Analysing Modi government's policy response to the migrant crisis: A look back
While India's COVID statistics are looking better each day and the vaccines are around the corner, let us not forget the humanitarian crisis that unfolded during of the peak of the nationwide lockdown. Here's a look at how the government's hasty policy decisions created the migrant crisis and how it dealt with it in the following months.
We don’t know how it'd appear in the rearview mirror of history, but speaking from present perceptions (perhaps also shaped by recency bias), the pandemic caused by Covid-19 disrupted social, economic and political systems, and life – like never before. The existing policy safeguards were tested to their extreme and the gaps in our policy frameworks were also exposed in an unprecedented manner.
This was especially true for India. When the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 as a global pandemic, experts across the world wondered whether a developing country like India, with its overstretched public health infrastructure and unregulated private healthcare sector, would be able to handle the gravest health emergency of our time. What ensued was complex and even confounding.
Despite registering the second-highest number of total cases in the world, it appears that India has not only bent the curve, but also has one of the lowest case-fatality rate and deaths per million population in the world, with an average of one million tests per day at the time of writing.
These are encouraging statistics considering how India was touted to become the ‘next global hotspot’ given its population, much of which lives packed in cities with little access to quality healthcare. However, what’s not encouraging is the way we have collectively forgotten about a humanitarian crisis that unfolded during the peak of the pandemic, largely due to lack of foresight from policymakers and imprudent, hasty policy decisions.
Millions in Crisis
The centre of this humanitarian crisis were India’s internal migrants who largely work in the informal sector as casual labour with no social security net. If we were to add the same number of migrants as was seen in 2001-2011 period, the migrant population would be almost 600 million. The 2011 census showed that around one-third of all internal migrants are inter-state and inter-district migrants, which makes it almost 200 million. Of these 200 million, about two-thirds are estimated to be workers. This gives us a migrant worker population of about 140 million as of today, says Professor S Irudaya Rajan of CDS. Estimates of temporary labour migration in the country vary from 15 million to 140 million migrant workers, a variance that indicates the ambiguity of the phenomenon.
This migrant workforce contributes to 10% of India’s GDP and serves as the backbone of several sectors, including construction, textile and apparel, domestic work, fishing and fish processing, mining and quarrying, and even agriculture. The pandemic and its collateral effects not only emphasised the realisation of the magnitude of the economy’s dependence on the migrant workforce, but it also exposed their vulnerability to a crisis like this.
The lockdown announcement with four hours’ notice on 25 March 2020 devastated migrant workers across the country. As part of the lockdown, which was initially meant to last for 21 days and was subsequently extended four times, up to 8 June 2020, interstate borders were sealed and transportation was suspended. Industries and other non-essential establishments were ordered to close down and people were asked to stay indoors wherever they were. This announcement itself was ill-planned and did not factor in the millions of migrant families, who had suddenly lost their livelihoods and homes and did not have the option of staying put.
Many of the migrant families were asked by their house owners to immediately vacate the rented premises or worksites where they lived. In most cases, the employers and house-owners of migrants couldn’t pay wages or waive rent payments, being marginal owners themselves. Tens of thousands of others realised that they couldn’t survive the lockdown at the destination region (mostly urban centres), being unable to manage the consumption expenditure without income. Large crowds gathered at bus stations and railway stations, compromising the lockdown goal of social distancing. In the absence of transport, the desperate migrant workers and their families, including women and children, had no other choice than to make their journey homewards on foot, across distances of hundreds of kilometres, carrying all their belongings. This took hundreds of hitherto invisible migrant workers and their families to the streets. Among them, there were also persons with disabilities, pregnant women and families with infants. Thousands who had started walking towards their homes were stopped in their tracks and redirected to hastily set up shelters. Some were stopped, harassed and even beaten up.
While the state governments were directed to provide rations and shelter to migrant workers stranded in their cities, most states were unable to effectively reach the workers, who were scattered across worksites or in the city peripheries, historically excluded from provisioning systems. In their living spaces, often unhygienic and cramped in nature, workers were unable to practise physical distancing and other public health measures because of their lack of access to WASH facilities. Many of the returned workers didn’t have the opportunity to obtain their wage arrears, nor did they have the money for expenses on their journey, forcing them to incur massive debts.
Several migrant workers and their family members, including children, died, unable to cope with the arduous journey or in accidents. Thousands had their journeys interrupted midway and were made to stay in temporary shelters.
When Shramik Special trains were organised for migrants to return to their source region, it was late and the application processes were arduous, requiring medical certifications in many cases, and there was a lack of information regarding tickets and passes. Misinformation, lack of support and harassment also created situations of social unrest.
Policies and the Problems With Them
There were failures on policy level at every step of this crisis – in shoring up existing safeguards as well as in taking dynamic decisions to deal with the pandemic.
It started with the central government arrogating all powers to itself, invoking the National Disaster Management Act. This centralized the sphere of operations, giving the federal government overriding powers of enforcement, despite the fact that under the Indian Constitution, public health is a concern normally addressed by the state governments.
