Newspapers have been filled with the sad plight of migrant labour moving around in panic, meeting with accidents and treated as if they were a commodity, not human capital. For instance, the Uttar Pradesh government stated in an advertisement that 1.1 million migrants had returned, and that the state was ready to take in and provide for many more. Other states followed suit. Tall promises to returnees seem to paper over the fact that a lack of opportunities at home was why they went so far in the first place; that is, to earn a living as workers or micro entrepreneurs.
While preparing for a post-lockdown recovery, our Union and state governments must realize that respect for our workforce and its resilience form a necessary precondition for the economy to attain self-reliance. More than seven weeks after the first lockdown and topsy-turvy waves of migration up and down the country, the Union government has finally arrived at a solution through a National Migrant Information System, which will allow such persons to be tracked so that their health can be checked and skills matched with job vacancies.
Migrant workers, marginal farmers and street vendors featured in the second tranche of finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s slew of measures to revive the economy. In particular, for migrant workers, several relief measures were announced, including strengthening the scope of the rural jobs guarantee scheme, providing free foodgrains even for non-ration card holders for the next two months, and building low-cost rental housing for migrant workers.
Though these measures are a step towards providing immediate relief, much clarity is required on a roadmap for their effective implementation. For instance, state governments have been asked to ensure that non-ration card holders also get the allocated free foodgrains. The question is, can states undertake such a task with their limited capacity in such challenging times?
While immediate relief is at the core of the government’s initiatives, what seems to have got neglected in the frenzy is that this ‘new normal’ is here to stay. Hence, mitigation measures should be for the long-term, rather than stop-gap solutions. This will require addressing structural problems that plague our human capital. A key reason for these problems is that enterprises look at labour through a lens of ‘cost of production’ rather than that of an ‘asset’ or ‘human capital’. Thus, while grappling with the current economic crisis, their tendency is to reduce the ‘cost’ to ensure viability and profitability.
A recent survey of 2,480 businesses by the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry brings this to light. It showed that 60% of businesses feel payment of wages will be a major challenge, post-lockdown. Further, about half of them are planning layoffs. Such drastic responses to large shocks, such as the covid pandemic, worsen the chronic plight of informal workers who have limited economic or social security. Given the ongoing reverse migration, India’s human capital now seems at high risk of fragmention and geographical isolation.
The circumstances of workers and the paradox of our policy highlight a fundamental mismatch that must be addressed. Building nationwide economic resilience will require us to ensure that our migrant workers get a fair opportunity to work anywhere in the country.
As an immediate step, alongside the ongoing relief work, the State needs to ensure that a credible database of migrant workers is created. This exercise has begun. Existing channels of providing benefits to these workers can aid in building this database. Be it enrolling migrants in relief camps, or providing them public transportation, the authorities have covered roughly 80 million migrants till date.
In addition to basic information, that database should include skill-sets and past experience, apart from previous wage and medical history. Both the Union and state governments have the machinery to manage this. This database, reflecting the supply side of human capital, should then be matched with the estimated demand of workers in various industries across India.
This would enable the government to match the supply of workers with demand, upon the fulfilment of certain pre-decided parameters. These parameters should include our long-standing objectives of ensuring adequate wages for a decent living, a safe work environment, a sound skill-development ecosystem, and universal social safety coverage. The government could act as the de facto contractor in this process.
To facilitate this and ensure effectiveness, accountability and credibility, the government can bank on its Digital India vision. Technological resources like cloud storage and market exchange platforms can be leveraged to operationalize the database, while remote-sensing can be used for monitoring the adherence to the parameters for worker welfare. The State can gradually undertake a hands-off approach as the market takes centre-stage and governance mechanisms move toward self-regulation.
As resilience becomes the key to a new normal, the State must seek to strike a balance between providing immediate relief and facilitating the long-term well-being of workers. We need a sustainable recovery of the economy as well as our workforce.
Sarthak Shukla of CUTS contributed to this article
Pradeep S. Mehta is secretary general, CUTS International