 2011 census, there were about 56 million inter-state migrants in India, a majority of them living in big urban centres. If Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh accounted for more than 50 per cent of these workers, then, Maharashtra, Delhi, Gujarat, UP and Haryana housed 50 per cent of them. Interestingly, UP figures in both lists, with people both leaving the state as well as migrating there for their livelihood. Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal also account for a large number of inter-state migrants.

In recent years, there has been an increasing flow of migrants to Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala on account of greater opportunities in the southern states. Labour migration theorists argue that wage differentials are not the only motive for migration; there is also collective decision-making at the household level, based primarily on their desire to mitigate risk through the migration of certain family members, to ensure income stability through diversification. A sense of “relative deprivation” also acts as a motive for migration, as households in surrounding communities observe others in their neighbourhood benefitting from remittances. 

During the first phase of the lockdown, media reports highlighted the distress and hunger faced by migrant workers. A number of state governments and the Central government announced welfare measures in May to provide free food grains for the next two to three months, as well as cash transfers and special trains. There have been challenges in mobilising the announced support. Moreover, most employers and contractors left the workers totheir own fate. 

There has been a lack of coordinated effort at the workplace, ward and district level to provide migrants sufficient food, shelter and assurance of employment in the near future. This crisis has been compounded by the loss of regular wages and depletion in their meagre savings with no clarity on their future prospects. As a result, some of them seem to have lost their trust and confidence in the State. Therefore, despite transport arrangements by the Centre and various state governments, migrants continue to move on foot, bicycle and other means of transport towards their home states.

Women workers at a small-scale food processing plant: Activities like these need a boost
Limited access to food due to loss of income, and disruption in school meal programmes and the Integrated Child Development Services are also going to have serious consequences, including possibly a surge in malnutrition. There is a need for coordinated efforts, especially by state governments, to arrange for temporary shelter and food, and subsequently, provide transport to the destination states. 

There is a need to learn from this crisis and create a safety net for both the semi-skilled and skilled migrant workforce. Creating a national and state-level Aadhaar database of migrant workers will improve the targeting of support to them during such crises, and help in coordinating efforts for their welfare. The proposed implementation of “one nation, one ration card”, which entitles beneficiaries to claim subsidised food irrespective of their place of residence, is desirable. Continuous capacity-building of the workforce, and provision of reasonable living conditions for workers, especially in industries that are essential in nature, will make the system more resilient. 

After their recent experience, the migrants may not return for the next couple of months. Indeed, 15-20 per cent of them may not return from their home states at all. This presents a major challenge as well as a big opportunity for local governments. It would pose a serious policy challenge to provide employment to these additional people in the absence of remittances in an already stressed rural economy. An expanded Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, including agriculture and agro-forestry, and free food grains for the next few months can provide immediate relief to the returnees.

Many of the migrants are well-trained, have been exposed to non-agricultural livelihoods and have higher aspirations. This provides an opportunity for the respective state governments and local industries to utilise them to create and promote rural-based small and medium businesses, non-farm and agro-based value-addition and tertiary service enterprises. Many returnees may also prefer to work in their marginal farms and therefore, it is advisable for states to help migrant labourers and landless workers to lease land from those willing to rent it out.

Many components of the government's Rs 20-trillion package under the Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative offer an opportunity to promote non-farm and allied farming enterprises utilising rural people, including returnee migrants, to boost the rural economy. Support for formalisation of micro food enterprises is one example that could be leveraged in establishing viable enterprises based on nutritious foods like millets, legumes, local fruits and herbs. Post-Covid, there is likely to be greater health consciousness and, consequently, a higher demand for such nutritious foods among people to boost their immune systems. Promoting diversified and nutritious food by strengthening appropriate value chains has to be a priority, as malnutrition is one of its biggest national challenges.

Enterprises that can add value to healthy local food products with assured quality, connecting rural and urban consumers, could also be a good opportunity. Easy access to cheap credit, further capacity-building and handholding support will be key to harnessing economic opportunities through livestock and dairy, bee-keeping, fisheries and other area-specific agro-based enterprises. Agricultural market reforms, deregulation of key agricultural items from the Essential Commodities Act, and significant public investments to strengthen agro-infrastructure and logistics announced by the Central government can help open multiple value-addition and agribusiness avenues, if appropriately leveraged by the state governments.

There is a need to organise promising agricultural value chains and non-farm enterprises at the decentralised level of panchayats, blocks and districts. Appropriate professional teams, including consultants, private sector professionals, government research and development institutions, and non-government organisations can, in coordination with governments, map area-specific opportunities, availability of skilled and semi-skilled workers, and the scope for leveraging the Central government's recent economic package for creating employment and growth. As per government policy, area- and district-specific products and brands could be promoted with the focus on better nutrition, value addition and climate resilience.

Finally, building capacity, involving different states and industries, and eschewing a restrictive inspection regime will be key to improving the condition of the migrant workers. This is a good opportunity for labour-supplying states to make things happen.      

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