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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 33, New Delhi, August 1, 2020

Statement On Rights Of Migrant Workers In The Pandemic Context And Building A Post-covid Economy In Odisha

Friday 31 July 2020

Development Research Institute
(A Research Unit of Gabeshana Chakra
Regd. No. 21719/153 of 2003-04 )
34, Laxmi Vihar, Bhubaneswar-751005,
Email: mmohantydu[at]


For Immediate Release

July 20, 2020

Contact: 9937972470 / 9437004647


Development Research Institute, Bhubaneswar had started a process of continuous information gathering and discussion several weeks back to understand the conditions of migrant workers during the covid-19 pandemic. Social science researchers, media persons, panchayat office bearers and social activists from different locations exchanged facts and views. Such broad-based and intensive process of sharing and exchanges has helped to frame our collective approach and recommendations which we present in the following statement.

Broad Framework

The pandemic and the resultant disruptions of the economy and livelihoods compel us to address the human and social consequences which have become too conspicuous to escape attention. The worst victims of the spread of the pandemic and lockdowns have been the marginalised social groups, especially the migrant working class. The media images of their miseries in destinations, during return journeys and hardships after coming back to their sources, have stirred the conscience of all sensitive persons. There is a widespread desire to design suitable measures of intervention to mitigate distress. The state and union governments have come up with packages containing policy and administrative measures to provide relief and rehabilitation. While government response has been subjected to critical scrutiny, the social science community and social activists have a responsibility to analyse the ongoing crisis and generate creative ideas to advance the process of building effective strategies of intervention. The crisis has exposed inbuilt deficiencies in the prevailing development paradigm, limitations of government policies and incapabilities of delivery mechanisms. It has resulted in shrinking and denial of citizenship rights of the poor and marginalised. A new thinking and a fresh approach need to evolve through a process of sustained deliberations. The new challenge provides us with an opportunity to reimagine development by reconstructing the economy and reasserting certain fundamental human rights. We suggest a broad framework of an alternative approach.

1. The cornerstone of development intervention has to be based on a rights-based approach to development. The right to lead a dignified and meaningful life has to be broadly imagined to incorporate the right to employment, right to basic minimum income, right to social security and right to be free from hunger, destitution, discrimination and exclusion.
2. Rights are claimed primarily from the state. The state has to guarantee these rights. Hence, there is a need to recognise the urgent need for increased state interventions in education, health, and social security- including rights to food, housing and communication. Guaranteeing such a bundle of rights requires that the efficiency of state intervention and state capacity, in general, has to be improved.
3. There is a need to universalise the rights to avoid possible exclusion errors. Specific provisions are needed to address the problems of marginalised and vulnerable sections. Another aspect that needs to be emphasised is that while the governance of such economic and political claims against the state be implemented at the local level in a decentralised manner, the claims should be conceptualised as universal and portable. It should not be tied to the domicile status of individuals.
4. There is a need to enhance state capacity at various levels. The pandemic has demonstrated the significance of the state government and the local governance mechanisms in responding to the needs of the local populations. There is a need to deepen decentralisation, and the financial and administrative capabilities of the local state have to be strengthened for the same. A new democratic and decentralised federal structure needs to be created. This has to be accompanied by devolution of sufficient resources and all constitutionally assured powers to the panchayat level.
5. The existing patterns of development interventions rely too heavily on markets and capital. This model is neither efficient nor sustainable. It has accentuated inequalities to historically unprecedented levels. It is possible and desirable to imagine a more sustainable and equitable economy and society, keeping labour at the centre. Rather than relying on external capital to extract resources from the local economy, it is possible to create the foundations of an alternative, local economy. There is a need for increasing social control over the economy which may involve generation of public resources and redistribution without which basic rights to adequate means of livelihood, education, health and social security would remain unattainable. Certain rights like accessible education and health have to be redefined as equal rights with attendant consequences.

Within such a broad framework we propose a number of immediate steps as well as medium and long term measures.

Immediate Measures:

