The migrant workers' crisis has been a glaring pain point amidst other issues during the lockdown period. Things only got worse for the said population when the nationwide lockdown was extended till May 3. The mass exodus of migrant labourers on March 25 following the announcement of lockdown and then again, albeit not as large as before, when the same was extended on April 14 highlights the burning concern underlying these stranded souls. For them, procuring food and shelter is as important as securing themselves from a virus they hardly understand. The enforced lockdown has definitely kept them from thronging the streets but multiple reports have underlined the scarcity of food despite state governments working in full swing to ensure food and shelter. And, there has not been much to for these migrant workers since work has halted and consequently, so have wages. They cannot even go home to their villages where there is an apparent solution to the twin problems of work and food. Those in villages and small towns have the option of procuring ration from PDS and enrolling for work under MGNREGA — the latter being exempted under the lockdown albeit with safeguards such as social distancing in place. Back in their stranded locations such as Mumbai and Delhi, the restriction of no work and no ration card to procure ration from PDS has majorly hurt the scope of food for these migrant workers with empty pockets. While state administrations have repeatedly underlined their effort in distributing free meals to all the people stranded, last-mile implementation of the promise has been patchy as per individual accounts. In such dire circumstances, these migrants have been pressing for a passage back home to their villages and towns which, essentially, would be disastrous for the government as the entire point of lockdown would be defeated.
For the Centre, it has been a tough call as they seek alternatives to solve this adversity. And, they may finally have two good options to pursue. On Sunday, the Centre allowed movement of migrant workers within a state. The MHA notification asked local authorities to first register the migrant workers in camps and shelters and then conduct a skill mapping exercise to identify and designate suitable work to them. The temporary measure does seem like an offshoot of MGNREGA during times of crisis. The Centre permitted buses to ply for ferrying them across districts within a state and asked local authorities to arrange food and water for them during their journey to various workplaces. In a separate development, local self-government heeded expert advice to provide temporary ration cards to more than 80,000 undocumented people in the district so that they can receive food grains under PDS. The Pune Zilla Parishad implemented what three brilliant economists — Amartya Sen, Abhijit Banerjee and Raghuram Rajan — had suggested in an article published in Indian Express on April 16. The Zilla Parishad plans to use Aadhaar-based authentication to open accounts for these undocumented people with the India Post Payments Bank and clearly the beneficiaries would be able to procure ration. What the Pune Zilla Parishad model elicits, based on what experts suggested, is an already identified development under the 'One Nation One Ration Card' (ONORC) Scheme. The National Food Security Act, 2013 marks a watershed in the approach to food security from welfare to a rights-based approach. It legally entitles up to 75 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban population to receive subsidised foodgrains under the Targeted PDS. However, NFSA desperately requires the ONORC scheme to eliminate barriers of food procurement, highly benefitting the migrants who, under the current norms, cannot procure food grains from PDS of their choice. Both the aforementioned measures ensure work and food security for stranded migrants at such a time of crisis. Hence, it would be prudent to work out necessary amendments to both MGNREGA and NFSA to incorporate such flexible changes, grossly benefitting the migrant class vis-à-vis livelihood security.