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Coronavirus lockdown: How to keep 130 million migrant workers afloat during COVID-19 crisis

Can government initiate specific measures such as providing large-scale unemployment allowance for sustaining the migrant workers through the COVID-19 crisis, until they are gainfully employed again?

Hari Hara Mishra        Last Updated: April 13, 2020  | 00:37 IST
Coronavirus lockdown: How to keep 130 million migrant workers afloat during COVID-19 crisis
The unorganised sector in India accounts for 93% workforce, as per the latest India 2020 publication, which gives ministry-wise information about various programmes

The Modi government is in the process of reviewing and deciding on the likely course of action to be taken after the end of 21-day lockdown ending 14th April 2020.

Six state governments have already publicly announced an extension of lockdown in their states, many others have expressed the view of its further extension.

Even online netizen polls support a further lockdown, in view of an accelerated pace of COVID-19 positive cases, increasing fatality and inability of existing healthcare infrastructure to handle the existing level of outbreak, and its further growth will tear apart the crumbling edifice.

So, by force, an extension of lockdown is a given certainty, with exemptions for some activities like Rabi harvest or some other activities in unaffected parts of the country or activities which can be undertaken in confines. Practically, there is the expectation of another 2-week lockdown, with scaled-down activities in some select sectors.

I hope we can contain its spread, do enough testing, build up isolation centres, step up PPEs to save lives of our frontline warriors, and reduce COVID mortality rate with more ventilators and medicare.

Also Read: What govt plans to do for migrant workers amid lockdown

Since there are medical experts to address these issues, let's dwell on other aspects to save lives apart from COVID-19. However, i will point out to only one medical issue. Many hospitals have reportedly closed access to all other patients. Each life matters, COVID or non-COVID.

But here, I will focus on socio-economic upheaval and its implications that have the potential to make or break society and the economy. The worst affected social group during the current lockdown are the labourers, and more particularly migrants who had left their homes for seeking odd jobs at various places, both urban and rural in industries, services, construction and even in agriculture.

The unorganised sector in India accounts for 93% workforce, as per the latest India 2020 publication, which gives ministry-wise information about various programmes. So, in essence, we do not have adequate data on the details of labour and the workforce in the unorganised sector.

Migrant labourers well caught unaware when the lockdown was announced, and not knowing what to do and in absence of a safety net made move towards reverse migration to their place of origin, mostly by foot as public transport got closed abruptly.

More pain was to follow, with them being either sent back again from the state borders or finding them unwelcome in the(PMSYM)ir own villages fearing they might be carriers of the virus.

So, most of the migrant labourers were left feeling like "stateless" and in a state of disarray created by the suddenness of lockdown. They are national assets, and petty interstate parochialism should not come into picture at all.

Also Read:Coronavirus Lockdown V: Three ways govt can help farmers, migrant workers overcome the current crisis

According to the World Economic Forum citing Economic Survey of India 2017, the total number of internal migrants in the country (accounting for inter- and intra-state movement) is a staggering 139 million. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the biggest source states, followed closely by Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir and West Bengal; the major destination states are Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.

So, in our population of 130 crore Indians, these 130 million+ are one of the most affected in the current crisis. These are the people, who will play a key role in national reconstruction required after the pandemic, and attending to them at this hour is the key. Hopefully, policymakers and advisors will try to identify people from various records available with the government. One way is suggested below.  

To provide social security to the unorganised labour, there is a government initiative called Pradhan Mantri Shram-Yogi Maandhan (PMSYM) for workers with a monthly income up to Rs 15,000 and belonging to the age group of 18-40 years.

They were assured a monthly pension of Rs 3,000 per month after attaining the age of 60. Most of them are likely to be without jobs now. My suggestion would be to pay this Rs 3,000 per month to those who have enrolled for this social security, and whose details are available with the government until they are absorbed back into the economic production cycle.   

Apart from the migrant labourers referred above, the workforce, in general, has shrunk frighteningly. According to recent CMIE data, the unemployment rate for the first week of April spiked to 23%.

This scale of joblessness is the largest ever recorded, including even during the great depression. Can government initiate specific measures such as providing large-scale unemployment allowance for sustaining them through the crisis, until they are gainfully employed again?

(The author is a policy commentator and columnist. Views are personal)

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