1. Food Security: Field reports suggest that some of the worker households are facing hardships in having food in adequate quantity and quality. To avoid any possibilities of food insecurity, universal PDS with a minimum of ten kg wheat/rice per person per month and other essential food items such as pulses, oil, soaps and sugar should be provided to all households or at least to the eligible households for a reasonable length of time.
2. Cash Transfers: The cash transfers, initiated by the government, though an important step, was inadequate both in terms of the amount of cash transfer and the number of people covered. Given the continued hardships faced by a vast section of the society, a cash transfer of Rs 7500 to households for the next six months. The cash transfer scheme should include all households who do not have a taxpayer or a formal worker. As a matter of principle, such transfers should be made to the account of the female members of the households. Since a large number of such families are in rural areas, such a transfer would boost rural demand and would help in kick-starting an economic recovery. Special attention should be paid to the more marginalised migrant population, including women-headed households and left behind women who have received no remittances during the crisis. Cash transfers and social security support be made to these vulnerable groups.
3. Regularisation of Membership of Construction Workers: Some steps have been taken to transfer cash to workers through channels such as the Construction Workers’ Welfare Fund. Field reports suggest that a large number of seasonal migrant workers such as brick kiln workers have not been included or their memberships have not been renewed. A quick and flexible mechanism should be put in place so that all such workers are included and are made eligible for cash transfers. These schemes should be extended to other vulnerable workers who are associated with specific sectors such as bidi making and NTFP collections. Care should be taken to ensure the registration of women workers who are often ignored as accompanying family members.
4. Enhanced Transfers to other Vulnerable Sections: There should be a review of all existing cash transfer mechanisms through the National Social Assistance Programmes (such as Old Age Pension scheme, support to the persons with disabilities, etc.) and similar programmes at the state level, and all eligible citizens should get their backlogs, if any, as well as one-time special assistance. Female-headed households and transgender communities should also be recognised as distinct vulnerable groups. There is a long-standing demand to increase the amount of support under these schemes. Enhanced support at this juncture will help the vulnerable sections to cope with the crisis.
5. Support to Migrant Workers: The state government has a database of workers who have returned to the state. This list should be expanded and updated. District-level authorities should make an effort to locate and proactively engage the return migrants in various schemes for employment generation through programmes such as PMGKY and MGNREGA. The scope of MGNREGA should be expanded by (a) increasing the number of guaranteed person-days to 200; (b) the wage rate should be increased to Rs 600 per day; (c) agricultural activities should be brought under the scope of MGNREGA; (d) necessary flexibility should be given to the Panchayats to design projects to be undertaken for MGNREGA work. The possibility for the creation of additional employment for the semi-skilled workers under PMGKY should be explored. As an emergency measure, repairing of school buildings, Anganwadi Centres and other public buildings should be undertaken.They should be encouraged, but should not be coerced to stay back.
6. Health Rights of Migrant Workersand others: There is an urgent need to address the health crisis being faced by the migrant workers, their families and others through an efficient, equitable and state-sponsored public health system. The right to life and dignity of each citizen should be the cornerstone of such a healthcare system. The right to proper treatment and adequate health care should be treated as a priority within the state-supported healthcare system, and, when required, the private health care system must be integrated to provide equitable access to all sections of the population. Provision for adequate and equal health care must be accepted as the responsibility of government which has to allocate sufficient resources for the purpose. Steps should be taken to ensure adequate facilities including water, electricity, medicine (for health problems other than Covid) and sanitary napkins etc at the quarantine centres. Government should provide universal testing especially for migrants after reaching the Covid centres.
This crisis requires strengthening of the public health care system, rather than privatisation and commercialisation of healthcare. Migrant workers should be provided health cards that should allow them to have treatment at any government-run hospital, irrespective of their domicile or occupational status.
7. Legal Rights and Awareness: The migrant workers have been subjected to exploitative and fraudulent practices by their employers and fail to redress their grievances partly because of ignorance about their legal rights and grievance redressal procedures. There is a need to create awareness about the legal rights of the workers and available entitlements under various policies and schemes. Initiatives should be taken to make the workers and the employers aware of the provisions of the various laws such as the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979 under which workers are entitled to minimum wage, accommodation, transport, medical assistance and other rights. It requires to be emphasised that the labour friendly provisions this1979 Act be fully implemented.
8. Checking Violence and Noncoercive Approach: Lockdowns have witnessed economic hardship and stress among people. This has led to increased violence against women, transgender people, persons with disabilities and children. This requires to be addressed at the state, civil society and family levels through counselling and legal methods. Another worrying concern has been the way governments have handled the pandemic situation basically as a law and order problem which has led to increased coercive measures against citizens, especially the desperate migrant workers while they were trying to negotiate with difficult situations. It is necessary to consider the present situation as basically a health crisis with humanitarian, social and economic implications. Legal and constitutional rights of citizens must not be violated or diluted.

Medium and Long-term Measures

1. Creating an Information Base to Address the Problems of Migrant Workers:

1.1 The sufferings of the migrant workers were aggravated because of the lack of adequate information regarding their whereabouts. It is important to build a database on migrant workers to avoid such a situation in future. In the past, collecting such information has been difficult because of the widespread mistrust among migrants and their families. However, during the crisis, many migrants have voluntarily registered themselves with the government through the portals.
1.2 All information about migrant workers that are currently available with the different government agencies should be collated, and a state-level migration portal should be created to store and periodically update a gendered database. Care should be taken to address the privacy concerns, and anonymised information at a disaggregated level (village, block and district levels) should be made available to administrators and researchers. Data should be gender-segregated as well as caste group segregated and as comprehensive as possible so that it can address issues of intersectionality and skill diversities among migrant workers. That would help in designing development interventions and policymaking.
1.3 The required administrative mechanism to collect, process and analyse disaggregated information on migrant workers should be created at the state level. The data-collection system for such an exercise should be sensitive to the conditions of different categories of migrants, and it should not be used for any kind of legal action against them. An incentive structure should be created for encouraging voluntary participation of migrants in such an exercise.
1.4 A special Migration Research Centre should be created either as a separate organisation or under the auspices of any of the existing institutions such as Nabakrushna Chaudhary Centre for Development Studies or the Development Research Institute in collaboration with various agencies of the central government. Collaboration with the Migration Research Unit at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram to develop such an institution could be fruitful. This body should act as an independent think-tank and should be entrusted with the responsibility of conducting periodic migration surveys and suggest steps to develop an adequate policy response to the problems faced by migrant workers. Universities should also be encouraged and funded to establish Migration Research Centres.

