Supporting and empowering migrant workers in India: analysis
Heartbreaking images of the grueling homecoming walk of distressed migrant workers and the tragic loss of life in car accidents have rocked India’s conscience. Operation Shramik Express, which guarantees the safe return of more than four million migrants on buses and trains, shows that the government has prepared a response as necessary.
Migrant workers are the backbone of India’s informal sector and micro, small and medium-sized enterprises. Their intersection of states for jobs means economic integration, and also interregional and rural-urban disparities. While empowering themselves, they also enrich their home and host states. The national closure has threatened to unravel this fabric. Their exodus from the host states has created a humanitarian and health security challenge, and a logistical nightmare. It has complicated the mission of Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi to contain the spread of the coronavirus. It has raised a long-term job dislocation and risk of atrophy. It is already affecting the restart of economic activities and the recovery plans activated by the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan (Independent Indian Mission).
The Opposition is using the situation to criticize the government’s strategy to manage coronavirus disease. As interested stakeholders, you must recognize that an effort is required from across India. The Prime Minister is driving India’s efforts as Raja Bhagirath to respond to the cataclysm in the spirit of cooperative and consultative federalism, with empathy for the poor, including “pravasi shramiks“The infectious virus has pushed governments into unusual policies and action spaces. Any life-saving action in prevention and response extracts Bhagirath’s penance.
States decide on the extent and enforcement of the blockade, and are responsible for providing assistance. The Center had to persuade states to accept mass transportation of workers with the associated risks of contagion. Some senior ministers like Yogi Adityanath have been proactive, while others are hesitant and unprepared. In the future, center-state protocols must be established for instant disaster deployment.
It is important to collect comprehensive data and statistics related to migrant workers disaggregated by skill, sector and gender, pan-India and state. Their absence has affected everyone on the scale of migrants’ job challenge and frustrated efforts to reach them to help them with food, cash health services, shelter or relocation to the home / host state.
The information asymmetry that poor migrants face needs to be addressed to access information on aid, benefits and transportation. Many became prey to disinformation, unscrupulous sellers, and panic motivators. Well-functioning hotlines, extension systems and the provision of low-cost smartphones, and IT education are crucial.
Many migrant workers left the cities for fear of disease and stigma, work, housing, income, food insecurity and to be with families. Others stayed in the cities due to attractive factors: better wages, jobs, prospects for upward economic and social mobility.
The challenges they face upon returning to their home states include resistance from their communities for fear of infection and lack of income and employment. Governments must provide for their local livelihoods and employment and return to the host states.
Targeted and ecosystem support for migrant workers is a major driver of Atmanirbhar Bharat package. A true Abhiyaan for the well-being and empowerment of migrant workers, it must be promoted with state governments on a war footing. Right now, the well-being of migrant workers and the release of their potential is vital to India’s survival and economic recovery.
Lakshmi Puri is a former deputy assistant secretary-general of the United Nations, a former deputy executive director of UN Women and a former acting deputy secretary-general of UNCTAD
The opinions expressed are personal.