Survival of Migrant Workers: The roadmap post-Corona

Bhaskar Majumder

We, the people of India, have traversed for more than seven decades since 1947 – it was a long odyssey, long because time is relative and the path was not always pleasant for people like me. Whether or not right to life shines in the Constitution of India through Article 21, each child takes birth with a natural right to live that her mother ensures first, of course, supported by the medical practitioners or Dai if the child is born at home. Man took birth in the womb of nature really that subsequently came to be explained by mother-child phenomena. Mother is no less than the earth.

Let me make the canvas narrow for only the children who become workers in adulthood to migrate each year to known and unknown destinations for roti-roji. The workers that reach the city of Bangalore, of course, are different from the workers that migrate to Mumbai – in the former from Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal while in the latter from Bihar-UP. The root-reasons are similar – absence of work-wage at the root notwithstanding MNREGA. Corona-2019/2020 has exposed what I reported to the Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India few years back on non-dependency of rural workers on MNREGA for it provided average working days per household per year at an average wage rate below Rs. 200 per worker that was non-dependable. I am not sure if any collusion worked in the polity to make MNREGA a partial failure. After all, all economic answers are political questions.

Most of the aspects are known – so I abstain from re-iterating those like mono-cropping, crop-failure, seasonal employment, outstanding debt of the rural poor, suicides of farmers and all that. Adverse terms of trade and monotonically declining share of agriculture in national income are also known to the economists and policy-makers in India. Also that India cannot afford to rely on import of food grains. All these are known. The things that are in doubt are the calculations on productivity in agriculture and the alleged disguised unemployment. I abstain from focusing on those.

My point is simple. One, the food quota cards will be portable. Two, migrant workers will be provided cost-free food at family level for next two months – means, from mid-May to mid-July, 2020 – both proposed by the Government of India on 14th May, 2020. The Government of India announced food-support for eight crore migrant workers across states in India that I doubt is an overestimation if marriage of women, men drawn to houses in cities for inter-generational servitude, daily commuters, and Indian workers abroad are excluded.

Beyond doubt, what people need is food and not gold that Ravindranath Tagore’s story titled “Guptodhan’’ (Hidden Wealth) explained. Both the twin steps of the Government are appreciable – my concern is they may fail on the ground. The following are the reasons:

  1. Identification of the workers as migrant workers – and the location by state where they are to be identified and listed.
  2. To check if each one has food security cards linked to a particular Fair Price Shop.
  3. Linking the card to the FPSs at the destination where the worker migrates.
  4. Providing free food at door-step of the migrant worker at the root-village?
  5. Storage capacity of food grains at home and protection from wild animals?
  6. Protection of stored food grains of the poor against natural calamities, come monsoon in July?

The reasons I raise doubt in implementation are the following:

  1. When the iron U-shape utensil is hot, the oil in tiny quantity will wither away fast.
  2. When oil is too much on a tiny utensil, it will be unmanageable to operate.
  3. When oil is too much on a big utensil, a small Chulha (indigenous oven) will be inadequate to carry it.

So what to do? Before I suggest, let me inform what I received about the migrant workers at Bangalore in the state of Karnataka.

Migrant Workers at Bangalore
About 250 migrant workers continued to assemble on a school ground near Sompura circle in east Bangalore ending Sarjapur Road since 14th May, 2020 to get support in paperwork that would enable them to go back home mainly in West Bengal, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. These forms were printed in English provided by the police that was supposed to be filled-in by the migrants mentioning demographic-geographic details about the migrants and given back to the police. Buses were arranged for them to reach the railway station after the entire process was over. Opposite the ground was a hospital/clinic where they had to get medical check-up done in order to make sure there were no positive cases of workers affected by Corona virus.

Food and water were arranged for the migrant workers both by the state and non-state actors; because it was summer, water-deficit was felt. There was no chaos as visible from the workers sitting and eating or getting their forms filled-in with the help of the volunteers. Most of the workers had their mouths covered with masks or handkerchiefs. There were no signs of spitting although there was littering of the food packets, despite constant reminder from the volunteers to use the dustbins. The migrant workers that we covered comprised 100 males and one female and an infant who she was breastfeeding.
We also spoke to some workers outside the ground and asked them where they were from and why they were going back. As responded, they belonged to West Bengal and were going back to meet families but would like to come back since they had to be re-engaged as wage-labourers in Bangalore city. They felt uncertainty if they would even get food at native place after they would go back. "Amra phire gale, Modi ky aamader khaoyabe? " (If we go back home, will Modi provide us food?) was what one of the men said. Very few of them had tiny plot of land that was inadequate even for subsistence farming. They expected to utilize the time-span between reaching home-village and return to Bangalore working as agricultural labourers in the former. What we understood by this was that they did not like to live on the mercy of the government but would like to keep self-esteem intact earning at destination for their living (Source: Field Survey, May 14-15, 2020, by Srishti Majumder).

In lieu of a conclusion
The state will be the best judge to decide what to do to save the migrant workers. Still then, some of what I observed during past six decades may be the base to opine the following:

  1. India’s regional economies are varied.
  2. Women members of families always prefer food to cash. This observation followed my research project in 2004 on Sampoorna Gramin Rojgar Yojana for the Planning Commission prior to launching the MNREGA through Act, 2005.
  3. Cash supplements family livelihood that MNREGA can provide.

Once the rural poor families are retained in rural region by “roti-roji’’ by cost-free food and MNREGA works for wages, the extent of migration will slow down. If the Corona 2019/2020 experience is any guide for the migrant workers, the rate of long-distance migration must slow down.
The above is not to imply that migration will stop in near and far future for the following reasons: (1) positive wage-differential, (2) outstanding debt at root-rural economy, (3) urban need of rural labour. While (1) is market-guided, (2) may be checked through institutional intervention, (3) is complex for rural-urban-state-corporate cobweb.

What are needed are the following at the minimum:

  1. A regional planning for food security and wage-for-work.
  2. Guarantee of minimum income of each household in rural region plus urban slums.

In (1), universal PDS is the panacea. But PDS is only real income enhancing, unless it is cost-free and food reached door-step. (2) takes care especially when PDS remains non-universal and food is priced. Stop-gap or piece-meal steps help polity-bureaucracy to play with the people – choice is of the state.

Apology: I have full faith on the wisdom of the state apparatus.

Bhaskar Majumder, Professor of Economics, G. B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad - 211019

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May 17, 2020

Prof. Bhaskar Majumder

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