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Second wave: Migrants fear dying without food, money amidst 'abysmal' social security

By Arjun Kumar, Ritika Gupta, Sakshi Sharda

With the exodus of millions of migrant workers returning to their villages during second wave of the coronavirus-induced lockdown, the Central government has relinquished its role in the governance. The state governments are now parenting the city governance for their ignored migrants.
Many states have been adopting the break the chain guidelines by implementing extended lockdowns. The lagged service deliveries of oxygen cylinders and concentrators, ICU beds, crematories’ slots have piqued the interests of central government and they have subsided their role as of social insurer to the state governments. Similar migration was observed in first wave of coronavirus pandemic when mass mobility of citymakers made it impossible to control mass killings and loss of lives and livelihoods of citymakers.
The year 2021 is observing the same crisis but much more intense, though the government is a bit prepared with announcing measures and social security benefits, however, it still didn’t stop the migrants from moving back to their villages. The fear causing out of trust deficit is lingering in the poor minds causing crisis of confidence.
The conditions for this demographic of the population were not better before the pandemic either. Continuously facing issues of regionalism the citymakers had no place in the city. The entire country only had two laws dealing with migrant labor before the pandemic which were more than a decade old and archaic in the face of globalization. The laws were Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act (ISMW) 1979, Building and Other Construction Workers’ (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act. The National Food Security Act 2013 (NFSA) might have recognized food as the basic right of the population of the country but migrants were not recognized as people.

Humanitarian crisis

With the sudden lockdown rolling out last year with the announcement of the Prime Minister, the flurry movement of migrants from cities to villages showed a new face of crisis with families and children walking barefoot to reach their homes. This humanitarian crisis instilled the fear of dying without food and money in the minds of people. National dailies were littered with photographs of migrants travelling miles on foot and deaths due to starvation before any social security scheme was announced by the government.
Government, in that situation, stepped forward to provide relief to various segments of the population. They announced Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY), an umbrella of the various schemes for the welfare of the poor people. Simultaneously, many state governments announced several digital measures to provide relief in terms of food security, employment, and financial assistance while ensuring physical distancing along with preventive measures.
With the second wave, the states have already announced various measures to provide support to citymakers so as to prevent their migration from the state.

Wage and employment

From March to November 2020, workers who were engaged in the organized sector with wages less than Rs 15,000 were entitled to get 24 percent of their monthly wages into their Employees’ Provident Fund Organizations (EPFO) accounts for three months in advance. This further created an inequity in the demographics of migrants which made the migrants from the unorganized sector inconspicuous.
The union government tried to provide livelihood for the migrants in their hometowns by injecting capital in Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Emoloyment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). 
There was an allocation of additional Rs 40,000 crore in the scheme. They raised the MGNREGS wages by Rs 20 from Rs 182 to Rs 202. This injection of capital was able to generate nearly 300 crore person days’ work in total. But, due to Covid-19 the works under MGNREGS stopped which nullified this intervention.
Currently, in the second wave, many state governments have increased the MGNREGS wages as part of the Budget 2021-22. The highest increase is being noted by among states is Meghalaya at Rs 226, however, the highest wages is being provided by Haryana at Rs 315.
Ministry of Labour and Employment, under its National Career Service (NCS) project also provided free online skills to the registered job seekers. Around 76 online job fairs have been conducted by NCS during the lockdown period. They also regularly update about new job fairs and employment exchange programmes that take place. Currently, there are more than 10 million active job seekers, about 1.4 lakh active employers and 1.2 lakh active vacancies on the portal.
Many state governments organized job fairs online. For instance, Rajasthan being the net exporter of labor decide to organize a virtual employment exchange, Raj Kaushal, to absorb the labor in different industries.
The state governments’ initiatives such as Uttar Pradesh signed memorandum of understanding (MoU) with four industry chambers- Indian Industries Association (IIA), FICCI, Laghu Udyog Bharati (LUB) and National Real Estate Development Council (NAREDCO) with the aim to provide employment to the more than 10 lakhs returned migrants during first wave of lockdown.

