The Covid-19 pandemic will go down as a watershed in India’s history as it has exposed several fault lines of the political economy concealed in the cobwebs of macro-economic data.
The systemic inability to address issues faced by migrant working men and women in urban and peri-urban areas in the unorganised sectors of the economy is one such fault line.
Absence of any mechanism – both at the Centre and states – to monitor inter-state, and even intrastate movement, of labour has caught authorities unprepared and hindered sensible policy making.
London-based Financial Times in its 1 May issue estimated that India has 170 million workers who migrated from their “home states” to other states and 140 million of them have lost their jobs in the wake of the outbreak.
Neither the methodology of making the estimate nor the possibility of excluding the intra-state movement of labour – so large in states like UP and MP – are known.
And in the absence of any government estimate, there is ample scope for underreporting the problem and its dimensions. The contribution of migrant labour to the economy is huge – about 10 per cent of the GDP on a conservative estimate – but more significantly, it is the backbone of sectors like manufacturing, construction, transportation, hospitality and private security services.
The size of this segment is rapidly expanding due to what the International Labour Organization calls “informalisation” of labour in the wake of “liberalisation”, spread of outsourcing of skills and subcontracting of work.
The 2017 Economic Survey estimated that nine million Indians move across state borders annually.
Earlier, the 2011 Census put 140 million workers in the intra and inter-state migrant groups. However, the database of wages, working and living conditions of migrant workers is not adequate to make an assessment of their situation.
Even when targeted programmes were launched by the government to provide workers in unorganised sectors – rural and urban – with some social security, as under the Atal Pension Yojana, the difficulty in reaching out to these groups was enormous.
Nevertheless, the Periodic Labour Force Survey 2017-18 reported the hard facts – more than 70 per cent workers in the non-agricultural sectors didn’t have a written job contract, 55 per cent were not eligible for paid leave and 55 per cent didn’t have any health or social security.
The working conditions of migrant labour continue to be highly exploitative despite the fact that we have protective legislations such as the Interstate Migrant Workmen Act, 1997 laying down a system for registration of migrant workers by every state labour department, compliance with the provisions for contract employment covering payment of wages, living and conditions of work. However, the ground reality is that migrant labour-friendly legislations are not being implemented properly.
This is indeed a sad commentary on a state committed to “Sarvodaya” and “Antodaya” meaning upliftment of all and those at the bottom of society, and the objectives of the Republic as embodied in the Directive Principles of State Policy of the Constitution.
Looking at this crisis from the North-east perspective, the first thing that one notes is that no such movement of labour is taking place in the North-east from outside while about 600-700,000 migrant workers and their families from the region, mainly Assam, are trying to get back to their homes.
This is contrary to the narrative that dominates the politics of the region – especially Assam – that the identity of indigenous people is under serious threat due to “unabated migration” from outside the region and across international borders.
The reason for “no movement of labour” into the North-east is the overall low demand for labour in the region as no large infrastructure project is presently under implementation. The manufacturing and tertiary sectors are in no need of outside labour – skilled or unskilled.
Thus out migration is the dominant issue now, especially from Assam. This is because the 1980s and 1990s were decades of “no economic growth” but high population rise and massive youth unemployment, generating for the first time a “push factor” as the opening up of the economy from 1991 created new job opportunities in several cities outside the Northeast.
This led to the first phase of migration of labour outside the region from the late 1990s and it has since grown larger and recurring.
Interestingly economic growth picked up in the region from the 10th plan (2002-2007) and a few other states have now been growing at six per cent plus annually. However, it has not been technology/manufacturingled growth capable of transforming the production function and expanding the urban areas but driven by investment in physical infrastructure projects, which create jobs mainly in the construction phase.
This period also saw a massive spread of higher and technical educational facilities. Apart from IITGauhati, scores of new universities and vocational training institutions were set up churning out qualified personnel far in excess of the demand of the regional economy.
This holds good for undergraduate technical manpower too as the region’s network of Industrial Training Institutes, with 28 in Assam and 19 in other states, churn out qualified technicians far in excess of the demand as reflected in the small size of the regional economy.
This explains the high unemployment rate especially in Tripura, Assam and Nagaland, and the migration of labour to other states and even overseas.
Since this situation is unlikely to change, it is imperative that Northeast states put in place an administrative system for ensuring that the labour who move out of the region get due benefits under the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act 1970, Interstate Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1979, the Minimum Wages Act 1948 and other such laws, which provide protection to migrant labour.
This is crucial because right now the provisions under these laws are known more by their breaches than observance. However, in these difficult days, it is heartening to note the measures taken by the Government of Assam, under the leadership of the state’s health and finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, to bring back stranded workers.
The size of the migrant workers from Assam is estimated at about 500-700,000 including those employed in other North-east states and West Bengal. As there is no system of registration of migrants, state authorities are taken by surprise whenever they face any serious problem.
For instance in 2012 in the wake of the Kokrajhar violence, an estimated 30,000 people of North-east origin left Karnataka alone, and many more from Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, on receipt of threats from terror groups.
Registration of migrants is, therefore, the first task of the state.
The Covid-19 crisis, in a way, has created compelling circumstances for this step. In fact Assam has a lot of useful data based on 9.30 lakh phone calls state government offices received after the lockdown was imposed from about 4.29 lakh mobile phones of migrant workers seeking state assistance.
This generated, after due scrutiny, 2.29 lakh legitimate applications from migrants for state assistance and more are under process. Later, about a lakh bank details were verified to transfer assistance and 86,000 have received the same till date. This is no doubt commendable.
The state-wise breakup of migrant workers shows that while the southern states and Maharashtra have about 165,000 people, there is a significant presence of Assamese migrant workers in UP, Delhi, West Bengal and even Nagaland.
This suggests that labour movement within the extended North-east, covering North Bengal and Sikkim, might be large.
Therefore a regional migrant labour data base covering both intra and inter-state migration of labour is necessary, which could be prepared and maintained by the North Eastern Council as a part of the regional planning exercise with participation of the states concerned.
There is a natural leadership role for Assam in these efforts.
The sight of starving migrant workers with their families trudging across the country to return to their home states and the fact that many of them perished on the wayside point to the emergent need to set up an inter-state coordination body under the aegis of the Union ministry of labour.
It can ensure that the provisions of all the protective legislations mentioned above are implemented in the true spirit of the Constitution.
The writer is a retired IAS officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre and has served as a scientific consultant in the office of the principal scientific advisor to the Government of India.