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Earlier this week, India’s Supreme Court passed several orders on a suo moto writ petition on the misery of migrant labourers. It took up the case following the mass exodus of migrant labourers amid the lockdown during the first wave of covid. That many migrants left without livelihood and food had to walk back to their villages had moved the court, but their plight failed to elicit a similar response from the government. The court’s anguish was apparent, more so after the tragedy that unfolded during the second wave.

While an order on implementing the One Nation One Ration Card (ONOR) scheme by 31 July 2021 received media attention, various other important orders have gone relatively unnoticed. ONOR has been a flagship scheme of the government from before the pandemic. Despite claims of success, its operationalization has been riddled with problems, resulting in the exclusion of beneficiaries and hardship for those exercising their entitlement under the National Food Security Act (NFSA). From the failure of biometric identification to the absence of e-Point of Sale machines and the ambiguity in entitlement across states, the scheme has not enthused its beneficiaries.

Following the top court’s order, some of these issues are likely to be resolved, but that may not be enough for the many poor excluded from the NFSA. The court had also ordered an update of the list of beneficiaries under the Act. The current one is based on population estimates of 2011 and needs to take into account India’s increase in population. Based on Census 2011, the total number of eligible beneficiaries should be 813.5 million. However, actual beneficiaries stood at 805.5 million in May 2017, declining to 793.9 million by May 2021. That is 20 million less than the eligible count even by the Census 2011 estimates. A back-of-the-envelope calculation using population projections for 2021 suggests that around 100 million beneficiaries have been excluded.

This is a large number of people being denied NFSA rations. One problem is that there’s no mechanism to identify beneficiaries. The existing list has largely been derived from the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) survey conducted during 2011-12. While this survey is a better source than the earlier Below Poverty Line (BPL) census of 2002, its quality varies across regions. It is generally more robust in rural areas, but unreliable in urban precincts. This is particularly true for large metropolitan cities like Delhi and Mumbai. To be sure, even the survey is not without fault. Its methodology of beneficiary identification in urban areas is ambiguous and has large errors of exclusion.

Its original design required the SECC to be updated at regular intervals with full-scale surveys every five years. But given the government’s track record on statistical data and surveys, there is little likelihood of this happening. The resultant absence of updated survey data makes it impossible to identify beneficiaries accurately. Since most migrants are in urban metropolitan areas, large exclusions can be expected in big cities. Given the complexities involved, a simpler solution would be to universalize NFSA benefits for the next one year.

As the Supreme Court order has highlighted in detail, the problem is not the absence of legislation, but the way our schemes are implemented. While the NFSA and ONOR are good examples, the situation is no different with the various provisions enacted to safeguard the interests and welfare of migrant labourers. Despite multiple laws and numerous judicial orders, a majority of unorganized-sector workers have got excluded from schemes meant to protect them. The database of unorganized-sector workers and migrants has seen little updation, so far, as revealed by the affidavits of various states.

The Supreme Court order is a positive step towards recognizing the need for better systems and implementation mechanisms to ensure the protection and welfare of unorganized-sector workers. The manner in which various legislated provisions and schemes are implemented tends to exclude a significant section of India’s population. The larger message from the court is the need for laws on social protection that are universal and accessible to every worker, irrespective of place of residence or work. Such a framework for universal social protection should not just comprise a set of legislations, but also have the requisite flexibility and political will to be of aid to every citizen of the country at all times. Especially so during and after a pandemic of the scale that the country is witnessing.

Himanshu is associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at the Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi

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