Difficult times ahead. No signs of lifting up of the lockdown. Life most likely to continue restricted for an indefinite period of time. Uncertainty, fear and anxiety loom large with the migrant workers heading back home. The brewing fear is the apprehension that every migrant worker could be a potential Covid 19 carrier. States haven’t done badly, especially states like Kerala and Odisha needs to be congratulated for at least exhibiting foresightedness in their initial responses to deal with such oceanic inflow of workers. Opinions are divided on whether they should have been allowed to come to their native states or managed where they were. Not surprising in a country like ours where lockdown has produced millions of experts who have been advising on how to make mutton shorba, what RBI should have done in this pandemic, and so on.
Covid 19 unlike other disasters has closed down all forms of small and medium economic activities for the poor – both in rural and urban areas. The State and Central government have announced a number of schemes and programmes including advancing PDS allocation and cash transfer. However, what remains to be answered is whether these multiple sources of relief schemes can sustain the migrant workers during and post lockdown that looks like a long battle?
Why fear migrant workers?
What is this ‘skylab’ type fear about the migrant workers? If the state government has timely empowered the Sarpanchs, has made necessary financial and human resource provisions for the panchayats to manage the migrant workers, why are we so terrified of their homecoming? There may be a good number of carriers but they all are supposedly heading to the quarantine centres at their native panchayats. So what is this inflated fear then? The fear is not the large number, the fear is almost no data available with government on who are these people – who would register and who wouldn’t. It will be a Herculean task to trace people who may not take the panchayat route and dodge registration, though, in such situation; state government expects the aware and informed villagers would inform the authorities. God willing that happens.
Last month the central Labour Ministry helplessly confessed that Government of India has not been able to create a central registry to establish a database of migrant workers despite passing the Inter-State Migrant Workers Act in 1979. This four decade old law that aimed to formalise employment contracts and protect migrant workers’ rights could hardly be enforced. Since ‘labour’ is in the Concurrent list, both centre and states have the authority to legislate on the subject. The states were expected to formulate their own rules consistent with the 1979 Act and protect migrant workers’ rights.
Government of Odisha had formulated a state action plan to regulate the movement of the migrant workers and set up help desks at the destination states. But the district labour offices couldn’t ensure registration and were unable to keep track of such labour movement. The justification given for such lack of documentation was the highly flexible nature of labour movement. However, a more realistic and believable reason for such weak enforcement was the unholy alliance between the labour contractors, the labour officers and the local politicians. Allegedly, labour contractors have confessed that a portion of the protection money so collected from thousands of migrant workers also reaches the higher ups in the state government.
It needed a disaster like Corona pandemic to set things right. Now the migrant workers will be registered at the panchayats on their return. While such registration will partially address the lack of data challenge, the number is most likely fall short of the actual. However, this is an opportunity to formalise the process of registration so that they don’t continue as faceless workers.
Who is a migrant labour?
Is discussing the definition of migrant worker a good use of time when readers have access to Google and the Oxford dictionary or both? However, such a discussion may be relevant to recognise the existence of different categories of migrant workers and not only the inter-state ones. The 1979 Act excludes a large number of seasonal intra-state migrant workers who operate within the state as small vendors. Like the inter-state migrant workers, the state government have no data about these categories of small vendors who have migrated to urban centres from rural areas within Odisha.
There is no information officially available about their current location but the assumption is that many may have gone back to their respective districts before lockdown. Since state government doesn’t have an inventory of these urban small vendors, there is only a speculation that they could be within the 4.5 lakh urban poor households, a number given by the Urban and Housing Development Department.
These 4.5 lakh urban poor households are ration card holders who are eligible for NFSA, PMGKY, Jan Dhan, and if a labour card holder, eligible for construction workers’ welfare DBT. While it is very much possible that the same household would be getting all the benefits, and a small vendor who is not in this list could be excluded. In the absence of credible data, we have to accept the most powerful rhetoric.
State government may consider
The state government may consider making the following facilities available for the migrant workers because it is most likely that the migrant workers may take long to go back to work in their destination states and some might even contemplate of not migrating at all.
- Prepare a household inventory for each migrant labour: a) assess eligibility for benefits under different schemes, b) food and DBT under different schemes, c) allocations under MGNREGA and other wage opportunities, d) small enterprise opportunities for family, e) assessment of status of household credit and repayment cycle, f) registered under state Skill Mission.
- Create a database of migrant workers: a) registration of migrant workers at the panchayat of origin, b) district administration to maintain a detailed digital database with name, family members, profession, address at destination state to issue an Identity card, c) such I Card issued by the state of origin to be Aadhar linked and recognised by the destination state for providing health and medical facility, social security and insurance benefits.
- The small vendors in urban areas are unregistered; therefore, do not exist in official records. State governments may initiate a process to create a small vendor database to facilitate a process to provide insurance and other social security benefits – registration as a pre-condition and incentive for benefits.
- Since 92% of the workforce in Odisha belong to unorganised sector, the state government may take this opportunity to draft its own rules on inter-state migrant workers suggesting necessary changes to the 1979 Act or the new law on labour trafficking that is currently being discussed; and incorporate a section on protection of rights of the intra-state migrant workers. Relevant eligibility criteria may also be created for such category of workers in the Special Relief Code.
(Author is a development professional and a filmmaker)