How to maintain labour networks, when the second wave of infections hits India ?

When the first lockdown was announced, India witnessed a major migrant crisis. Migrant labourers, working in the informal sector, came out in large numbers to go back to their hometowns. This worked against the very concept of lockdown, as migrant labourers gathered in public places and fought to get on the already crowded buses. When the second wave hits India, arrangements should be in place to avoid a repetition of such a crisis. 

About 90% of India’s workforce is employed in the informal sector and many of them are migrants. According to Census 2011, there are about 56.3 million interstate migrants. Migrants working in the informal sector are generally dependent on daily wages and do not have any social security. Labourers employed in the construction industry are seasonal, in the sense that they go back to their hometowns for farming, once the work on the construction site finishes.

Reasons for migrants choosing to go back:

When the Union Govt announced the lockdown, uncertainty crept in and the migrant labourers started their journeys to hometowns on their feet. Alarmed by the huge numbers of migrants coming out, state governments started to establish community kitchens and accommodation for them. The question is why did the migrants continue walking, despite the measures taken by state governments. 

Going by the behavioral science approach, the most basic reason for wanting to go back to their hometowns could be the human instinct of feeling safe in their own homes. With the lockdown, there is a sense of uncertainty arising out of not knowing how long the lockdown will last, till when the state governments will be able to support them. Moreover, the time of implementation of lockdown coincided with the wheat harvest season which left them fearing the loss of crops. 

Migrants in the informal sector, often live on rent in slums in urban areas. These rental agreements are informal as well, with no written contracts in place. With the loss of wages resulting from the lockdown, there is no money to pay for the rent or to look after themselves. The migrant workers often live a hand to mouth existence so the chances of them having any savings are very bleak. 

Another reason could be the lack of confidence and trust in state institutions, owing to unfriendly migrant policies. The Interstate Migration Policy Index 2019 reflects the poor state of policies towards migrants in India. Migrant labourers are often not able to access social benefits such as PDS, in other states, as they are not permanent residents or domiciles of those states. Even if there are measures for the migrants, they are not effectively implemented or the migrants are not made aware of them.

The state governments have made arrangements for food and accommodation of the migrant labourers, however, there have been reports about poor implementation. There are long queues for meals, which often lead to crowding. In some cases, the labourers get meals just once in a day. 

Recommendations

In case of a second wave of infection, the logistics must be discussed by the national and state governments in collaboration. When the first lockdown was announced, there seemed to be a disconnect between what the Centre expected and what the states were capable of. For instance, the state governments were ready to send the migrants back to their hometowns but the Ministry of Railways had halted the train services. This added to the migrants’ lack of trust in the government. 

The present window (before the second wave) must be used to bring the migrant workers under the formal financial net through the JAM trinity. It will help provide them wage support, in case there is a second wave of infections. A committee under the Ministry of Labour & Employment can be formed, to look into expedition of the process for the same. 

During the second wave, we must ensure that certain sectors of the economy continue to operate and do not face a shortage of labour. This can be done through incentives from the government routed through employers to laborers. Incentives can be in the form of wage support, health insurance, safe travel facilities, etc. The continuation of operations in certain sectors will also reduce the uncertainty faced by migrant labourers, preventing large scale exodus. This continuation of operations is subject to workplaces maintaining the occupational health and safety measures.

The inefficiencies in the food distribution system must be curbed. Some states have been successful in ensuring food distribution during these times. These best practices need to be replicated by other states. State governments should coordinate with grassroots organizations to effectively implement relief schemes. Representatives can be selected from the migrant labourers from respective areas who can work along with the grassroots organisations for ensuring the food reaches the beneficiaries. 

As the majority of migrants do not have access to safe and hygienic housing facilities, the governments need to develop contingency plans for providing temporary housing facilities in government schools, marriage halls, stadiums, etc. The labour departments of the respective states should map the unused spaces and explore how they can be converted into temporary accommodation for the migrants. Labour welfare funds should be directed towards the same. 

To address the sense of distrust that some migrants might harbor against the state institutions, there has to be a proper communication strategy. The communication mechanism can reinforce a sense of relief among the migrants. Fake information also needs to be tackled strictly, to prevent exodus situations. In case the national/state government decides to implement a lockdown again, in the face of a second wave of infections, the details of lockdown need to be communicated properly, in advance, to the migrant labourers. When the first lockdown was announced, nothing was said about what was going to happen to the migrant labourers, given the businesses will be shut. This resulted in migrant labourers panicking and leaving for their hometowns in large numbers. The government needs to communicate to the migrants that they will be taken care of, by explaining the relief measures. National and state leaders should make regular appearances in the media to address the migrants and work in cooperation with the representatives of the labour community. One of the many reasons that migrant workers do not want to stay back is that they do not feel a sense of belonging, due to their problems being unaddressed. Clear and consistent communication is the key to gaining the trust of the migrants.

Thus in case of a second wave of infections, the above needs to be carried out to inculcate a sense of confidence among the migrants. This in turn will help in maintaining of labour networks.