The apex court has also called for transitioning to one nation, one ration card (ONORC) by the end of July. As of March 11, per a finance ministry release, just 17 states had “successfully operationalised” ONORC—defined as Aadhaar-seeding of all ration cards and beneficiaries in a state and automation of the fair price shops with installation of e-PoS devices to allow biometric authentication.
The Supreme Court (SC) order on welfare measures for migrant workers comes against the backdrop of the pandemic having dealt the informal sector a crushing blow and livelihoods of low-skilled migrants seriously threatened. Indeed, the migrant exodus of the first Covid-19 wave in India was a stark reminder of their extreme vulnerability, and the apex court had taken up the matter suo motu to relieve their distress. The SC’s directions to the government—states and the Centre—have been discussed by the commentariat for long now.
The SC has directed the Centre to set up a portal for registration of unroganised labourers/migrant workers, under the National Database for Unorganised Workers (NDUW) project, by December 31. Successive governments have paid little attention to the need for such a data-base, despite the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act 1979 calling for this, as also some other existing laws (for specific sets of workers). A national database would enable tracking of each worker for optimal delivery of benefits. Though the labour minister told the Rajya Sabha September last year that the government was looking to create an Aadhaar-linked database of unorganised workers, little has moved on the ground. Indeed, it was only in March this year that the labour ministry announced the NUDW, and the NITI Aayog was reported to have come up with a draft national policy that not only calls for defining migrant workers anew, but also envisions setting up commissions in both source and destination states to aid then. While there have been ad hoc tracking efforts to register migrants by the states, this needs to be done on a sustained and more centralised basis.
The apex court has also called for transitioning to one nation, one ration card (ONORC) by the end of July. As of March 11, per a finance ministry release, just 17 states had “successfully operationalised” ONORC—defined as Aadhaar-seeding of all ration cards and beneficiaries in a state and automation of the fair price shops with installation of e-PoS devices to allow biometric authentication. Though Uttar Pradesh, a top source state, and top destination states like the five southern states, Gujarat and Punjab figure in the list of 17, a Maharashtra and a Bihar don’t. In August 2020, the Centre said 24 states have “seamlessly enabled” ONORC; operationalising this ‘seamless enabling’ thus seems a very different ask.
While the court has done well to focus on these key support measures—apart from directing the Centre to do a fresh enumeration of Food Security Act beneficiaries and ensure states get additional grains demanded—a lot still needs to be done. There is a need to work on offering migrant workers pension cover, through an NPS-like scheme. There is also an emerging need to focus on upskilling. Most important, the government must heed NITI’s prescription of rights-based ecosystem for migrants instead of episodic or permanent economic aid. For instance, in the case of education, it calls for the government to create a mechanism within RTE to track migrants’ children and facilitate teaching in their mother-tongue in destination-states. Portability for Ayushman Bharat benefits, voting rights, etc, also build into this approach.