It took a lockdown for the country to see the precarious existence of the large migrant workforce that provides cheap labour to the industry and urban services sectors. At least 26 lakh migrant workers were stranded across the country, according to the Chief Labour Commissioner’s Office, and the government told Parliament that at least 10 lakh of them returned home during the COVID-19 crisis. Thousands of people, young and old, men and women, were seen walking on the highways and along railway tracks for days to get back to villages from their workplaces in the cities. This is the context in which the Niti Aayog has prepared a draft national policy on migrant workers. It is a welcome first step towards ameliorating the inhuman conditions in which many migrant workers live and work. The draft highlights the contribution of migrant labour in keeping India’s economy competitive and calls for a “rights-based” approach to “address the complexities of circular migration in the region, as well as migrants’ precarity, vulnerabilities and agency”.
The lockdown months had exposed the shocking fact that the migrant workforce is almost invisible in official data. This absence also meant that they could not access even the minimal social protection programmes offered by the state. A hugely diverse and disaggregated workforce, they lacked agency and thereby any power to bargain collectively. Besides, being footloose, political parties do not always recognise or respect them as a political constituency and respond to their concerns. The draft has suggested that political inclusion could be key to bridging the gaps in their access to health services, basic entitlements, food security, education and so on. The proposed administrative measures and corrections, such as inter-state migration management bodies involving labour departments of both source and destination states and inter-sectoral convergence to break down ministerial silos, could help to create an institutional framework for timely and targeted response in crises. The government has taken steps to ensure portability of welfare schemes, especially access to the public distribution system, beyond state borders. More needs to be done on that front.
A rights-based approach to welfare and social security would work only if the workers have agency, as the draft has indicated. Politicisation, unionisation and mobilisation as workers in the past has forced parties and governments to see welfare as an essential aspect of industrial development. The Niti Aayog draft is a prompt to reimagine labour-capital relations while integrating the migrant workers within the formal workforce. This is necessary to build a compassionate society and a competitive economy.