The task at hand
With the reverse exodus of the migrant labourers back to their home states, the rural economy must be expanded to handle the oncoming stress of this potential workforce
COVID-19 and the consequent nationwide lockdown has throttled the economic progress in almost all the sectors involved in the production of goods and services. Loss of jobs is an inevitable consequence. The unorganised sector that accommodates millions of migrant labourers in cities, and urban pockets seems to bear the brunt of it. As data shows, more than 100 million migrant labourers live in cities among whom, around 40 million work in construction activities, followed by 20 million as domestic workers, 11 million in textiles industries and 10 million in brick kilns. Street vendors, cab drivers, watchmen, hotel staff, coolies and applicants for various other menial jobs are drawn from the migrant labour pool without whose services, life in cities come to a grinding halt. But now that the bustling life in cities has, in fact, come to a halt owing to the lockdown, the life and liberty of the migrant labourers, too, has halted at a crossroad. The obvious option for them is to 'go home' i.e., their home states, just to survive. Unfortunately, as Shakespeare says, 'When sorrows come, they come…in battalions'. The lockdown also meant the disruption of transport services, stranding millions of migrants along with their children on roads, high and dry with no food and shelter. Quite a few, in their desperate bid to make it back home, have lost their lives in accidents.
Now that we have managed to successfully control the spread of COVID-19 to a large extent, we have begun easing the lockdown in fits and shorts. Interstate trains, buses and trucks have begun to transport the stranded migrants to their respective home states. Soon our rural India will get bloated with the homecoming of its native population. The question is, what next? The panic and trauma inflicted by COVID-19 on our migrant workforce will motivate them to do anything for a living but certainly not to look towards the cities. The obvious option is to fall back on the rural sector at least for months or a year for bare minimum survival. This means a dire need for generating a lot of economic activity in rural areas, including and in addition to the traditional agriculture sector.
Though the economic package of 20 lakh crores aimed at the revival of the economy as announced by the Union Government is a welcome move, especially for MSMEs as an amount of three lakh crore is earmarked for collateral-free loans, the issue of accommodating the returning migrants in avenues of gainful employment is far from addressed. The Union Finance Minister on May 14 doled out a few relief packages for migrant labourers such as free ration for two months, access to FPS with portable ration cards, credit facilities to street vendors, an affordable rental housing complex for migrants, etc. Farm sector was also considered in the package by allocating additional emergency working capital funding of Rs 30,000 crore for marginal and small farmers, and Rs 3 lakh crore worth of subsidised loans through Kisan Credit Cards. More tranches are in the pipeline as assured by the Minister. There is an urgent demand for quicker and proper aid to be provided to state governments in order for them to grapple with the crisis of returning rural migrants.
Besides, when celebrated conventional employment generation programmes like MNREGA and various poverty alleviation schemes — on which enormous allocations are doled out regularly — failed to change the phenomena of the annual migration of millions to cities, what more can we do to support the lives of the migrants coming back to square one? This is a serious question. As the stress on the rural sector is imminent now, we may need to contemplate on manifold ways to address the unprecedented reverse migration.
Firstly, as monsoon is fast approaching and agricultural operations have already begun, an immediate measure could be to absorb a sizeable workforce on land and it calls for ensuring adequate wages. This is possible only when the supply of agricultural inputs such as irrigation, fertilisers, seeds and machinery is ensured to all farmers on war footing basis. Secondly, subsidised loans will, of course, help farmers but subsiding the input costs would work better as part of the economic package. Additionally, gainful employment in an allied sector such as dairy, poultry, fisheries, etc., can help the migrants sustain themselves for a while. The package needs to dole out free or highly subsidised inputs required in these areas. Thirdly, as fuel and power are two essential factors of production in the rural economy, subsidised and uninterrupted supply of the same must form a part of the package. Fourthly, as a vast number of migrant labour is also drawn from Scheduled tribes, especially from MP, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, their livelihoods back home in the forests, which generally depend on the collection of minor forest produce, millets cultivation, wage labour under TSP (Tribal Sub-Plan) and CAMPA (Compensatory Afforestation Management Authority) etc., can be better guaranteed by placing adequate allocations at the disposal of state governments. The promise of Rs 6,000 crores allocation to CAMPA in states as announced by FM is cause for hope surely, but more generous funding is required. The Centre must afford more autonomy to the states in such matters as states would be more aware of the on-ground situation within their jurisdiction and better placed to do the needful.
The writer is a former Additional Chief Secretary of Chhattisgarh. Views expressed are personal