Focus on both mass vaccination of migrant workers and an adaptive public-works strategy
By Sanjana Kadyan & Tulsipriya Rajkumari
FY22 began on an ominous note with the ferocious Covid-19 second wave ravaging India. Eleven major states witnessed a staggering 55.7 lakh new cases and 1.69 lakh new deaths in April 2021 over March 2021, overwhelming the health infrastructure and emotional well-being of the country.
The uncertainty of this wave triggered a repeat of the reverse-migration phenomenon endured during the first wave last year, though relatively less intense this time. Delhi’s transport department reported movement of 8.07 lakh migrant workers from Delhi to their neighbouring home states in the first month of Delhi’s lockdown starting April 21. The Indian Railways stepped up operation of on-demand, fully-reserved summer special trains from cities such as Mumbai, Pune, Surat and Delhi and terminating in Darbhanga, Danapur, Gorakhpur and parts of east India.
The policy response for safeguarding the lives and livelihoods of migrant workers needs to be dynamic and innovative. It is critical to have a behavioural understanding of the context influencing reverse-migration decisions and how the context is different during this wave.
Firstly, dispersed state-wide lockdowns instead of a strict nationwide lockdown has meant accessible public transport and easier inter-state travel. This is expected to have made reverse-migration decisions more deliberate and less panic-driven this time. Secondly, proactive cash and food transfers for unorganised workers announced during the second wave under the PM Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana from May to November 2021 and by states like Maharashtra, Delhi, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu might have delayed their exit decision. Thirdly, past migration decisions and their consequences are expected to have influenced current exit decisions.
During the first lockdown, 1.14 crore migrant workers were reported to have returned to their home states, particularly to six key migration-origin states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. District-level MGNREGA analysis suggests the programme helped absorb sudden surge of work demand in these states, especially in 116 high returnee-migrant districts identified under the PM Garib Kalyan Rojgar Yojana (PMGKRA). While household work demand in these districts rose from 28.6 lakh in April 2020 to 131 lakh in June 2020, MGNREGA employment provided to these households increased from 23.5 lakh to 108.8 lakh during the same period. Similar trends are seen in the second wave. While work demand in GKRA districts (minus Rajasthan where MGNREGA activity remained restricted during 15-day lockdown in May 2021) has risen by 57% in April 2021 over April 2019, demand in May 2021 and June 2021 also surpassed May 2019 and Jun 2019 levels by 55% and 66%, respectively.
However, the second wave has been ferocious and the uncertainty costs of both staying back and reverse-migration are complex. For instance, 47% of migrant workers who returned from Delhi to neighbouring states this time had left in the first week of the lockdown. Secondly, with Covid-19 virus having spread more intensely in rural areas this time (unlike in the first wave), there is a serious mortality risk for migrants and their families in their home states, especially in light of overburdened health infrastructure in rural areas. Thirdly, the uncertainty regarding nature of MGNREGA activities permissible in a state government lockdown further complicates migration decisions.
Prioritising vaccination of migrant workers in both origin and destination states may avert the looming distress owing to the second wave’s migration dilemma. The labour ministry in collaboration with state labour departments and contractors may execute this at the earliest, especially as workers begin to return with gradual unlocking of states. Walk-in vaccination facilities at state entry and exit points and in the vicinity of urban and rural workplaces, as is being done in Karnataka at MGNREGA sites, will speed up the vaccination drive. With migrant workers constituting 35% of India’s construction workforce (Census 2001), the real estate industry may be incentivised to get their workers vaccinated at construction sites in mission-mode. Punjab, West Bengal (in consonance with real estate body CREDAI), Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Assam (Guwahati) have taken such steps. Further, exclusive district-level first-line treatment centres for Covid-19 infected migrant workers may be set up, as proposed by the Kerala labour department.
Going forward, states should identify a pandemic-resilient public works strategy along the lines of the PMGKRA and South Africa’s Expanded Public Works Programme tailored to each state’s specific needs. Adaptive measures like individual works, community care and food distribution services amid school closures may be explored under the MGNREGA. Even if MGNREGA work is suspended to limit the virus spread, wage provision should continue. Fast-tracking update of the Centre’s National Database of Unorganised Workers (NDUW) initiated in November 2020 is paramount for effective targeting of migrant workers for vaccination. Quickening the implementation of One Nation One Ration Card in all states, as also highlighted in the Supreme Court’s recent judgment, would facilitate delivery of social security benefits to migrant workers irrespective of place of residence and work and scheme beneficiary status.
The second wave has devastated the livelihood outlook for migrant workers, the bedrock of India’s urban labour markets. Both our vaccination drives and public works programmes need to adapt and expand on a war-footing to avoid derailment of our sustainable development trajectory. For, it is these invisible workers from the rural hinterland who are visibly supporting urban India’s growth story.
Both authors are officers of Indian Economic Service. Views expressed are personal