We are a great nation with a great demographic sweet spot. We can look forward to dealing with COVID-19 and emerge stronger with a growth rate better than other economies. Production and productivity are based on a chain of activities with an economic cycle comprising all resources. Labour is a critical component and migrant labour is the weakest link in the cycle.
Over the last few days. we have been witnessing images of migrants, accidents in their journey, moving tales, all of which I do not want to repeat. But as an Indian, I feel we have failed to address the crisis.
At least we should learn now. Last few days, the migrant issue has been dealt with as a political football, with each side kicking the problem over to the other side like a football. No more on that, they survive, we survive, their goal is our goal. They are our goal posts. And let us understand the magnitude of their problem, what lies ahead and what needs to be done so that we do not mess up again.
While the exact number of migrants is not available, as per an announcement by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman based on reports from states, there are around 80 million migrants stranded in the states and supported at various places during the lockdown.
The number of migrants in total will be much higher and according to World Economic Forum citing the Economic Survey of India 2017, the migrant population is around 130 million. However, assuming that these 80 million are more vulnerable, let us focus on how to address their problems.
To tackle the coronavirus crisis, the central government has taken the initiative to provide food grains to these 8 crore migrant labourers for 2 months and has also urged the states to honour ration cards if issued by other states as well. One Nation, One ration card system is a good concept.
One can only wonder why it took so long and whosoever doesn't have a ration card besides these migrants, should also get access to food. A sum of Rs 3,500 crore has been announced for feeding the migrants, which translates into 0.18% of the total Rs 20 lakh crore economic stimulus package announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Let us analyse it a bit further. This migrant labour support allocation translates to Rs 437 per capita (Rs 3500/8) for a 2-month period for the most vulnerable segment of society. In other words, the support is equivalent to 2 days of MNREGA daily wages (around Rs 200 per day) for a 2-month period.
Isn't it too late, too little? If the government asks industry to pay full wages to workers, could this not have been supplemented with direct cash support too?
I had raised this point in my earlier article too. To provide social security to 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.
In this situation, going by the underlying spirit of the above scheme, where people have no jobs, these 8 crore migrants could be paid this Rs 3,000 per month, at least for 2 months which will be Rs. 48,000 crore. The 8 crore migrants constitute around 6% of the total population and giving cash assistance to this most vulnerable section of the society justifies only 2% of the total 20 lakh crore economic stimulus package.
After the two months, the unskilled workers may get absorbed in MNREGA, for which the Centre has rightly made an additional outlay of Rs 40,000 crore. Or start a business as a street vendor with credit assistance of Rs 5,000 crore announced by the government to support 50 lakh street vendors with loans up to Rs 10,000 or request for a Sishu loan under Mudra to start a micro-business or go back to their own place of work with MSMEs. Hopefully, the Rs 3,00,000 crore MSME loan that is expected to benefit 45 lakh MSMEs will absorb some of these labours.
For the past two months, we have ignored this vulnerable section of society which is key to our nation-building process. For the next two months at least, let's extend a helping hand in their survival and revival in this transition period. The strength of a value chain can only be built by strengthening the weakest link in the chain.
(The writer is a policy analyst and columnist. Views are personal)
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