Government’s ad hoc response to the migrant crisis did not take into account the reality of their lives

The sudden lockdown announced in March 2020 exposed how precarious the lives of millions of migrant workers across India are and made it clear that they have remained invisible in the policy discourse. The Central government’s response to the crisis of reconceptualising its PMGKY scheme and relying on existing social welfare schemes does not address the challenges of the affected population.

Published : Aug 03, 2021 06:00 IST

Food being served to migrant workers stuck at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border near Ghazipur because of the complete lockdown, in New Delhi on March 27, 2020.

Food being served to migrant workers stuck at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border near Ghazipur because of the complete lockdown, in New Delhi on March 27, 2020.

THE COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented global crisis. Countries sought to control the spread of the disease by announcing lockdowns, restricting the movement of people and closing borders. The variegated experience of economic slowdown across people and places, coupled with the inadequacy of social protection policies for the most vulnerable populations, has revealed and enhanced existing inequalities, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. One manifestation of this crisis was the severe impact of lockdowns on migrant workers in India.

According to the 2020 report of the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy Pvt. Ltd (CMIE), out of 133 billion people in India, as many as 120 million are estimated to migrate seasonally every year from rural areas to work in urban spaces. This population lives at the intersection of residential, social and occupational vulnerabilities and consists of construction workers, daily wage labourers and self-employed workers, all living with the minimum of or no means of social protection. According to the CMIE, 122 million people lost their jobs in April 2020, 75 per cent of whom were seasonal migrants, who are typically daily wage earners. Many of these migrant workers lost their livelihoods abruptly with the closure of economic activity and were forced back to their places of origin. The scale of the crisis and the lack of immediate government action and support revealed that these groups have remained invisible in recent development policy discussions in India. Not only are they not numerically mapped, the patterns of their migration are not properly known and social welfare programmes and economic policies do not recognise the realities of their precarious and vulnerable lives. The pandemic has brought the predicament of migrant workers in India to the centre stage of discussions of the Indian economy. This has led to a flurry of studies, with solutions and interventions being offered to ameliorate their plight. Most of these studies, however, are rapid appraisals or surveys conducted to map basic baseline information on demographic details and details of origin and destination of migration. The solutions offered are short term and top-down. This article looks into the question of sustainable livelihoods overall, which is the next big issue in the wake of the intensifying employment crisis in the Indian economy.

Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana

The upsetting visuals of migrant workers that the print and electronic media captured after the first lockdown was announced in March 2020 raised serious questions at many levels. The National Democratic Alliance government reconceptualised the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY) scheme in 2020 as a response to the pandemic crisis. PMGKY 2020 was announced as a relief package of Rs.1.70 lakh crore. It was structured around 11 existing institutionalised social welfare schemes available to provide cash transfers, in-kind support and insurance support to front-line health workers. However, the administration of multiple schemes was constrained by serious issues such as accessibility and follow-ups. To address them, the schemes need convergence and consolidation. Politically, it does make sense to count the number of schemes and use their inaugural events to communicate a political message. However, the focus should be on the efficient delivery of the schemes to the identified beneficiaries. Different social groups have different needs, and policies must address the core issues. The package of Rs.1.7 lakh crore is inadequate to address the challenges of the affected population, and the focus of the scheme has remained on addressing subsistence needs and not on creating high-wage jobs or checking the shortfall in incomes.

Also read: Migrant labourers: Tunnel-visioned relief from govt

PMGKY 2020 was announced with a view to helping the high outmigration States to address the long-term concerns of migrant workers. The programme is targeted at 116 districts (including 27 aspirational districts) across six States, namely Bihar (32), Jharkhand (3), Odisha (4), Rajasthan (22), Madhya Pradesh (24) and Uttar Pradesh (31). There is serious concern over the selection of only these States as several others with high migration rates have been excluded from this scheme. A State such as Chhattisgarh—a tribal State 60 per cent of whose population of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes comprises migrants (India Human Development Survey (IHDS), 2011) and with 10 aspirational districts—has not been included in the list. Adivasi migrants are the most vulnerable section of society and need the special attention of the government. Only four of Odisha’s districts have been included in the scheme; however, districts such as Koraput, Bolangir and Kalahandi also have a high outmigration rate. West Bengal is another State with high inter-State migration that has not been included in the PMGKY 2020 scheme. The selection of States for the scheme appears to be based more on a politically driven agenda than on a scientific process. If the objective is to safeguard the interests of migrant workers and bring about a long-term transformation of society and the economy, then the Central government needs to take a holistic approach, and it will have to extend the requisite support to all the relevant States.