Food security

Starvation deaths were a massive blow to the food security system that the government had attempted through the National Food Security Act. However, migrant populations are not covered under the NFSA until they have the ration card of the state they were stranded in. Government launched the PM Garib Kalyan Ann Yojana wherein free food amounting to 5 kg of grains person and 1 kg chana per family per month was provided till November 2020.
The ‘One Nation, One Ration Card' scheme has been implemented in 17 states according to the Ministry of Finance. At the same time, the Finance Minister in the budget 2021 had announced that the scheme was being implemented in 32 state and union territories, reaching about 69 percent of core beneficiaries. The Finance Minister informed that the scheme has covered 86 per cent of the beneficiaries, adding that the remaining four states and UTs will be integrated into the scheme in the coming few months.
Though the ground reality in the 17 States is abysmal. Even though the scheme was to be rolled out in the entire country by June 2020 the ground reality of the scheme has been very different. Individual migrants have recounted myriad experiences where there were denied ration at the fair price shops. Recently the SC has started hearing a plea to immediately role out the scheme nationally.
Due to rising stress for food in the country yet again, the central government has revived this scheme further for the month of May-June 2021 for 80 crore beneficiaries of the country. Against the free allocation for May-June, 2,860 metric tonnes of wheat and 1,195 metric tonnes of rice have been taken from the DCP stock through the Food Corporation of India and the State government. 
The Delhi government has promised 72 lakh ration card holders of Delhi to provide free ration for two months, May-June 2021. Bihar government has also opened its Public Distribution System (PDS) for its 8.71 crore beneficiaries.

Financial assistance

Direct Cash Transfers were located by academicians to be a necessity of the time to cope with the livelihood crisis and need for security and health. However, there were no special provisions under the flagship health sector schemes of Ayushmaan Bharat and PM Jeevan Jyoti Beema Yojana. But government did provide some relief in the form of direct cash transfers. PM Jan Dhan Yojana deposited Rs 500 per month in the accounts of women.
Catering to the livelihoods of street vendors the government offered a sum Rs 10,000 loan to street vendors who were engaged in business before March 24, 2020 under the PM SVANidhi scheme with a nominal interest subsidy. Till date, more than 20 lakh loans have been disbursed to the beneficiaries in the time span of one year.
Moreover, Delhi state government provided Rs 5,000 financial aid to poor workers. They also increased the pension amounts to Rs 3,000 to old age and disabled people in 2020. In 2021, the government has financial assistance of Rs 5,000 to 1.56 lakhs auto-rickshaw and taxi drivers
Even after the first wave, it was required to have developed health infrastructural capacities instead of maintaining political promises
The newly elected chief minister of Tamil Nadu implemented financial assistance of Rs 4,000 to each of the 2.07 crore rice ration card holders across the state with first installment to be released in May. The state has also extended the insurance cover for availing of treatment for novel coronavirus in private hospitals too, for beneficiaries of the Chief Minister's Comprehensive Health Insurance Scheme.

Shelter

With no proper secured shelter in the cities, the migrant crisis was exacerbated in the urban centers. The invisibilization of migrants from urbanziaton has resulted in this land economy, where urban center housing is unaffordable. Thus, the government came up with the sub component of Affordable Rental Housing Complexes (ARHCs) in the situation housing distress provide ease of living to urban migrants/ poor in Industrial Sector as well as in non-formal urban economy to get access to dignified affordable rental housing close to their workplace. 
The Housing minister also launched CREDAI Awaas App' and NAREDCO's online portal 'HousingforAll.com' to facilitate transparent home buying for migrants in India of RERA approved projects by CREDAI developers.
However, these initiatives seemed to blown off and the people rested in the hands of shelters under Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana-National Urban Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NULM) for free food and shelter.
Further, the flagship programme for urban housing - Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana – Urban (PMAY-U) – has not received any increased budgetary provision over the last financial year. For PMAY-U, the BE remains the same between the FY 2020-21 and 2021-22 at Rs 8,000 crore. The RE for FY 2020-21 for PMAY-U was a whopping Rs 21,000 crore, i.e. an increase of more than 160 percentages from the BE 2020-21 of Rs 8,000 crore.
The government introduced The Occupational Safety, Health And Working Conditions Code, 2020 in September 2020, which gives migrant workers benefits and rights in the state of employment. They are entitled to the following provisions:
  • The option to avail the benefits of the public distribution system either in the native state or the state of employment.
  • Avail benefits under building and other construction cess fund in the state of employment.
  • Insurance and provident fund benefits available to other workers in the same establishment.
  • The Standing Committee on Labour (2020) recommended to create a separate fund for inter-state migrants

