The Indian Government’s initial response to Covid-19—a stringent nationwide lockdown which commenced with an intimation period of only “four hours”—was hailed by the World Health Organisation as “timely and tough.” However, this international acclaim overlooked the disastrous result of the rushed lockdown on India’s migrant workforce. For them, the restrictions imposed by the lockdown has endangered their access to healthcare, housing, food and social security, which has further pushed their lives in precarity. Immediate action is needed from the Central Government to tend to their current needs and provide them with long-term economic stability.
Statistics of Migrant Labour in India
As per the census of 2011, India has approximately 453.6 million internal migrants. From this, the migrant workforce is estimated to be around 100 million. The Economic Survey of 2017 estimated that every year between 2011 to 2016 about nine million people migrated from rural villages to urban cities—many motivated by the prospect of gaining access to the urban job market. Furthermore, nearly 90% of the total workforce in India is part of the informal economy, and the largest and most vulnerable segment of this group is the migrant workforce.
With the imposition of the lockdown, all non-essential economic activities were halted and a restriction on movement between two districts was imposed by the Central Government. Initially, the migrant workforce complied with the directives of restriction on movement. However, their meagre savings soon dried-up, prompting a mass exodus. Migrants began walking back to their places of origin, bearing heavy bags on their heads and children in their arms for hundreds of miles. This mass exodus has resulted in the death of migrant labourers due to road accidents, starvation, and lack of basic medical care.
Many outraged citizens have questioned whether the government has adequately provided for the migrant workforce amidst the crisis. Most politicians in India do not seem particularly concerned about migrant labourers despite their immense economic contribution. This may be because migrants cannot contribute to the regional vote bank of politicians. They are electorally registered in their villages of origin, but during elections they are often working elsewhere. This inability to cast votes renders them invisible for politicians fixated on maintaining their own power. Still, while politicians have historically overlooked migrant labourers, the Central and State Governments have now taken measures to help this demographic weather Covid-19.
Initial Government Response
After the exodus began, the first response of the Central Government was to employ short-term measures, such as mandating the payment of wages by all employers in exchange for no work and relaxing the payment of rents. However, these primarily failed because of weak implementation of the labour laws and absence of respect towards the rights of workers. Other initiatives—which included operationalising free buses and trains, setting up shelter-homes and establishing online portals for monitoring the movement of migrant workforce—did not have an effective reach because of a lack of awareness of these measures among the migrant workforce.
A Weakening of Labour Laws
Subsequent to the implementation of these short-term measures, some State Governments introduced a three-year dilution of labour laws, in order to revive the pandemic-induced economic downturn. This abatement, which includes abolishing the minimum wage and dissolving the formal dispute resolution mechanism to claim workers’ rights, was done under the guise of attracting investments from foreign countries.
However, the evidence suggests that these measures will be ineffective and will further undermine the already weak rights of workers. A 2017 study conducted in four States of India found that a relaxation in labour laws did not substantially boost investment. In fact, it could deteriorate the existing working conditions of labourers.
Misguided Policy Correctives
After the announcement of the dilution of labour laws, the Central Government devised a new set of measures, which were expected to address the inadequacies of the earlier measures and cater to the immediate needs of the migrant labour. However, these were mainly structural and monetary in nature, with little focus on the fiscality that would provide migrant labourers money to survive. For example, the Central Government came out with the “One Nation, One Ration” scheme which is to be implemented only after 2021.
The only immediate relief that has been granted to the migrant workforce is the provision of free food grains for a period of only two months. However, much more can be done to alleviate their hardships. Duflo & Banerjee have argued that in order to tackle the Covid-19 crisis, the government must make bolder systemic social transfer of money. Without this, the “demand crisis will snowball into an economic avalanche, and people will have no choice but to defy orders.” Furthermore, the Central Government seems to be oblivious of the fact that in addition to the food grains, other basic necessities, such as milk, vegetables, cooking oil and gas are also required for which direct cash transfer should immediately be made.
The Central and State Governments’ overall efforts have been inadequate and ripe for improvement in order to ameliorate the sufferings of the migrant workforce. It cannot be ignored that the infrastructure of India is built on the backs of these migrant workers, who are integral to varied economic sectors, such as construction, manufacturing, and agriculture. Thus, addressing their needs is immensely important not only to save their lives, but to steady India’s entire economy.