Migrants walking home desperately need money in their pockets; FM has seen to some of their needs, but not this one

Migrants working in the informal sector have felt the bulk of the negative impact of the lockdown that has been in place in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19

Vivek Kaul May 15, 2020 14:31:19 IST
Migrants walking home desperately need money in their pockets; FM has seen to some of their needs, but not this one

Migrants working in the informal sector have felt the bulk of the negative impact of the lockdown that has been in place in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Over the past few weeks, there have been many horror stories of migrants walking hundreds of kilometres from the big cities to their hometowns. Some have even died along the way. The Central government, up until now, has largely been a distant observer to the pain of the migrants, with the state governments doing the bulk of whatever little that has been done to alleviate their pain.

In the second part of the so-called Rs 20 lakh crore economic package that was unveiled yesterday, the Centre has tried to do a few things for the migrants:

First, migrants who are not beneficiaries of the foodgrain offered under the National Food Securities Act or any of the schemes run by state governments will be provided five kilograms of free foodgrain along with one kilogram of chana per family per month, for a period of two months. This will cost the Centre Rs 3,500 crore. The government expects eight crore migrants to benefit from this programme. Given that an average family in India has five members, this move is likely to benefit 1.6 crore families.

Many experts have said that the government should have come up with this programme in late March, when the migrant crisis first started to come to the fore. That's a fair point. Also, just coming up with the programme doesn't solve the problem. The state governments have been made responsible for the implementation of this programme along with the identification of migrants and full distribution and providing detailed guidelines.

Identification of the true beneficiaries is the tricky bit in any government programme in India and this programme is not going to be any different. Implementation will be the key part here and hence, the quality of delivery will vary across states. Having said that, some benefit is much better than no benefit at all.

Migrants walking home desperately need money in their pockets FM has seen to some of their needs but not this one

Representational image. AP

Second, the national roll-out of the 'one nation, one ration card' scheme was also announced. The aim is to achieve a 100 percent national level portability by March 2021. What does this mean? As things stand now, a family with a ration card is allowed to buy foodgrain at subsidised prices from fair priced shops operating under the public distribution system. Under the National Food Securities Act, these shops sell rice at Rs three per kilogram, wheat at Rs two per kilogram and coarse grains at Re one per kilogram.

The subsidised grains are available at a designated fair price shop for a family. The trouble is if someone in a family moves from one state to another, this facility is no longer available. The 'one nation, one ration card' scheme aims to correct for this problem so that subsidised foodgrain is available all across the country. Hence, if an individual moves from Bihar to Delhi for work, he can still access his family's quota of foodgrain.

This is not a new scheme. It was announced in June 2019 and was partially rolled out in January this year. It was operational on a limited scale as of April. A news report in Business Standard points out that after April, seven more states were added to the list. The interesting thing is that the earlier date for full coverage was June 2020. Now it's slated for March 2021.

A major challenge to implement this scheme will be the divisibility of ration. A ration card is issued to a family and not an individual. Hence, if one member of the family is working outside the state in which the ration card is issued, how does s/he access a part of the ration there? This will be a key issue to sort out. Also, with cardholders having the ability to buy foodgrain anywhere in the country, ensuring supply will be a challenge. Having said that, any new system comes with its own set of challenges which need to be tackled. Hopefully, things will work out here.

While 'one nation, one ration card' is a great move, it was already in the works. It doesn't do anything to improve the immediate condition of people moving from cities to their hometowns, due to the negative impact of the lockdown.

Third, the government plans to launch a scheme under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana to provide affordable rent options to the migrant labour/urban poor. The details for this scheme will be issued soon. Just the fact that the government is looking at affordable renting as a viable living option deserves kudos in a country obsessed with owning a home.

Having said that, this is a general reform and doesn’t really have anything to do with the current problems being faced by migrants in cities and those walking away.

Fourth, the government also talked about states and Union Territories being advised to provide works to migrant workers as per provisions of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). It said that "40 to 50 percent more persons enrolled" under MGNREGS "compared to May last year". Data suggests that the average days of employment provided per households has gone up in comparison to the past. During the course of this financial year, on an average, 12.8 days of work per household has been provided.

All in all, the government has tried to do a little bit for the migrants, but it is nowhere near enough. A recent story in Mumbai Mirror points out that truck-drivers were charging Rs 4,000 to 5,000 per seat from migrants wanting to leave Mumbai and go North. Of course, social distancing norms in this case go totally for a toss. Taking this into account, it would have just made more sense if the government had simply run many more trains and let people move. The social distancing norms on a train would have been much better anyway. This would have been of genuine help to migrants looking to go home.

Also, the moves announced on Thursday do nothing to alleviate the immediate pain of migrants, which is that they are short of money. In fact, one thing that could have easily been done was to deposit Rs 1,000 each for three months in every Jan Dhan account and not just Jan Dhan accounts of women, as has been done. The total number of Jan Dhan accounts stand at 38.41 crore. This move would have cost the government around Rs 1.15 lakh crore and would have gone a much longer way in alleviating the pain of the migrants and the poor in the country than the so-called Rs 20 lakh crore economic package.

The need of the hour is to put more money in the hands of people, not hope that they borrow and spend more, as is the case currently.

The author has written the Easy Money trilogy

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