2. A Labour-centric approach to Inclusive and Sustainable Development

Migration of skilled labour can act as a source of remittance, information and technology. The problem with out-migration from Odisha is that much of it is distress-induced. Public policy should work towards reducing the vulnerability of migrants who migrate under duress. The best guarantee against such distress migration is employment creation at the origin. While a universal approach reduces exclusion errors, there is a possibility of taking a regional or spatial targeting- distress migration-prone blocks could be given more priority.

2.1 Increasing Productivity in Agriculture: The agriculture development initiatives need to be revisited in light of recent changes in production and marketing structures. Irrigation is a key driver for increasing productivity. More investment in creating agricultural infrastructure- irrigation, cold storage, transport and communication networks etc. would be needed. Crop and region-specific interventions could be designed to suit local needs. Promotion of sustainable and organic agriculture should be accorded due priority.
2.2 Post-production Processing and Marketing Interventions: In the past decades, among the important drivers of commercialisation in Odisha agriculture are crops such as paddy, cotton and vegetables. However, farmers typically face difficulties in getting remunerative prices for their products. The paddy procurement process should be expanded. Cotton should also be procured and processed by the state agencies. For vegetables, a localised value chain approach linking farmers to markets should be designed and implemented. Also, additional agro-products, such as millets, oil-seeds and forest-based products should be brought under the schemes to support agro-processing and marketing.
2.3 Addressing the Exclusion of Tenant Farmers: Tenant farmers are typically excluded from the state-supported programmes. A flexible approach towards identification of such farmers, such as self-certification rather than written contract or consent from the landowner should be followed to include tenant farmers.
2.4 Land and Forest Rights: Secure land rights are foundational to the livelihoods security of a large section of the population. Land alienation is likely to increase during the pandemic because of loss of income, rise in catastrophic health expenditure, deaths and lack of employment. Similarly, the forest rights act provided the opportunity to legalise the claims of vulnerable sections of society. Specific measures to redistribute land and safeguard the rights of vulnerable groups, such as scheduled tribes, scheduled castes, and women, over land and forests, will help reduce the livelihood shocks induced by the pandemic.
2.5 Creating Employment through MGNREGA and PMGKY: Immediate steps should be taken to expand the employment generation schemes.Further, the scope of activities undertaken under MGNREGA should be expanded to include agriculture, handicrafts and other locally viable economic activities- without diluting its character as an employment-guarantee scheme. In the medium-term, both MGNREGA and PMGKY should be dovetailed with the creation of rural infrastructure that creates or facilitates employment creation on a durable basis.
2.6 Rebuilding the Rural Non-farm Economy: Reconstruction of the rural economy by focusing on non-agricultural sectors can play a crucial role in creating employment opportunities and addressing poverty, thereby mitigating distress. This requires mapping of available resources and skills at the panchayat samiti levels and comprehensive plans for credit, technology and market support to trigger a series of economic activities.
2.7 Rights to Education and Skills: Migration outcomes are sensitive to education and skill-levels of the migrants. There should be specific programmes to provide quality education and skill-training through public-funded institutions to increase the capabilities of the workers. The pandemic might lead to an increase in drop-out rates and increase in the work participation rates of the children. Effective countermeasures should be put in place. Due importance should be given to the continuing and adult education of migrants and other workers.
2.8 Reviving SMSE and Manufacturing Activities: Steps need to be initiated to revive spinning mills, sugar mills and other state and cooperative managed small industries which have been shut down.
2.9 Organising Migrant Labour: There is an urgent need to organise migrant workers and other vulnerable workers to strengthen their workplace and citizenship rights. Migrant workers should be organised at source and destination points. Coordination among Trade Unions, Peasants Organisations, Civil Society Organisations, and others is vital. The pandemic should not be used as an opportunity to dilute labour rights and democratic rights of the citizens.

We submit these proposals for further deliberations by the government, civil society, political parties and the academic community so that a people-friendly and democratic approach may evolve. We also expect the state and union governments perform their constitutional duties mentioned in the fundamental rights and directive principles of state policy in order to enable migrant workers and other marginalised groups to enjoy their citizenship rights and live with dignity.

Asha Hans, Director, DRI | Deepak K. Mishra, Advisor, Migrant Workers Research Programme, Development Research Institute | Bijaya K. Bohidar, President Gabeshana Chakra

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