Migrant labourers: Tunnel-visioned relief from govt

Loss of livelihood and the lack of social protection and adequate relief responses have devastated millions of working poor. The state must now look beyond providing them short-term relief and help them survive the long-term economic shock of the current crisis and safeguard them against future emergencies.

Published : Aug 02, 2021 06:00 IST

Migrant workers   leaving Ahmedabad on foot during the nationwide lockdown, on May 9, 2020.

Migrant workers leaving Ahmedabad on foot during the nationwide lockdown, on May 9, 2020.

The image of the exodus of migrants from cities is emblematic of the 2020 lockdown. One of the world’s strictest lockdowns was announced with a mere four hours’ notice. Since the exodus resulting from the privation of work, wages and food was perceived as a temporary mobility issue, the government’s response was provisional and mainly short-term. Measures announced to address the exigency centred around food, cash transfers and employment protection. Even with these limited measures, the government struggled to reach all those left vulnerable by the lockdown.

The ensuing crisis for the vulnerable communities did not stop with the lifting of restrictions or a drop in the surge of COVID-19 cases. Even when the nature of the lockdown became isolated, local and partial, as witnessed during the second wave in 2021, it resulted in conditions similar to, or worse than, those in 2020. The working poor have been bearing an unequal proportion of the burden of ad hoc restrictions that have been imposed since March 2020.

Numerous studies, including a rapid survey of Ahmedabad’s migrant workers conducted during the second wave by Aajeevika Bureau’s Ahmedabad centre, have shown that the lockdown’s impacts have not been merely momentary. Akin to a ripple, they have had varying effects with time. Moreover, these studies evince that instead of the pandemic, it is the lockdown along with the lack of social protection and inadequate relief responses that has been the real disaster for the working poor. Social protection is meant to provide a proactive safety net in preparation for any exigencies and is distinctive from the retrospective nature of relief that is operationalised in response to a shock or a disaster. In this context, relief measures that were announced in the aftermath of the outbreak and the lockdown have almost come to eclipse the more crucial need for social protection to safeguard the working poor against future emergencies and the long-term economic shock of the current crisis.

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With the “In Re: Problems and Miseries with Migrant Labourers” suo motu writ petition being finally decided by the Supreme Court, the responses have attained legitimate rationale and support. The judgment did not comment on the reliefs’ relationship and jurisdictional overlap with existing social protection measures and the latter’s long-standing implementation challenges.

The objective of this essay is to generate discussion of the relief responses and the limitations of mainstreaming these short-term support mechanisms at the cost of long-term, universal social protection. We do this by examining the nature, beneficiary identification method, quantum, timeline and dispensation of relief measures. We find the relief measures to be narrowly defined and tunnel-visioned, with serious, long-term implications for the agenda of universalisation of basic social protection.

Inadequacy of relief responses

Relief responses have largely been located within existing laws and policies constituting the social protection regime provision of additional foodgrains to the beneficiaries of the National Food Security Act, 2013 (NFSA), cash transfers to PM Jan Dhan Yojana bank account holders, advances to pensioners under the National Social Assistance Programme, and so on.

Such a response (or tapping into the existing social protection architecture to dispense relief) has, however, also constrained their relief’s ability to expand to reach vulnerable populations outside their the beneficiary framework of the social protection regime. For instance, non-NFSA beneficiaries were able to access additional foodgrains after the Central government issued a specific circular on May 15, 2020, providing for rations to those without ration cards, first for a period of two months and then until November 2020. But this also did not translate into better access to foodgrains, as pointed out by many studies. For instance, a study by the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) in 2020 found that 82 per cent of migrant workers received no government rations. In Gujarat, this measure was not extended beyond June 2020.

Within the framework as well, the list of entitlement holders was found to be outdated. In the migrant workers’ case, the Supreme Court recently emphasised the need for updating the NFSA beneficiary list, which is based on the decade-old 2011 Census. New schemes formulated during this period also did not amplify state assistance beyond the existing beneficiaries and entitlements. A case in point is the One Nation-One Ration card scheme for nationwide portability of below poverty line (BPL) ration cards, which, on the Supreme Court’s recent direction, is to be nationally implemented by July 31, 2021. However, hurdles remain in obtaining a BPL card, reviving defunct cards, linking the card to Aadhaar, registering biometrics or upgrading the device at fair price shops.

Also read: The crisis of poverty and migration

A post-2020 lockdown study in Ahmedabad found that 98 per cent of the surveyed migrants owned ration cards, yet they could not access the city’s public distribution system (PDS) since their cards were registered in their villages. Moreover, obtaining rations at the urban work destination would mean opting out of procurement from fair price shops in villages; simultaneous procurement of rations in both the village and the city is not possible. Migrants in the city ordinarily prefer to retain a linkage in their village, which would also enable their dependents back in the village to obtain subsidised rations.

