A pinch for migrants

by May 16, 2020 0 comments

Daily wagers, vendors need cash handouts, not long drawn out policy interventions that aggravate their agony

We must not forget the stark truth. No matter what the Government’s reassurances, the fact of the matter is that the reverse migration continues in greater swells. Even though dedicated buses and trains are now running to ferry workers home as they have been rendered jobless and penniless in the cities due to the COVID-19 lockdown, thousands are continuing the long march by road. And various reports indicate that they aren’t coming back anytime soon as they feel a thoughtless Government didn’t care for them or provide an actionable alternative before announcing the lockdown. Many have said that they would rather earn little, even go back to subsistence farming, than risk a return to the city that gave them the disease, stigmatised them as carriers, took their jobs and evicted them from their homes as landlords didn’t even grant a grace period. Their anger, hurt and determination have already resulted in a chronic shortage of labour across the country and although economic activity may slowly resume through the post-COVID recovery, labour isn’t coming either cheap or ready. Which is why the second tranche of the fiscal package for daily wagers and street vendors, again in the nature of policy interventions that never make it to implementation and funds that routinely bleed out before they reach the beneficiaries, makes no sense at all. Nobody can afford to wait or queue up for food doles, destitute labourers need money in hand now. And all the relief announced so far involve an incubation period and will take time to materialise. Farmers and agricultural workers’ unions have been consistently demanding an income support of Rs 7,500 per month instead but the Government is yet to address the need for a cash component. They had demanded Rs 18,000 a year under PM-KISAN for all farmers, including tenants. But other than the routine Rs 2,000 installment to a reduced number, nothing has materialised. Nor is there any mention of interest-free loans. In a joint statement, farmers have claimed that while 14.5 crore of them should have benefitted from the PM-KISAN scheme, only three crore had got agricultural loans and that is not as part of any special drive carried out under the lockdown circumstances. Besides, most of the loans are cornered by agri-businesses and large farmers as banks are reluctant to give them to smaller growers. Neither are there any assured remunerative prices for agriculture produce or compensation for supply disruptions and wastage. Although loans have been announced for street vendors, they are expected to take a long time coming, given our procedural hassles and clearances. Verification of over 50 lakh street vendors, who are expected to benefit from an estimated outlay of Rs 5,000 crore, is not a fast-track operation. Neither can they wait so long for a working capital of Rs 10,000. So no immediate relief for them either. In short, there is just a promise but no clear cut means to honour it.

The Government has attempted food security by pledging foodgrains to even non-ration card holders for the next two months and announcing portable ration cards. But the “one India ration card” will take at least a year to materialise, considering the Government envisages covering eight crore migrants. Till then they have to use their existing ration cards at their native places, one of the reasons that fuelled the exodus in the first place, the prospect of free food. Question is why weren’t these measures mulled earlier than dumped as an apologetic afterthought? Wouldn’t it have been easier to have an organised network of community kitchens or even food tokens in the short term? A cash dole would have also helped labourers retain some dignity and they could use it as they would their own incomes. A few days ago, there was much noise about returnee migrants being absorbed in projects under MGNREGA. The enrolment numbers did go up initially but have now plateaued out. One, the scheme itself needs funding to expand operations and two, social distancing and new norms in a post-pandemic scenario mean only certain activities can take place. The subsidy scheme for affordable housing has been extended by another year but that’s hardly an intervention. For without jobs and incomes, nobody is certainly thinking of awaas yojanas. The Government also has to balance its declaration of ensuring minimum wages and workers’ rights while the BJP Governments in States are trying to do away with the complex web of labour laws in a bid to attract sizeable investment. But won’t 12-hour work shifts without a concomitant social security net be counter-productive in the end?

(Courtesy: The Pioneer)

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