The unplanned nationwide lockdown has forced millions of migrants to return home empty-handed and the government should make a direct cash transfer of Rs 25,000 to each of them to salvage the situation, according to S Irudaya Rajan, an expert on migrant issues.
There are more than 600 million migrants in the country and out of them, at least 140 million are in major cities alone, he said.
Migrant workers have been adversely impacted by the lockdown that was imposed on March 25 to curb spreading of coronavirus infections. With businesses shutdown and economic activities disrupted, a large number of migrant workers lost their jobs and returned to their native places.
"When the first lockdown was announced we had just about 500 cases, and as we unwound it, we are the fifth most-infected country with more than 2.5 lakh infections. After forcing them to suffer too long and too much, which was absolutely avoidable, the government has given them zilch as part of the pandemic package," Rajan told PTI.
Rajan is the professor of population studies at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. He has 35 years of research experience, most of which is focused on migrants.
Millions of migrant workers were stranded across the country without food, shelter and transportation after the lockdown was announced.
"How can a family of five live with 5 kilograms of grain a month?... none of the so-called big-ticket announcements has anything for these poor who have been contributing to the growth of our cities tremendously," Rajan said.
In May, the government announced it would spend 10 per cent of the GDP to help individuals and businesses to tide over the crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown. Out of the R 20.9 lakh crore package, most of the measures are for pushing bank credit and not fiscal support or direct cash support to the needy.
"All that the Modi government has done is to ensure that the migrants, who were the heroes of their families all these years, have been made just zeros. Because overnight, from being the biggest source of support to their families, they have been made a burden as they are forced to return home empty-handed and most likely infected," Rajan noted.
He said that for the government, the only way to salvage itself is to "announce a cash-transfer of at least Rs 25,000 to each of these migrants as the increased job guarantee scheme (MGNREGA) won't help them at all".
The financial outgo for such a move would be "at 1.5 per cent of the GDP or Rs 3.5 lakh crore, which is worth undertaking considering their present plight and their huge contribution to the economy", he said.
Stating that a large cash support is what is needed, Rajan said his proposal of paying them Rs 25,000 in cash would have much larger fiscal benefit as it would boost consumption demand.
"A larger cash payout of say Rs 25,000 to each of the 140 million migrant worker can create lot of demand, which will help kick-start the economy with increased demand," Rajan said.
Noting that from this big credit support only the MGNREGA would be of any immediate help to the poor returning home, Rajan said even if this to be really of any benefit, they need to find the jobs which does not look easy given the crippled economy.
Even the only migrant-specific package of rental housing is a long way away, he said and wondered how many of them would return to the cities and unkind employers. Similarly, the one-nation-one-ration-card scheme is also optional and left to the states and if at all it is implemented, it would again be of long-term benefit, he observed.
So in effect, Rajan said the government made these self-sustaining and to a large extent thriving community of a large swathe of our people to suffer for no fault of theirs but due to the folly of the administration.
"What more, they are not only returning empty-handed for the first time in the history of migrants and also carrying a stigma with them now -- of being a burden and also carrying a deadly virus.
"Many of those who returned to their villages are already in depression and suicides rates already going up. From farmer suicides for many years, we will now have headlines of migrants suicides as they don't want to fight poverty and starvation," Rajan warned.
On whether migrants would return to the cities when they are reopened, Rajan said he was not sure about their early return.
"My assessment is that at least 30 per cent of those who left the cities will not return even in the medium term due to the bad experience they had. And only those employers who were good to them during the crisis will get them back.
"Many employers simply abdicated their responsibilities towards their workers and were forced to fend for themselves during the lockdown," he noted.
Rajan also said that about 10 per cent of migrants would have left the cities before the lockdown began and another 10 per cent would have left during the third and fourth phases of the lockdown. Another 10 per cent would be leaving during the fifth phase after June 1, he added.
On Friday, the Supreme Court said it intends to give 15 days to the Centre and state governments for sending to native places all the migrant workers wanting to return home and they should be registered by the authorities for extending benefits of welfare measures, including employment opportunities.
After taking suo motu note of the plight of migrant workers, the court had said on May 28 that they should not be charged train or bus fare and be provided food free of cost.