There is another way in which relief has been grossly inadequate and has failed to address the extent of the hardships. Relief measures have not been designed to compensate for the deprivation of livelihood and income suffered by workers owing to the lockdowns. The immediate shock of the lockdowns is disproportionately borne by casual and self-employed workers, who make up around three-quarters of employment in India but lack access to formal support systems, credit and savings.

As the pandemic was declared a notified disaster under the Disaster Management Act (DMA), 2005, additional relief for workers affected by the pandemic—such as the standards for ex gratia assistance to them for restoration of means of livelihood—should have been formulated under Section 12 of the DMA.

The 2020 exodus did compel the government to issue circulars invoking provisions of the DMA directing employers to make payment of full wages and not fire workers, especially those engaged on contractual or casual basis, throughout the lockdown’s duration. This was, however, imposed entirely on employers, without taking into account their varied financial capacities to comply with the circular. It also sidestepped the state’s own duty to recompense for its hurried decision.

Within a month and a half of the lockdown, these circulars were withdrawn as multiple petitions challenging them were filed in the apex court. In its interim order issued on June 12, 2020, in one such petition, the court failed to consider the fact that the relationships between employers and workers are asymmetrical while directing them to negotiate and settle wage disputes.

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

Moreover, the quantum of relief has been meagre compared with the impact of the loss of work and wages that the workers suffered. For instance, consider the statutorily recognised daily wages under the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, (applicable to all scheduled employments) or the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), 2005—which guarantees 100 days of unskilled waged labour to one member of every rural household—which are much higher than the ex gratia cash transfer.

The ex gratia cash transfer of Rs.1,500 to Jan Dhan bank account holders was to be dispensed in three instalments over three months; in effect, this amount works out to Rs.17 a day. When compared with the daily minimum wage rate of Rs.332 for unskilled work in Gujarat in 2020 or the MGNREGA wage rate of Rs.224 in Gujarat in 2020, this cash is highly inadequate. Beneficiaries were expected to run their households with Rs.1,500 over a period of three months.

Those who received cash transfers from multiple schemes may have been better placed. However, as ex gratia payments, the basis for the calculation of these transfers did not draw comparisons at the time. The “State of Working India 2021” report by the Centre for Sustainable Employment of Azim Premji University points out that India’s cash transfer of Rs.1,500 amounted to 12 per cent of a month’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, which falls far below the global average.

It is also important to note that relief measures, even if expanded, alone cannot compensate for the loss of livelihood and income resulting from the lockdowns. Provision of unemployment compensation to workers covered by the Employees’ State Insurance scheme under the Rajiv Gandhi Shramik Kalyan Yojana and the Atal Beemit Vyakti Kalyan Yojana would have been crucial in softening the blow from pandemic-induced unemployment or retrenchment. Unfortunately, these schemes have been poorly rolled out and remain inaccessible to unorganised workers who are either not registered or ineligible.

Partial, delayed and inconsistent relief

Even as access to housing emerged to be one of the prime defences against COVID-19, the insecurity relating to it continues to be unaddressed by relief measures. The abrupt lockdown not only resulted in loss of work and wages but also gave rise to the risk of losing accommodation provided by workers’ contractors or the residence at their work premises.

Apart from the non-enforceable circulars issued in 2020 fixing moratoriums on rent and eviction, no other effective steps have been taken to contain the housing crisis of migrant labour. The Affordable Rental Housing Complexes scheme announced in reaction to this problem relies heavily on real estate developers, who may be unable to provide cost-effective options to the most vulnerable groups.

Also read: Case studies from Aajeevika’s field sites

It also relies on employers and contractors, who already have disproportionate power over workers, to provide access to temporary accommodation. The policy offers a singular and inflexible housing solution, which may not meet the needs of the different subgroups of migrants whose housing needs may vary by family size, rental period, location of housing, and so on. This crisis could have been averted by innovative responses such as cash transfers through the Jan Dhan accounts that would help them pay rents and the Ujjwala subscriptions, which were used for reaching out to vulnerable groups and helping them to meet household expenses.

There was no mention of housing assistance in the recent Supreme Court judgment either.

Relief has also been highly inconsistent. This was evident in the second wave in 2021, especially in Gujarat. No relief measures were announced to assist vulnerable communities at the time of imposing partial and localised lockdowns in all the urban areas of the State. Following the extension of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) on April 23, 2021, additional allocation of foodgrains to NFSA beneficiaries in Gujarat was revived from June 11 onwards. However, Gujarat’s Anna Brahma Yojana (allocation of food grains to non-NFSA beneficiaries), which was announced in 2020, was not extended in 2021. In spite of demands by civil society organisations and workers’ groups, the government used the partial nature of the restrictions to shrug off its responsibility of providing welfare assistance to migrants and non-NFSA beneficiaries.