Government’s efforts to generate migration statistics

India lacks comprehensive data for migrants in India due to discontinued survey activity, which has led to humanitarian crisis as evident with the uncertain quantum of migrants stranded in the cities which threatened survival. The implementation was hampered; despite claiming service deliveries for a large number of migrants, some people died.
The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) under the Ministry of Home Affairs came up with the development of an online portal, National Migrant Information System (NMIS) in May 2020. The main objective of this portal was to facilitate the smooth movement of stranded persons across States and contact tracing. The key data pertaining to the persons migrating had been standardized for uploading such as name, age, mobile number, originating and destination district, date of travel etc.
In January 2020, The NITI Aayog on its part has proposed a National Data and Analytics Platform (NDAP). These efforts demonstrate a growing acknowledgment of the need to use digital technology, which would democratize access to holistic and coherent public government data on a real-time basis. The first version of the platform is expected to be launched in 2021.
To further digitize the efforts towards inclusive India, the Finance Minister in her budget speech 2021 announced to launch a portal called National Database of Unorganized Workers (NDUW) collecting relevant information on gig, building, and construction-workers among others. This will serve a base for formulating health, housing, skill, insurance, credit policies, and food schemes for migrant workers.
It was realized that discontinuing surveys, which used to fill the gap between decennial census activities, needs to be reinvigorated. Thus, labour bureau has announced a collective of five surveys All-India Survey on Migrant workers, All-India Survey on Domestic Workers, All-India Survey on Employment Generated by Professionals, All-India Survey on Employment Generated in Transport Sector, and All-India Quarterly Establishment based Employment Survey. The field investigators training of two surveys have already been completed and promised to deliver the results of the same in 2021.
These surveys are supplemented with a comprehensive policy by NITI Aayog - Draft National Policy for Migrant Workers. The policy addresses the political exclusion (voting right) of the migrants forbidding them to make political demands for entitlements or seek reforms. The policy mandates the labour department of each state to have a migration unit.

Way forward

Reinvent the infrastructural focus: With the second wave running and with the indication of third wave which could be deadly from the current scenario, the government really needs to reinvent its focus. With the invisible capacities of India to produce oxygen and vaccines as indicated with the adjuring citizens demanding ICU beds and oxygen cylinders and its dependence upon imports, the government prioritizing the national infrastructure pipeline is not appreciated. Even after first wave, it was required to have developed health infrastructural capacities instead of maintaining political promises.
Prioritize vaccination of migrants: With the vaccines rolling out, it is important to prioritize the vaccination of mobile people. It would have been better if with the age group, the government focus on vaccinating the migrants since they tend to move in and out of the state and may become carrier of virus.
Use existing current datasets: In the last one year of pandemic, states have recorded data sets which can be integrated with the national database. The current datasets are database with the railways of people travelled with shramik trains, data sets with job fairs and employment exchanges, skill mapping data available with the districts. Since the five surveys will yield results at the end of the year, it is important to use the in hand available information for social security deliveries.
Expand the scope of Ayushman Bharat: As of now Government has announced a scheme for frontline workers, if they meet with an accident due to COVID-19 they will be compensated with Rs 50 lakh. Though this silver lining is not enough because to get this compensation the front line worker must succumb to the virus. Health for all should be provided and protected by government schemes in the Covid times. There is a need to expand the security net for all.
Upscale the tech interventions: A central repository can be complemented with the state level repository enabling state level practices. The initiatives adopted by aspirational districts of India have shown great ICT potential of India even in the backward regions. Such initiatives can be leveraged at national level using the young minds which helped in developing such opportunities at district level.
Migrants as part of DRR: In times of crisis, the most fearful population is of people away from homes and families with no one to take care of in emergencies. Thus, migrants should be a target of Disaster Risk Reduction (DDR) programmers in urban centres. Access to health, social protection programmes, skill mapping, and psycho-social assistance using Aadhar Card are vital proposals and can be incorporated with the online central repository. Government policies should not hinder internal migration.

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