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Migrants, unorganised labour: With 23 crore 'pushed' to poverty, SC seeks food security

By Harsh Mander, Anjali Bhardwaj, Jagdeep Chhokar* 
We welcome the important judgment by the Supreme Court in the migrant workers case (Suo Motu 6 of 2020). The judgment by Justices Ashok Bhushan and MR Shah will provide much need relief to migrant workers and unorganised sector workers who have been reeling under the double crisis of health and economic distress. The SC had taken suo motu cognizance of the suffering of lakhs of migrant workers in the country due to the lockdown last year.
In 2021, the matter was taken up again upon our intervention highlighting the severe impact of the second wave of Covid on workers in the informal sector, especially migrant workers and seeking directions on ensuring food and social security for them during this time of distress. This year the situation is even grimmer, as meagre savings that the working poor had were exhausted in coping with the lockdown last year.
Taking cognisance of the precarious condition of migrant and informal workers, the SC while emphasizing right to food as a key facet of the fundamental right to life enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution, has directed “States to bring in place an appropriate scheme for distribution of dry ration to migrant labourers… which may be implemented on or before 31.07.2021. Such scheme may be continued and operated till the current pandemic (Covid-19) continues.”
It is significant that the SC has recognised that economic distress does not go away merely with the lifting of lockdowns and has directed that ration be provided till the pandemic continues, not merely as a one-time relief. To operationalise these schemes, the SC has directed “the Central Government, Department of Food and Public Distribution (Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution) to allocate and distribute foodgrains as per demand of additional food-grains from the States for disbursement of dry foodgrains to migrant labourers.” The SC has directed that all the 2.8 crore migrant workers identified under the Atma Nirbhar Scheme last year by States must also be supplied rations.
Further, the SC has directed State/UTs to provide cooked food through community kitchens, “State/Union Territories are directed to run community kitchens at prominent places where large number of migrant labourers are found for feeding those migrant labourers who does not have sufficient means to procure two meals a day. The running of the community kitchen should be continued at-least till pandemic (Covid-19) continues.”
In our written submission to the Supreme Court (dated June 15) we had highlighted that benefits of ration under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) and the portability being brought in via One Nation One Ration (ONOR) are only restricted to persons who possess ration cards. There are many economically vulnerable migrant workers who are unable to obtain a ration card on account of either the ration card quota under the NFSA being exhausted in their state or due to inability to furnish the numerous documents required for applying for a ration card including proof of address, Aadhaar, electricity bill etc.
We had also pointed out that most States have already exhausted their quotas for issuing ration cards (22 out of 29 States have less than 5% quota remaining) and these State-wise quotas under the Act are severely underestimated on account of being calculated as per the figures of the 2011 census and never having been updated since. It was urged that the Central government be directed to revise the State-wise quotas as at the current population projection of 139 crore, applying coverage of 67% under NFSA (as per 2011 figures), coverage under NFSA should be 93 crore people as against the current figure of 80 crore.
Taking cognisance of the issue, the SC noted that more than 10 years have elapsed since the State-wise coverage was determined and has directed the Central government “to take steps to undertake exercise under Section 9 of the National Food Security Act, 2013 to re-determine the total number of persons to be covered under Rural and Urban areas of the State, which shall be beneficial to large number of persons.” SC has also directed all States to implement ONOR.
Most States have already exhausted their quotas for issuing ration cards. 22 out of 29 States have less than 5% quota remaining
In our 2021 intervention and written submissions, we had highlighted that emergency cash transfers are crucial to enable migrant workers to cope with the deep economic crisis in the country on account of the disruption of economic activity caused due to lockdowns/restrictions to curb the spread of Covid. Money is needed to pay for health expenditure, rent payment and basic expenses like cooking oil, milk, vegetables.
All evidence points to deep economic crisis of job loss, reduced wages and contraction of economy and manufacturing sector -- an estimated 23 crore Indians have been pushed into poverty during the past one year of the pandemic. However, while the SC has not given any specific direction on provision of emergency cash transfers, the judgment notes, “The direct bank transfer being matter of policy and being in domain of the State, no direction can be issued by this Court for any direct bank transfer as claimed by certain applicants/intervenors. We only observe that in event any person is entitled for direct bank transfer as per the existing scheme in any State, he can avail the said benefit by the mechanism as provided in the policy decision”.
During the course of this case, the SC had noted that the slow pace of registration of migrant workers and unorganised sector workers under various laws was adversely impacting their ability to access benefits under schemes made by governments. The court had referred to the National Database for Unorganised Workers (NDUW), registration of migrant workers under the Interstate Migrant Workmen (Regulations of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996 and the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008.
Taking a strict view of the tardy pace of registration, the judgment notes, “the apathy and lackadaisical attitude by the Ministry of Labour and Employment is unpardonable” and “tall claims by all the States and Union that they have implemented various welfare schemes for the migrant workers and unorganized workers remain only on paper without giving any benefit to unorganized workers.”
The SC has directed, “the Central Government to develop the Portal … for registration of the unorganized labourers/migrant workers. We also impress upon and direct that the Central Government as well as the respective States and the Union Territories to complete the process of Portal for registration under National Data Base for Unorganised Workers (NDUW Project)…the process of registration of the unorganized labourers/migrant workers is completed at the earliest, but not later than 31.12.2021.”
Further, it has directed, “all the States/Union Territories to register all establishments and license all contractors under the Act, 1979 and ensure that statutory duty imposed on the contractors to give particulars of migrant workers is fully complied with.”
We welcome this important judgment and are happy to note that the plea to universalise rations to all migrant workers across India till the pandemic continues has been accepted.
The intervenors were represented by senior advocates Prashant Bhushan, Dushyant Dave and advocate Cheryl D’souza. The judgment, intervention application, written submission, orders of the Supreme Court and the affidavits filed by UOI and the States can be accessed here.
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*Intervenors in suo motu petition (civil) 6/2020 IA no. 58769/2021

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