Relief measures have not been simultaneous with lockdowns. They have almost always been announced as reactive measures. Several experts have emphasised the need for putting in place universalised mechanisms prior to imposition of restrictions to blunt their impacts. A comparison of the date of imposition of the lockdowns and announcement and implementation of relief schemes will reveal a delay of weeks in several cases. The first national lockdown was imposed on March 24, 2020, and most relief announcements were made only in April and May 2020.

For dispensing relief, existing social protection mechanisms were engaged, which made the identification of beneficiaries easy at first. However, this meant that those not covered by schemes under prior laws were left out at the time of designing relief measures. This was particularly the case of workers who are engaged in small manufacturing or services. As mentioned above, although the directive to employers against non-payment of wages or retrenchment of workers was issued by the Home and Labour and Employment Ministries, it was also swiftly withdrawn.

This was particularly challenging for workers engaged in informal sectors of work and establishments. Owing to the lack of written contractual documents, they have few legal recourses against non-payment of wages or retrenchment. Their industries, which are clubbed under the category of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), were dramatically affected by the disruption of supply chains and cancellation of orders. This group of workers was thus one of those in the direst need of relief measures. While loan provisions were announced for those operating MSMEs, there were no provisions for those working in these establishments who had faced the direct impact of the establishment losses.

Also read: Migrants face more obstacles in India than in any other Asian country

Home-based workers and headload workers, who often rely on small industries, were also impacted and not explicitly included in any relief announcement.

This critique of the exclusionary biases of the social protection system is well established, and there is a consensus among experts for the urgent need for universalisation of the system. However, the state has responded by exclusively insisting on prior registration of beneficiaries as a panacea for the challenges of accessibility of social security.

In the migrant workers case, the Supreme Court also reiterated that access to welfare schemes and expansion of existing social protections hinged on prior registration of workers, contractors and establishments, without which they remained only on paper. However, as experiences from the different social protection delivery mechanisms have shown, registration alone does not ensure delivery of the required support to the worker.

Challenges of accessibility are rooted in a range of factors such as the nature of work, which is mobile and is either unrecognised or miscategorised. For instance, construction workers who remain at worksites or migrate to cities for only a few months at a time keep moving between rural and urban areas. Paying women half of the usual wages for the same work done by men is common in the construction sector, owing to inherent biases.

Home-based women workers or headload workers are miscategorised as self-employed, in spite of them obtaining subcontracted work.

Secondly, their workplaces do not meet the threshold of applicability of labour laws. For instance, the ESI Act, 1948, and the Gujarat Shops and Establishments Act, 2019, apply only to workplaces with 10 or more workers; the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970, is applicable to units with 20 or more workers. Such workplaces are also often unrecognised by local planning authorities.

The new labour codes have also not universalised their applicability and the rule of thresholds continues.

Lastly, the authorities’ lack of strong will or ‘sedentary bias’ (the assumption that being sedentary is the norm in human affairs and movement is an exception) restricts registration and extension of benefits to migrants in cities, as revealed by a study on migrants’ access to urban governance systems by Aajeevika Bureau. If these fundamental issues are not addressed, vulnerable populations will continue to remain beyond the reach of state welfare even if they are registered.

Also read: The SWAN reports: Records of heroism by migrant workers

Distribution also needs to learn from existing experiences. In the immediate aftermath of the lockdown announcement, it was civil society organisations, trade unions and workers’ collectives that carried out large-scale relief campaigns. There is much to be learnt here from the mechanisms they adopted for distributing food and rations.

Rather than completely rely on centralised registration databases, the state must harness existing networks and communities for quicker identification and verification of beneficiaries, delivery of relief support and prevention of a huge duplication exercise with no in-built mechanism of actual relief delivery.


Relief has become synonymous with the term ‘migrant crisis’. A range of short-term schemes and targeted mechanisms of support have emerged over the last one year. Yet, ‘relief’ largely remains an ambiguous, catch-all phrase that has little clarity in terms of beneficiary identification, nature, quantum, time frame or delivery mechanism.

Considering the particular limitations of relief highlighted in this article, a range of questions present themselves for the future. What are the conceptual differentiations between relief and social protection? What forms of state social protection would the working poor receive in the long term? Given the present focus on targeting of beneficiaries, what would be the future of the call for universalisation of social protection?

By highlighting some of the fundamental flaws in loosely adopting relief as a silver bullet, we seek to add to the debate on the long-term consequences of the state taking such an attitude. Relief is a necessary but not a sufficient measure to ensure the well-being of migrants and workers. The current form of narrow-visioned relief could prove to be harmful to the broader pursuit and domain of social protection, which should be geared to safeguarding lives and livelihoods against future crises.

Shubham Kaushal is a lawyer associated with Aajeevika Bureau. Dr Maansi Parpiani has completed her PhD from University of Copenhagen and is Research Lead at Aajeevika Bureau.

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