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Photo: ANI
Photo: ANI

Opinion | Migrant crisis grabs political, policy attention

Political and public policy are converging to find solution to the plight of migrants

Last week, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, responding to a question on the migrant labour crisis posed during an interview with Mint, said it was time to redesign existing policies. One option, she argued, was to take jobs to people and hence nix the idea of distress migration. This is indeed a laudable idea, but the unfortunate reality is that existing regional growth disparities cannot be fixed overnight and migration for jobs, despite the terrible experience meted out to migrants during the lockdown period, will continue.

Simultaneously, the Congress, the principal Opposition in the country, has taken up the plight of migrant labourers as a political campaign. Yet again a welcome move, which will presumably put the spotlight on migrants. But then the party’s own questionable record in dealing with migrants desiring to leave the states governed by the Congress leaves it equally vulnerable to rebuke.

These political claims and counter-claims are hardly the point. Instead, probably for the first time, political and public policy attention is converging to explore a solution that goes beyond just talk. What the unfortunate tragedy has done is to reveal that migrants are a critical component of the national workforce and consequently indispensable to the Indian economy. Already the fleeing migrants are putting the brakes on real estate projects.

Ironically, the solution is not rocket science and has been part of policy discussions for some time now. It is rather intriguing that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has been slow off the blocks in this regard. It has had at its disposal the high-level report on migration, done under the aegis of the ministry of housing and urban poverty alleviation, the findings of which were readied as far back as January 2017. Admitted the solution requires close coordination between the source states and the destination states for migrants; guess it fell prey to the fatal flaw in the architecture of Indian public policy which is oriented to respond best in a crisis.

The data compiled by the expert group is both revealing and informative. For instance, citing National Sample Survey Office data, it reveals that two out of five residents of Mumbai and Delhi are made up of migrants and that half of them come from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Similarly, another factoid reveals a pattern wherein short-term migrants (the ones we see fleeing for their homes in hordes) aggregate about 14 million. More importantly they make up a little over 40% of the construction workforce. Their absence will, at the least, slowdown execution of infrastructure and real estate projects.

Further, 54 districts account for inter-state and out-migration in the country. These districts are bunched up in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar together with specific districts such as Nadia and Midnapore in West Bengal, Ganjam in Odisha, Gulbarga in Karnataka, Jalgaon in Maharashtra, and Pali in Rajasthan.

Given these patterns surely, it is not difficult to target welfare programmes to these cohorts. Recent pronouncements by the Union government suggest some forward movement, especially the decision to accelerate the idea of a ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’. Ironically this idea was first proposed by an expert group led by Nandan Nilekani in 2011. That nine years later India is still implementing the idea is definitely food for thought.

In the final analysis, it is clear that migrants, albeit belatedly, are finally getting due attention of public policy as well as politicians. It would be worth keeping in mind, given their criticality to the Indian economy, that the crisis that migrants are facing is like a broadsword and cuts both ways. Today, it is the migrants who are facing the brunt. Tomorrow, it will be the turn of the Indian economy. So, protecting the rights of migrants makes as much business sense as it is good politics.

Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

Comments are welcome at anil.p@livemint.com

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