Migrant workers and their families on board a truck are returning to their villages after the 21-day nationwide lockdown was announced, in Ahmedabad, March 25. REUTERS
The absence of data on workers in the unorganised sector is threatening to turn the coronavirus health emergency into a humanitarian crisis for India, forcing a choice between containing the outbreak and providing economic support.
As hundreds of thousands of migrant workers flee cities and crowd state borders to head home after the Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a three-week lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus, they have been left with no means to earn a living and provide for themselves or their families.
"So at some point, somebody has to take a very harsh call, which is to say how much can I afford to have in terms of death arising from Covid-19 or arising from the lack of essentials because people can't buy them. It's a very difficult ethical choice. You may not have an alternative," said Pronab Sen, former chairman of Indian Statistical Commission, referring to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Domestic helps, street vendors, shop hands, restaurant workers, delivery boys and construction labour are among the people walking miles to get home as businesses shut across the country and economic activity comes to a grinding halt.
"There are a few sectors in which there are rosters on workers. So construction sector has a roster that registers construction workers and they can actually locate them, bidi workers have something similar. But these are very few. Most informal sector workers are not registered in any shape or form," Sen said.
Hole in the safety net
More than 80 percent of the Indian economy is in the informal sector, says the International Labor Organization. India's economic policymakers have for long been dealing with the absence of data on the unorganised sector. The outbreak of coronavirus has only exacerbated the problem.
On March 26, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced Rs 1.7 lakh crore package for farmers and the informal sector, which includes existing schemes.
"If you are going to do targetted, then it's virtually impossible to do except for very very few sectors but not that many people. Even there it is very difficult to target. Because bidi workers, say, are in fixed places," Sen said.
While announcing the lockdown, Modi, too, promised wage support for this section but most of these workers are not registered and officials will struggle to reach these workers to give them the promised money.
Take for instance, construction workers. They are mostly migrants and move where the work takes them, targeting them becomes difficult.
"The sensible way to approach is essentially to keep it more generic, something that kind of resembles what was done for NREGS (Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005), that we are setting up these places where you'll come and register yourself you'll be issued a card and payment will be made against the production of this card," Sen said.
But this approach has its own problems too. For this system to work, there has to be a physical matching of the card to the person, which is not advisable at all as the coronavirus is highly contagious.
"But the problem with that of course is it will completely violate your lockdown features. All of these lines then will become hotbeds of infection. So when you think of what is happening, you are forced to think that there is a trade-off between economic support and containment of the disease," Sen said.
Talking about the relief measures announced by Sitharaman, KR Shyam Sundar, who is a professor at Xavier School of Management in Jamshedpur said the cash transfers were only for farmers, widows and then disabled. “So these are all parts of the existing national social protection package," he said.
As part of the plan, the government will pay Rs 2,000 to farmers in the first week of April through direct cash transfer under the PM Kisan Yojana scheme.
"What the government is doing is that for the farmers is from the annual direct cash benefit of Rs 6,000, it is just releasing upfront the Rs 2,000 in the month of April. It is not a fresh measure," Sundar said.
The vast majority of the unorganised workers in the urban sector would not be covered under any of the non-food security relief schemes.
"So in other words, there are no jobs available because of the lockdown and these people are not going to be provided income even if the government appeals to the private sector because the private sector must also have the wherewithal to provide incomes," Sundar said.
For people like these, the government should transfer cash to workers registered under the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act.
The rights of unorganised workers are protected better by the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008 and the Code on Social Security, 2019 or a lot of people could face starvation.
The tradeoff, said Sundar, was a reminder that India did not have comprehensive and universal data, which during emergencies and natural calamities could cripple well-meaning efforts of governments to help the needy.
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