Migrant workers’ passage

Kashmir Times. Dated: 6/24/2020 12:25:58 AM

The central government should work towards easing passage of migrant workers to old and new places of work as economic activities resume

The NDA-government does not appear to be serious in tackling the crisis created in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic not only in India but also across the world after announcing the exit from the lockdown of over 50 days. The exit plan is also as confusing as it was lockdown announcement by the centre with only four-hour notice to the people to move away from the place of their work. This led to mass movement of the migrant workers, estimated to be around 40 million, which was perhaps bigger crisis than forced migration of after India’s partition when 10 million people had nowhere to go. Now, the phase of large-scale exodus of migrant workers from major urban and industrial centres to their homes towns is over. With no skilled workers oresent around the industrial units and place of work, most of the industries also still groping in the dark in the absence of any demand for their manufactured products except some of them which continue to in demand. Some industrial units have resumed their activities with few working hands available to them. Some of the sectors dealing in Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG), which are reporting higher demand, whether they manufacture and package staple food stuffs, biscuits, snacks and instant noodles or soaps and sanitisers, than pre-Covid-19 period and lockdown, for the reason that more people still sitting at home or working from home. These consumables are in demand in view of the fact that healthcare and telecom industrial units continued to operate despite the lockdown. There are concerns as circulars issued by the centre and the states suggest presence of one-third of their workers to maintain social distancing and avoid crowding of the work places. Such measures can benefit only few industrial sectors in the absence of public transport system, which mainly used by the working class for commuting to their work places. Some of the states that allowed the public transport system to operate at one third of half their capacity is becoming a problem for both the workers and the entrepreneurs. The re-opening of the economic activity is important for the corporates as well as the migrant workers.
These measures should result in the return of migrant labourers leaving their villages again. Their going back was triggered by the sudden loss of work and no earnings for even sustaining themselves, let alone sending home. It was an entirely rational response from the working class. That same logic would make them head again to their erstwhile or new places of work is difficult to say. At thids stage, manpower shortages in production assembly lines, loading and unloading of goods or making home deliveries will force FMCG companies, auto manufacturers and online grocers to pay higher wages in the short run. Paddy growers of Punjab and Haryana, who have always relied on migrant workers for transplantation operations, are left with no choice either. For the labourers, too, the wage premiums and lack of livelihood options back home, MGNREGA work pays just Rs 194 daily in Bihar and Rs 201 in UP, are going to be significant ‘pull’ factors.
The NDA-government has launched a Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan to provide livelihood opportunities through focused public infrastructure works in 116 districts with large returnee migrant worker populations. But these schemes cannot substitute for private sector activity in which this workforce was previously engaged. There is a strong case to increase the number of trains from UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and other migrant labourer-origin states, with strict enforcement of social distancing, wearing of masks and no issuing of unreserved tickets. Such trains may currently be running with low ridership numbers. But that would change as the demand for labour picks up. The current trickle of migrant workers returning for work can be managed in better manner and in a more humane way, than during the exodus. Unless that is managed, there will again be chaos in the country.



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