In fact, the nationwide lockdown was imposed and sustained through executive decrees issued under Sections 6(2)(i) and 10 of the NDMA, without any discussion with the states and the parliament. These early rapid-fire orders were given without anticipating the panic it could cause among the migrant workers involved in the informal economy. If the government had given a window of five to seven days for the migrant workers as an exception to leave for home in special buses or trains in the beginning of the lockdown – a measure adopted by Bangladesh before imposing a similar lockdown– we could have avoided this crisis entirely.
The government started sending the migrants back at a time when the country was grappling with the rise in Covid-19 cases across the country. With the urban centres being the worst affected, some states like Bihar were even hesitant to accept the returning migrants, fearing that they could be carriers of SARS-CoV-2 and could lead to a surge in the cases in the state.
With mounting pressure from the states and the civil society, the Centre announced a slew of schemes under its “Atmanirbhar Bharat” or “Self-reliant India” package, worth ₹20 trillion. Additionally, it was also announced that ₹10 billion would be distributed to the states for migrant welfare from the PM-CARES fund.
Let us have a look at the measures for migrant workers within the Atmanirbhar Bharat package:
1. Under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, food security was announced for a likely 80 million migrant workers who are outside the ambit of National Food Security Act, 2013 or those without state ration cards, who would be given 5 kg rice each and 1 kg of pulses to all members of the family.
80 million beneficiaries mean 80 million families. According to the Census 2011, the average household size in India is 4.5, accounting to a total of about 360 million individuals dependent on migration. Given the average nutritional requirement of 2,100 calories- 2,400 calories per person per day, the provision of 5 kg of rice and 1 kg of pulses wasn’t enough to meet the nutritional requirements of the entire family. And when this was terminated in November, it led to families losing food security at a time when there’s hardly been any income.
2. ₹400 billion had been additionally allocated to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarante Scheme budget. The government mentioned that this would generate 3 billion additional person-days of work. Earlier, on 26 March 2020, a national average minimum wage increase was announced from ₹182 to ₹202 per day.
A study that covered migrants who returned to their places of origin in ten states revealed that 95% of them lost their livelihood and only 7% benefited from the efforts to revive their livelihoods through MGNREGA. Also, according to economists and labour experts, the days of work needed to be increased to at least 180 to 200 days per year. Even that may still cover only a fraction of their earnings from their work at the destinations.
3. In June, the GoI also announced the Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan to address the employment crisis of the returnee migrants. The programme aims to provide jobs and livelihood opportunities for a period of 125 days to more than six million migrants across six states.
Progressive analysis of both macro data and micro studies reveals that labour migration across different age groups and genders is not limited to rural or urban areas or any specific states or regions, which meant that the hardships faced by the migrants were not limited to any particular state or region. This scheme benefits only migrants in states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Odisha and Jharkhand - leaving out millions of returnee migrants from other states.
4. One Nation One Ration Card scheme that provides a universal ration card, with complete portability in all states, is also to be implemented in its full effect by March 2021.
This is another scheme which has no immediate impact in easing the pains of the worst-hit migrants. And this scheme has now come under the scrutiny of a parliamentary panel, which advises against rushing through such an ambitious scheme, especially when several states that have flagged inconsistencies in the distribution system, compatibility of Aadhaar authentication and effective machines for fingerprint reading.
5. The Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana was launched for providing rental housing for migrant workers in cities that would rake in private funding under the public–private partnership (PPP) model. It was extended to rural areas as well where the returned migrants could get a job in the construction sector.
This housing scheme which is supposed to take a year does little to nothing to alleviate the ongoing suffering of the migrant labour. Schemes targeting a section of the population that is heavily dependent on daily irregular wages must be immediate, with respect to the identification of beneficiaries and in ensuring the receipt of the benefits.
These schemes, albeit look good on paper, do not address the immediate needs of the migrants and thus appear deracinated in nature. In times of dislocation and deep distress, the main issue the migrants faced is the lack of cash in hand for consumption.
Finally, in November 2020, the finance minister announced the Atmanirbhar Bharat Rozgar Yojana, which is aimed at providing subsidies for the employers for hiring new employees. Under the scheme, the government will provide subsidy through Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) contributions for all new eligible employees till 30 June 2021. But again this is an indirect stimulus unlikely to have a definite impact.
If the government had just made cash transfers through Direct Benrefit Transfer, it would have somewhat compensated for the loss of work and wages; and would have cost the government about ₹350000 crore - about one-sixth of the package announced by the government. It would have also stimulated local economies while making the migrants self-reliant in the true sense of the term.
Migrant workers have traditionally been in the periphery of government policymaking as they are an invisible vote bank. As per what we saw in the recently concluded Bihar assembly elections, migrant’s anger would not matter electorally as the ruling NDA alliance came back to power despite the chief minister’s documented indifference for migrants during the lockdown. So it’s unlikely that politics would affect policy here. But the way the pandemic has affected the migrant workers, they might get pushed into acute poverty, malnutrition and debt traps. According to a recent report by International Labour Organisation this could push more people to undertake distress migration in highly exploitative conditions, unless timely interventions are made through the collective efforts of the central and state governments, the private sector, trade unions, civils society organisations and other development partners.