COVID-19 outbreak: Immediate framework needed for reaching out to distressed migrant workers

States must build an immediate framework for reaching out to distressed migrants, apart from extending PDS benefits to stranded wage labourers

Given that identification of beneficiaries under PDS is the state government’s prerogative, these models may be emulated across states to reach out to migrants.
Given that identification of beneficiaries under PDS is the state government’s prerogative, these models may be emulated across states to reach out to migrants.

By Yogesh Suri & Satwik Mishra

The Union Government has adapted quickly, building a new welfare module to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. A substantive relief package announced under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY) was the start of this module. However, there are unintended consequences of the much-required lockdown that have to be concurrently addressed. One of these is the food security challenge facing migrant workers.

The current Public Distribution System (PDS) structure comes from the National Food Security Act, 2013. The Act covers 81 crore citizens, identified by states and union territories to obtain rice, wheat, and coarse cereals at highly subsidised prices of Rs 3/2/1 per kg, respectively. PDS benefits are availed of locally, at over five lakh fair price shops all over the country. These are linked to the beneficiary’s ration cards. The benefit under the act were augmented in the PMGKY relief package by allocating an additional 5 kg of foodgrains per person, and 1 kg of pulses per family free of cost for the next three months.

According to the Economic Survey of FY17, there are approximately 100 million migrant workers in India. Migrants don’t have geographical access to their local fair price shops, or to their ration cards, the latter presumably left behind with their families. The government had taken cognisance of this anomaly even before the pandemic hit. Over 12 states were already in the pilot phase of the “One Nation One Card” scheme, which would allow migrants to avail of this benefit wherever they ordinarily reside for their work. This pilot is scheduled to be scaled across the country by June 2020. However, present circumstances call for immediate roll-out of access to benefits under this scheme with proactive support from states/UTs.

As opposed to the market price for wheat and rice, which ranges between Rs 32 and Rs 45, respectively, the Centre has allowed NGOs and state governments to buy extra stocks from FCI at Rs 20 and Rs 22 for the same. Earlier, any sale outside the PDS network was available only to bulk purchasers and states through online bidding. Allowing for this additional procurement will ensure that states and NGOs are able to distribute it to beneficiaries (including migrants) for free, or at highly subsidised rates.

Along with the Centre’s efforts, there have been substantive efforts by many states/UTs to cover a larger net of citizens for PDS benefits. At the states’ level, delinking the need for ration cards to avail of PDS benefits, and reaching out to specific marginalised beneficiaries, has been a key component of this strategy. Delhi has bolstered PDS benefits by 50%, and has decided to extend these benefits to non-ration cardholders along with the usual beneficiaries, benefitting over 7 million people. Uttar Pradesh is providing 20 kg of wheat and 10 kg of rice per household to a list of beneficiaries, which includes 16.5 million construction workers and daily wage labourers. The state has also announced universalisation of PDS. This universalisation strategy for the interim period has been announced by Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Telengana as well. Kerala, which is being lauded for its control of the pandemic, has undertaken a substantive effort to reach out to migrants, with the chief minister having spoken of extending full assistance in the form of food, proper shelter, and healthcare to all migrant workers. Given that identification of beneficiaries under PDS is the state government’s prerogative, these models may be emulated across states to reach out to migrants.

Beyond these measures, there is a need to build an immediate framework at the state level for reaching out to distressed migrants. Firstly, state governments must aggressively build capacity for self-identification of migrants for augmenting the beneficiary list under PDS. They must set up an immediate institutional mechanism that migrants can apply to for accessing PDS benefits. Given the extraordinary circumstances, in the immediate term, states may even err on the side of over-inclusion. Secondly, PDS benefits can be temporarily de-linked from ration cards, while relying on other ID documents such as Aadhaar cards to give out benefits. Thirdly, there should be continuation of calibrated cash transfers. This will ensure that migrants can access the market where PDS fair price shops aren’t available. For instance, the Bihar government has enabled downloading of a weblink for registration only by workers outside the state. This was followed by transferring money to 10.11 lakh workers. Fourthly, public spaces like government schools, anganwadis, and volunteered private spaces may be allocated to NGOs to set up ration distribution centres to maximise scale. Fifthly, large-scale community kitchens should be set up with the help of philanthropic organisations. Here, care needs to be taken while distributing food to the distressed, by maintaining adequate safeguards like wearing masks, and following norms of hygiene, social distancing, etc. Finally, a mass awareness campaign must be imminently envisaged to reach out to migrants regarding any measures that the state and central governments have envisioned for their relief.

The Iranian-American novelist Dina Nayeri once wrote, “It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks.” For the marginalised migrants, that “safer room” today is the welfare net of the state. New doors need to be built, and kept open to ensure migrants’ accessibility and availability to food in these difficult times.

Suri is Senior Advisor, & Mishra is Young Professional, NITI Aayog. Views are personal

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First published on: 22-04-2020 at 05:53 IST