Migrant workers have acted as the backbone of the Indian economy for a long time. Despite their high socio-economic vulnerability, they continue to set long journeys with aspirations of better income coupled with hopes of better standards of living. The existence of this large but silent demography has been long ignored by the government. It took the pandemic to bring issues such as social welfare and ethical employment for the migrant workers to the fore. 

During the first wave of COVID-19 and the subsequent national lockdown announced during March 2020, these workers found themselves in an extremely helpless situation. . Fear of mounting debts forced them to flee the cities, leading to one of the biggest exodus experienced by the subcontinent.  A year later, with India  grappling with the second wave of COVID-19, the picture has not changed much. While a series of initiatives were announced by state governments and the Central government in 2020, the progress has been slow and results minimal. Once again, the workers are being viewed as mere carriers of the virus to the rural areas, where an inadequate overstretched health infrastructure might not be able to cope with the burden of a pandemic. At the same time, minimal or no support is being provided to them if they choose to stay back in the cities. 

How is the Second Wave Different

Last year, the source states tried their best to absorb the returning workers into the rural economy by leveraging and expanding the compass of programmes like MGNREGA. In 2020-21, 13.3 cr (43% increase compared to 2019-20) people demanded work through MGNREGA, 11 cr were able to find employment, compared to an average of 7.8 cr in four years to 2019-20.  Accounting for approximately a million migrant workers, Jharkhand, with knowledge and research assistance from Policy & Development Advisory Group (PDAG) initiated three schemes to create wage employment in the rural areas; Birsa Harit Gram Yojana, Neelambar Pitambar JAL Sammridhi Yojana and the Veer Shahid Poto Ho Khel Vikas Scheme. Additionally, the state government  launched the Mukhyamantri Shramik Yojana for the unskilled urban workers in the state. Such actions have developed an increased sense of trust in the welfare mechanisms of the source states. Another aspect which makes the decision of going home easier for the migrants is the collapse of health infrastructure in the cities. The migrant workers cannot hope to access a health system which is not able to serve even the well-off population in the cities. 

At the other end of the spectrum lie central and state governments. Building upon the lessons learnt from last year, borders between states remain open and availability of public transport has been maintained, allowing the migrant workers to plan their exit. However, ‘Shramik special trains’ that catered to the movement of migrants back to their source states upon the directive of the Supreme Court in 2020 are not operational this time. The burden of travel cost is being borne by the migrants themselves. Most of the COVID-19 related services which were put in place for the migrants last year had been wound up. It took considerable time for the states to re-establish quarantine centres, even these lacked basic amenities. On the positive side, several state governments expedited implementation of One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC) in 2020-21 since its launch in 2019, making way for inter-state portability of ration cards and allowing migrants to procure foodgrains in the destination states. With major destination states including the five southern states and Gujarat implementing the scheme is a welcome step but major source states such as Bihar also need to follow suit for a seamless uptake. Additionally, Delhi and Punjab have initiated registration of construction workers to avail government assistance including pension in Punjab but uptake remains limited.  

Pertaining Issues

During our conversations with Mr. Benoy Peter, Executive Director of Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development, it was noted that there is a lack of understanding of ‘migration’ due to which the policies targeted to provide relief to migrant workers are unable to yield desired impact. He added, ‘there is a need to identify risky and safe corridors of migration for the workers, at the same time push for safer migration both at the destination and source states with government support.’ 

An aspect which is often overlooked when discussing intra-migration in India is that migration is not always due to distress at the source, many times it is aspirational in nature. Migration is eventual, one would step out to seek better opportunities and standard of living. The primary motive should be to reduce distress at the source of migration. MGNREGA and Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan are proof that workers are ready to stay back in their villages if they receive employment and stable income. The aspect also finds resonance in the Niti Ayog’ draft national policy on migrant workers which pushes for an increase in minimum wages at the source regions of migration. Moreover, the information channel vis-a-vis employment in rural areas is highly informal and run by middlemen. Skilled and unskilled rural populations, whether already a part of the labour force or newly joining, have to depend on middlemen to find employment that often leads to unsafe migration. The Atmanirbhar Skilled Employee Employer Mapping (ASEEM)- an integrated skill management information system to help skilled labour find sustainable employment opportunities was launched in 2020. The platform is a welcome step towards providing gainful employment opportunities but the penetration remains questionable.   

Given the nuances associated with migration, India needs a comprehensive approach which attempts to unite the efforts of researchers, CSOs, think tanks, policymakers and other institutions to ensure a better socio-economic environment for migrants. The Government of Jharkhand along with its advisory group (PDAG) is adopting a multi layered approach at its end. Key achievements include developing a state-level database recording prior employment and skills among other information of the migrants who returned to the state last year. Further, it is working towards institutionalisation of inter-state coordination with states absorbing the maximum migrant population from Jharkhand for better service delivery. Over 6.1 cr jobs have been created in India in 22 years since the liberalization in 1991, 92% happen to be in the informal sector. Migrant workers remain unrecognised and undocumented due to the sheer lack of data.  There is a need for a centralised database recording  migrant workers, details about their source and destination, previous employment along with the nature of skills. The data-base will help to close the gap in information, allow migrant workers to access social welfare services and ensure ethical employment by keeping the employers and working conditions in check. The need for formalisation of the informal economy through the medium of data has been voiced by the government itself along with the civil society and remains one of the dominant features of the Niti Ayog draft national policy on migrant workers. 

Safe and gainful employment also calls for inter-state coordination between the source and destination states or corridors reporting significant migration. It will significantly contribute to developing the database and would also result in efficiently developing and implementing social schemes for this particular demography. Along with a centralised data-base, attention should also be diverted towards the call for a governance system on internal migration in India. At the moment, our country lacks the institutional framework and infrastructure which is capable of supporting and protecting the very backbone of the Indian economy, the migrant workers.