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  • Writer's pictureZia Haq

Special Report: India's migrant workers have nobody

With no safety net in pandemic-hit cities, thousands flee for distant homelands, some on foot

Hundreds of migrant workers march towards a highway out of Delhi. Photo Raj K Raj

Zia Haq, Smriti Kak Ramachandran and Saubhadra Chatterji

The Union government has allowed charities and states to buy extra stocks of federally-held foodgrains at a reserve but cheaper-than-market price as a food crisis takes hold among millions of migrants. Activists are however campaigning for universal free rations for everyone who needs it, pointing to growing distress.

Thousands of internal migrants, especially in cities, are virtually outside the country’s public (grains) distribution network or PDS that offers that offers cheap grains.

With less than a few hours of notice, migrant workers were caught in a countrywide lockdown enforced on March 24 and extended until May 3.

Nearly 400-million workers could be forced deeper into poverty in India, the International Labour Organisation said on April 8. Several reports have pointed to hunger-like distress.

A survey by the National Council of Applied Economic Research conducted during April 3-6 showed about 29.3% households were affected by shortages in supplies of food. Income cuts were most severe for daily-wage workers, it showed.

Subsidized grains are only available to beneficiaries who have eligible ration cards. “Most migrants in cities either don’t have it or have it with their families back in their home states,” said Deepa Sinha, who teaches in Delhi’s Ambedkar University.

Under the Pradhan Mantri Gharib Kalyan Yojana, a relief package announced by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on March 26, eligible beneficiaries under the National Food Security Act would get 5 kg of free grains per person, beyond their usual monthly ration quota of a similar quantity. Two-thirds of the population are officially covered.

“Yet, millions don’t have a ration card. How would it feel if the weakest members of a family starve despite the household’s granary being full?” asked economist Jean Drèze, a long-time advocate of right to food, pointing to surplus food stocks. Drèze has urged for universalizing access to cheap grains. Surveys by Drèze shows Jharkhand had 700,000 pending ration card applications.

Behind the crisis, there is a public-expenditure burden that few want to be saddled with. The federally-run FCI has reserved a price of Rs 20 and Rs 22 per kg of wheat and rice for stock sale outside the PDS system.

This will naturally increase food budgets, so states are focusing on withdrawing regular and the additional free quota of 5 kg ration per beneficiary, a federal official overseeing supplies said, asking not to be named.

Some states however announced in-kind and cash support. Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, two states with large migrant populations, have said they would provide instant ration cards and Rs 1,000 per labourer.

Many large states have not factored in extra supplies for undocumented labourers. “Our government has told the Centre that since for April and May regular foodgrain quota is being distributed to beneficiaries, we will distribute additional free foodgrains of two months, totaling 10 kg, next month in May,” Jharkhand public distribution director Sanjay Kumar said.

A senior food department official from Karnataka, HR Vijay Kumar, said the state had distributed the total foodgrains due for April and May in April from its own quota. In May, the state would be distributing foodgrains due for May and June from the federal quota.

“In some states, migrant workers are being forced to live in shelters that have no civic amenities. We have asked the finance ministry to pay at least Rs 5,000 to each labourer’s family immediately,” said K. Saji Narayanan, president of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, a labour union.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Thursday tweeted asking the government to provide for emergency ration cards.

Helplines run by political parties have been also flooded with calls from labourers in distress. “Taking care of migrant workers is the responsibility of each state. We not only need to take the responsibility for providing them food and shelter, but also need to show them empathy,” said P. Muralidhar Rao, general secretary of the BJP.

A labour ministry official said small enterprises had sent several proposals to ameliorate distress among workers, such as utilising surpluses from the Employees’ State Insurance Corporation (ESIC). The ESIC’s revenue income stood at Rs 27, 312 crore on April 2019 while its expenses for the last financial year stood at Rs 11085 crore. This surplus could be used for temporary benefits to the small and medium enterprise workers, one proposal said.

This story first appeared in the Hindustan Times

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