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Restarting economy? Data lag on migrant workers 'hindering' market stakeholders

By Balwant Singh Mehta, Arjun Kumar*
The reverse movement of thousands of migrants is an ongoing challenge before the government- Centre, State and Local. In order to give relief to all of them and prevent infection from spreading, around 40,000 relief camps and shelters have been set up all over the country in which over 14 lakh stranded migrant workers and other needy people are provided relief (April 2020).
Out of this, more than 80% of the relief camps have been set up by states, while the rest are by NGOs. Also, over 26,000 food camps have been set up in which more than 1 crore people have been provided food. Over 16.5 lakh workers are being provided with food and relief by their employers and industries.
The hotspot of these relief shelters and camps are in the cities of Kerala, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, etc. The southern states are handling the situation relatively well as compared to the capital Delhi and western states; eastern India being the labour supply hub in the country.
A large number of migrants have already reached to their villages, and millions of others who are currently in the shelter homes and many who decided to stay back in cities are desperately waiting for the end of lockdown period to move their native places.
This time many labourers will not come back due to shock and uncertainty, which means that most of small and medium size companies/factories and other businesses may face the heat once the lockdown period is over.
There would be a shortage of labour or contract skilled workers and households also find tough to run their daily work without the helpers/drivers/maids etc. The production and profits of small/medium size factories or businesses will suffer due to shortage of labourers and other contract skilled workers.
Because the scale of their production/business would get reduce and their wage bill will also rise due to higher payment to retain the limited available labour force. Shortage of workers poses challenge to restart the economy.

Varying estimates

There are several estimates floating around about the number of migrants who are leaving from the destination (mostly urban places) due to absence of any updated information. Some estimates are:
(i) The National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), Employment & Unemployment and Migration Particulars (64th) Round estimates showed that migrant workers were 32 million in 2007-08.
(ii) According to the Census of India, inter-state migrants’ workers grew annually at the rate of 4.5% from 33 million in 2001 to 51 million in 2011. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar had the greatest number of migrants (29 million).
(iii) As per the India Human Development Survey (IHDS), migrant workers grew annually at the rate of 21% from 16 million in 2004-05 to 60 million in 2011-12.
(iv) Economic Survey 2016-17 estimated 80 million migrant workers and over half of these migrants belonged to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, while Delhi region received around half of total migration. Further, the survey suggested around 9 million workers migrate across states annually.
(v) Estimates based on Census 2011 and NSSO shows that the total number of inter-state migrants in India stands at around 65 million in 2020. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar account for 25 percent and 14 percent, respectively. Other estimates after including the short-term circular migrants shows that there are about 140 million inter-state migrants’ workers in India in 2020. This includes nearly 60 million short-term circular migrants in 2020, which are left out from census and other surveys.

Recent official figures

The above estimates are only indicative, the visible reports of current registration by migrants to return home clearly reflects their desperation. About two million have registered in UP (one million returned as well), over 600,000 in Jharkhand, and about 1 million in Bihar for coming home. On the other hand, 2 million migrants registered to go home from Gujarat, 644,000 from Punjab, 225,000 from Telangana and over 146,000 from Haryana.
The registered data reveal that over three-fourth of the registered migrants are either from Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. The registration process is still on and more will register for return to home. As of May 17, 2020, more than 15 lakh migrants have already been transported by the Railways to their home states and almost 1,150 Shramik Special trains have been operationalised.
Production and profits of small/medium size factories or businesses will suffer due to shortage of labourers and other contract skilled workers
The Prime Minister announced a special economic and comprehensive package of Rs 20 lakh crore on May 12, 2020. As part of the economic measures “Atma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan” (Self-Reliant India Campaign), the Finance Minister announced many short- and long-term measures for supporting the poor including migrant workers. Along with the above and some of the latest other announcements pertaining to migrant workers are:
  • Free food grains supply to migrants for 2 months- Additional food grain to all the States/UTs at the rate of 5 kg per migrant labourer and 1 kg chana per family per month for two months i.e. May and June, 2020 free of cost shall be allocated. Migrant labourers not covered under National Food Security Act or without a ration card in the State/UT in which they are stranded at present will be eligible.
  • Allocation of an additional Rs 40,000 crore under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), which will help generate nearly 300 crore person days’ work in total. 
  • Technology system to be used enabling migrants to access PDS (ration) from any fair price shops in India by March 2021 - One Nation one Ration Card 
  • Scheme for Affordable Rental Housing Complexes (ARHC) for migrant workers and urban poor to be launched 
  • National Migrant Information System (NMIS) - a central online repository on migrant workers is being developed by National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) to facilitate their seamless movement across States 
  • In order to ensure safer and quicker transportation of migrants, Indian Railways ready to run Shramik Special trains from all the districts connected by Railways in the country 
  • PM CARES Fund Trust allocates Rs. 1000 Crores for relief measures for migrants 
In order to capture the information regarding movement of migrants and facilitate the smooth movement of stranded persons across States, National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has developed an online Dashboard - National Migrant Information System (NMIS).
The online portal would maintain a central repository on migrant workers and help in speedy inter-State communication/co-ordination to facilitate their smooth movement to native places. It has additional advantages like contact tracing, which may be useful in overall COVID-19 response work.

Way forward

There is an urgent need to maintain a dynamic registry for the migrants to prepare a database, supplemented with their skill-sets and job requirement details for greater usage. So that appropriate policy measures can be taken for the welfare of migrants in the time of pandemic like the current one.
These registries need to be instituted using latest digital technologies and innovations, along with a dynamic unemployment registry to provide direct economic (universal basic income), health (universal coverage), and other necessary contingency protection and support in an integrated ecosystem.
While the Census is held decennially, the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) used to fill the gap with surveys on employment and migration every five years. The Census does provide the aggregated numbers with limited qualitative dimensions. The last NSSO survey on internal migration and out-migration was held in 2007–08, and thereby necessitating restarting these surveys.
The Five-year Vision 2019-24 for the National Statistical System has been published by Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI). The NITI Aayog on its part has proposed a National Data and Analytics Platform (NDAP). These efforts demonstrate a growing acknowledgement of the need to use of digital technology, which would democratise the access to holistic and coherent public government data on a real-time basis.
Thus, going forward, it appears that the era of Industry 4.0, Artificial Intelligence, blockchain and gig economy would require extensive utilization of ICT. This would enable quick and smooth harnessing of new sources of data including payroll data, night lights data, GIS data, and big data generated using mobile communications, social media interactions, and digitally-enabled transactions. Importance and due integration of the migrant workers statistics has to be ensured in all future exercises.
Hence, it is an opportune time for a comprehensive plan to address the data lags pertaining to the important and dynamic migrant workers statistics and urgently engage in evidence informed decision making. In the post-Covid-19 situation, bringing back the confidence and trust of the migrant workers, over the course of time, by the governments and market stakeholders, will be one of the most important foundation stepping stone towards the envisaged vision of New India.
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*Balwant Singh Mehta is fellow at Institute for Human Development (IHD) and co-founder & visiting senior fellow at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi. Arjun Kumar is Director, IMPRI and China-India Visiting Scholar Fellow, Ashoka University

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