It has been a few days since Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi announced the Atma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan, comprising a ₹20-lakh- crore economic package supposedly to help the Indian population and economy. Details of the same were announced by Finance Minister Mrs. Nirmala Sitharaman in five tranches, each discussing benefits and stimulus for different sectors of the economy. Specifically, in the second tranche of this economic package, the Finance Minister announced a few measures which would benefit migrant workers.
Ever since I started volunteering with the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), I have been in contact with several migrant workers personally. I have also been hearing about the experiences of my colleagues providing migrants basic necessities such as money and/or ration according to their requirements. SWAN volunteers have been working on the crisis being faced by migrant workers since March 27, 2020. Till date, SWAN has provided support to more than 22,000 migrant workers all over the country. We are a group of about 100 volunteers including postgraduate students, academics, labour leaders, researchers and civil society workers. Because of this close connection, I am well aware of the ground reality which is the complete opposite of what the government claims it to be.
While discussing the second tranche, the Finance Minister stated that three meals a day were being provided at government shelters to migrant workers all across the country every day. Nothing could be further from the truth. In my personal experience, when these workers were asked whether they have received any cash transfers or ration from the government, almost each and every one of them have replied in the negative. Some of them received cooked food or ration from some non-governmental organisations a few times, but that’s about it.
When the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan was announced by the Prime Minister, I had a small hope that maybe now the government would step up, actually help these migrant workers, and provide them some immediate relief. I was mistaken. For when you look at the fine print of the ₹20-lakh-crore economic package, there is nothing that will provide people any kind of relief right away.
Millions of workers have been forced to walk hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes amidst a lockdown from an infectious disease contracted by stepping out and coming in contact with others who are possibly infected. What this lockdown has meant for the workers is that they have no jobs and no money to survive. Whatever little savings they could manage from the meagre incomes have been depleted and they cannot feed themselves or their families. What adds to their misery and destitution is the absence of any kind of relief provision by the government. They have lost all hope and faith. So, this economic package, as economists have pointed out, is too little and too late.
This sad ground reality has exposed the government’s inaction towards these migrant workers. One of the measures the second tranche mentions is those migrant workers and their families will be provided 5kg rice/wheat per person and 1kg of chana (pulses) per family per month for two months, free of cost. According to official reports, the Food Corporation of India and other state agencies had an accumulated stock of around 78 million (7.8 crores) tonnes of rice and wheat by March 2020. Once un-milled paddy is added, the total stock rises to a whopping 98 million tonnes. This is much more than the officially recommended buffer stock of 21 million tonnes for the month of April in any year. If only the above-mentioned 5kg is distributed, not for two but six months, to about 80% of the population (100 crores), the total stock used would be around 30 million tonnes. This is almost half of the available 78 million tonnes. Then why have the measures been announced for only two months?
The package also states that even people without ration cards would get the same amount of ration, however, this is incorrect. People holding ration cards under the National Food Security Act will get 5kg rice/wheat which they pay for besides the free 5kg, doubling their ration allowance from what unregistered people will receive. Economists have said that this relief measure of ₹3,500 crores providing free grains to migrant workers should be universalised to deal with the distress faced by the workers, seeing that the government has the ability to do so.
This tranche also mentions Affordable Rental Housing Complexes (ARHC) for migrant workers travelling from one state to another. Implementation of this will really take a lot of time and these workers need homes now. It also mentions ₹5,000 crores worth special credit facility for street vendors, the official language being “the government will launch a special scheme in a month…”. Given this government’s track record I have little faith they will follow through. There are also astonishing statistics related to this issue. Of the 1.96 lakh tonnes of pulses to be distributed to more than 19 crore households this month, only 30,000 tonnes have been distributed so far (as on 28 April 2020), according to the Consumer Affairs Department. Also, only 15% of poor households have received 1 kg of pulses promised to them for April.
According to my knowledge, there have been around 600 migrant deaths to date either due to accidents while travelling on highways, starvation, or suicides. Data for this has been collected by Kanika Sharma and others through the news. I was listening to a news debate where a panelist said that by now there should have been a huge revolution by these workers. But this hasn’t happened because these migrant workers have lost all hope and faith in this government and hence, hold no motivation to even revolt. The complete economic package will only help India become self-reliant in the long run. Whereas these migrant workers need immediate help now. They have been needing it since the past 57 days. The severity of the problems faced by them cannot be stressed enough.