With reference to PMGKY 2020, three major issues need the attention of the government. Firstly, there is a strong rural bias in the scheme that leaves the needs of the urban poor unaddressed. According to IHDS 2012, 39 per cent of all migrants migrate to the urban areas of another State. Secondly, workers in the unorganised and informal sectors are not covered; this is a significant population that has lost jobs and faced income losses during the pandemic. This segment of population has remained invisible in the policy arena as far as social protection policies are concerned. However, State governments have announced relief packages through the public distribution system (PDS) and the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) to reach out to people in their respective States. Thirdly, selection of the States that are eligible to receive funds under this scheme. Several States with high outmigration have been left out of the ambit of this scheme. Distress migration due to hunger and poverty needs special attention, and those districts need to be mapped for extension of the scheme, regardless of political affiliations.

Benefits under PMGKY 2020

Under PMGKY 2020, 80 crore beneficiaries received free rations: 5 kg of wheat or rice and 1 kg of preferred pulse for three months. In normal circumstances, these cereals are heavily subsidised under the PDS so that poor households can access foodgrains at cheap rates. Twenty crore women Jan Dhan holders received a cash transfer of Rs.500 a month for a period of three months. The wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) were revised from Rs.182 to Rs.202 to benefit rural workers. There was an ex gratia transfer of Rs.1,000 to 3 crore senior citizens, widows and the disabled who are below the poverty line. Under the existing PM Kisan scheme, Rs.2,000 was transferred to farmers as a front-load agricultural cash transfer that benefitted 8.7 crore farmers. The Central government issued orders to State governments to use the Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Fund to provide relief to construction workers. Workers earning less than Rs.15,000 a month in businesses in the organised sector with fewer than 100 workers were to receive 24 per cent of their monthly wages for three months. Front-line workers were to be given an insurance cover of Rs.50 lakh.

Exclusions and implementation challenges

Many of the measures and interventions proposed under PMGKY 2020 simply front-loaded benefits that the poor would have already received under ongoing social welfare schemes, and thus it did not really address the shortfall in incomes. The implementation is better under the National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP) payment infrastructure for senior citizens, the disabled and widows. But transfers through the PMJDY are a challenge as 18 per cent of the bank accounts are inactive. People in the States such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh face infrastructural bottlenecks in getting the money through digital transfers. Under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY), beneficiaries were entitled to receive free LPG cylinders for three months. However, the scheme excludes poor families in urban and semi-urban areas. There are several challenges under the PDS, for instance, initially Bihar failed to disburse pulses to the marginalised communities targeted to be covered under PMGKY 2020 primarily because of unresolved issues between Bihar State Food and Civil Supplies Corporation and National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India Ltd.

Also read: ‘We didn’t bleed him enough’

Firms with more than 100 workers are excluded from the additional contribution under the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) scheme. Unregistered construction workers (48 per cent of 7.5 crore) will not be able to avail themselves of any benefit under the scheme. Migrant workers and urban poor households are not adequately covered under the scheme: 120 million workers are estimated to migrate seasonally and 17.4 per cent of the urban population lives in slums. Roughly, 13.9 per cent of households (both rural and urban) do not have ration cards; hilly and southern States have a larger penetration of ration cards than northern and central States (IHDS, 2011). Poor digital infrastructure—that is, access to mobile phones and Internet connectivity—affects identification as transfer to women

The list of PMJDY account holders and MGNREGS workers may not be complete. The District Mineral Funds (DMF) were instituted in 2015 for the welfare of people directly and indirectly affected by mining operations but are now being used as COVID-19 relief under PMGKY 2020. This defeats the very purpose of these funds, which is resource revenue distribution for the people affected by mining projects who have historically been denied these benefits. PMGKY 2020 directs States to use the Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Fund notwithstanding the wide variation of availability of these funds across States: The per capita availability ranges from Rs.916 (in Chhattisgarh) to more than Rs.2 lakh (in Goa). The Centre should meet the shortfall for States that do not have enough money in this fund. Ongoing schemes such as PM Kisan do not cover high-income farmers and those with agricultural land of more than two hectares. It also excludes primary landless labourers (14.3 crore) and agricultural tenants (14 per cent of the landholdings in the country are leased) (Census, 2011). The data the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) collected as the result of a right to information query in July 2020 showed that 55.58 per cent of the farmers who benefitted under the PM Kisan scheme also filed income tax and hence were not eligible for the scheme. Until July 2020, 20.48 lakh farmers who were not eligible for benefits under PM Kisan received an amount of Rs.1364.13 crore in their bank accounts. The maximum number of such ineligible farmers belong to Punjab. If PMGKY 2020 relies on such existing schemes, then there is a possibility that many individuals who actually need support will be left out.

