The case for a portable safety net for migrants

The sudden reverse migration from urban to rural areas during the first phase of the covid pandemic reflects this phenomenon (Photo: HT)
The sudden reverse migration from urban to rural areas during the first phase of the covid pandemic reflects this phenomenon (Photo: HT)


States must work with the Centre on a safety net for migrants to fall back upon across the country

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s seminal work on Prospect Theory discussed the ‘certainty effect’, wherein “people underweight outcomes that are merely probable in comparison with outcomes that are obtained with certainty"; “This tendency, called the certainty effect, contributes to risk aversion in choices involving sure gains and to risk seeking in choices involving sure losses." Thus, in the absence of certainty, uncertainty, coupled with information asymmetry, shapes human behaviour. Humans are inherently risk-averse, so they try to reduce uncertainties as it triggers negative affective responses. Agents try to predict uncertainty based on past knowledge, contextual cues and available information. In case of an unexpected shock, this becomes difficult, and humans tend to become more risk-averse. The inherent tendency then is to rely on tried and tested institutions and networks. The sudden reverse migration from urban to rural areas during the first phase of the covid pandemic reflects this phenomenon.

The recently released Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) 2020-21 shows that 20.8% of total male migration in the country was from urban to rural areas in 2020-21. The 2011 census had found that proportion to be merely 8% back then.

The volume and direction of migration both vary depending on fluctuations in the economy. Only 6.7% of male migrants have attributed their migration to the loss of a job, closure of unit or lack of employment opportunities. Health-related uncertainty, lockdowns, the temporary closure of units, shops and establishments, coupled with the absence of safety net in some instances, may have been the driving factor for this reverse migration. The PLFS lists 16 reasons for migration and the lack of a safety net does not figure among them. One reason could be difficulty in determining what a safety net is. To the statistics ministry’s credit, health-related issues and housing problems do figure in the list.

The Economic Survey of 2020-21 came up with a bare necessities index. Access to housing, water, sanitation, electricity and clean cooking fuel has improved significantly in the past few years, thanks to both Union and state government schemes. In its computations, the ministry of statistics could rely on that bare necessities index to define a safety net.

Government policies create safety nets for those who need them, but when people migrate, they often miss out on the geographically-fixed benefits. A pre-requisite for any policy intervention for migrants is to identify who the migrants are. In 1979, India enacted its Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, which has provisions for the registration of inter-state migrants. Among other things, this Act lists the duties and obligations of a contractor. The law enjoins this entity “to furnish in respect of every inter-state migrant workman who ceases to be employed, a return... to the specified authority in the state from which he is recruited and in the state in which he is employed, which shall include a declaration that all the wages and other dues payable to the workman and the fare for the return journey back to his state have been paid". This never happened. The job of implementing the Act rests with Indian states. As pointed out by several studies, however, most states do not enforce this statute.

Some states do have safety net provisions, but there are problems with the dissemination of information—which must be aimed at the appropriate beneficiaries. This brings back the question of who the migrants are.

In a federal system, due to the absence of efforts by states, the Union government has initiated the process of making access to bare necessities portable. This has several benefits. One, in the short term, it helps the Centre create a safety net for individuals, especially migrants, in the absence of the enactment of statutes by states. Second, it lets individuals take risks; a safety net enables one to migrate elsewhere for better economic opportunities without worrying about failure. Third, it allows individuals to maintain the same social safety benefits across the country.

Schemes like One Nation, One Ration Card and Ayushman Bharat have helped ensure that Indians have largely uniform access to food and healthcare. However, in both these schemes, errors need to be plugged—especially of exclusion—that are stacked against the poor.

In addition, urban housing for migrants remains a big concern. The mushrooming of slums in tier 1 and tier 2 cities is a testament to this. Recently, the Union government attempted to address this issue by introducing affordable rental housing complexes, a sub-scheme under the urban Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. However, for the successful implementation of such schemes, it again becomes necessary to identify migrants.

Therefore, states should work with the Centre to reduce uncertainties for migrant workers. While bare necessities could be a starting point, portability of benefits should not be confined to them. Their contours should be widened to such dimensions as access to education. Only then can we ensure the foolproof inclusion of migrants.

Aditya Sinha & M. Suresh Babu are, respectively, additional private secretary (research) and advisor, the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister

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