The major issue with PMGKY 2020 is the use of a multiplicity of existing schemes to distribute benefits, which means last-mile delivery will happen across multiple channels and create additional difficulties for the intended recipients. For instance, beneficiaries eligible for transfers under two or more schemes will have to make multiple visits and follow up at different places, potentially resulting in delays. In general, this sort of fragmentation arises because of the nature of India’s federal set-up where social welfare is under the purview of States. So, there is a need for convergence and consolidation of social protection programmes.

Structural framework

PMGKY 2020 is structured around 11 ongoing social welfare schemes that have different attributes and can be classified as follows: in-kind transfers (the PMUY and the PDS), cash transfers (the PMJDY and the NSAP), protection for low wage non-agricultural workers (the EPF and Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Fund), livelihood support (MGNREGS, PM Kisan and self-help groups), and support to front-line health workers (insurance and the DMF). PMGKY 2020 was instituted to effectively help tide the poor and vulnerable over the economic slowdown. However, there are coverage issues across the 11 schemes owing to prior design flaws in the schemes, infrastructural issues or the design of the PMGKY itself, which does not specifically address the concerns of vulnerable migrant workers (particularly seasonal migrants) in the unorganised sector, the social group most severely affected by the pandemic and economic lockdown.

Also read: How the poor live in the time of pandemic and lockdown

Diversion of funds

Some of the funds that were dedicated for specific purposes for identified social groups (beneficiaries) are now being diverted to initiatives as part of COVID-19 response. For instance, the DMF is a legal right to compensate for the social and environmental externalities created by mining-related operations and land acquisitions. It was earmarked for a specific purpose and had identified beneficiaries. So far, the DMF has been set up in 21 States, and the amount collected under it is Rs.35.9 thousand crore. Of the allocated amount of Rs.30.6 thousand crore for the projects under the Pradhan Mantri Khanij Kshetra Kalyan Yojana (PMKKKY), only Rs.12.4 thousand crore has been spent (PRS, 2019). (The PMKKKY is a guiding framework for the utilisation of DMF funds under high (60 per cent) and low priority areas (40 per cent).) The remaining funds are to be diverted to COVID-19-related response activities. It is unclear from the relief package announcement whether the unspent amount for each State will be used for COVID-19 response activities in that State or will be pooled and then disbursed. The fund is now being used for various activities, including public works. There is no clarity whether this diverted fund will be returned to the DMF. Needless to say, the mining districts perform poorly on human development indicators and most of them fall in the list of aspirational districts.

There is a need to revisit PMGKY 2020 and the objective should be to minimise exclusion of the poor and vulnerable migrant workers and ensure timely delivery of the scheme. As of now, PMGKY 2020 has been used as a platform to merge already ongoing social welfare schemes. The scheme does not specifically talk about the plight of migrant workers and does not have a strategy to check distress migration due to hunger and poverty. The emphasis should be on generating localised high-wages jobs and to check rural-urban distress migration.


The crisis the pandemic caused has exposed the precarious and vulnerable lives of millions of migrant workers and has only reminded us that they have remained invisible in the policy discourse. The current approach adopted under PMGKY 2020 appears ad hoc with regard to the severity of problem. Relying on ongoing social welfare schemes means that the core issues have not been addressed. NITI Aayog directed the States to set up a non-governmental organisation coordination centre in order to enhance the outreach to vulnerable communities and help them with State-led schemes and relief operations. However, most States ignored this order, and the relief operations carried out by civil society organisations largely remain unrecognised by the States. Chhattisgarh is one State where the Commissioner of the Department of Labour is working closely with a set of civil society organisations in planning and rolling out State interventions for the welfare of migrant workers. PMGKY 2020 is also silent on the deep-rooted institutional issues of social justice. There have been gross violations of existing labour laws (the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979; the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976; and other laws relating to minimum wages, insurance, and so on) and the listed schemes come across as mere political charity. In the past institutions have remained simply non-functional and perhaps that is why there is no clarity on the data itself. Also, there is a serious contradiction between the vision of “ atmanirbhar Bharat” (self-reliant India) and the approach adopted under PMGKY 2020. To make people self-reliant, the government will have to create a conducive environment and provide structural support for the employable workforce. Some degree of social protection for vulnerable social groups will be essential but making people dependent on state charity will never lead to an atmanirbhar Bharat.

Shashi Ratnaker Singh is a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. Ramesh Sharma is general Secretary, Ekta Parishad.

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