OPINION: India’s budget leaves pandemic-hit migrants to their own devices

by Rajiv Khandelwal | Aajeevika Bureau
Thursday, 11 February 2021 14:45 GMT

ARCHIVE PICTURE: Workers fasten steel rods together atop a residential building under construction in Mumbai, India, January 31, 2017. REUTERS/Shailesh Andrade

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

COVID-19 has spotlighted the plight of Indian migrants and informal workers but the budget does not do enough to compensate them fairly for their hardship

Rajiv Khandelwal is the director of migrant rights charity, Aajeevika Bureau

The maze of budgets announcements by India’s government wrapped up in complex allocations for grand-sounding schemes may not be easily comprehended by the migrating millions who are just about getting back their economic lives in some order.

Notwithstanding the past year of disrepair, their expectations have probably not significantly altered - assured work, fair wages paid in time, safe working conditions without risk of injury, sufficient food, dignified housing and a prospect of hope for future generations.

This year’s fiscal budget could have been the strongest signal to states and markets to fulfill these fundamental aspirations of India’s labouring migrants – sadly it leaves too much to silence and speculation.  

Work first! We know from our experience in several cities that there is an overall shrinking of available work – not only have the days of available work plummeted, so have wages which are yet to be restored to pre-lockdown levels. 

Driven by the urgency to solve the unemployment crisis in the post lockdown period the Atmanirbhar Bharat Rozgar Yojna (a $265 billion package announced by the Indian government in May 2020 to revive the economy post-COVID-19 and provide welfare measures to vulnerable populations) has been allocated a massive Rs 3130 crores (USD 429.4 million) in the budget.

The funds are intended to underwrite employers’ and employee’s contribution towards EPF (Employees Provident Fund) as a means of incentivizing employment of those struggling to get back to work.

With vast numbers of workers outside the purview of formal and registered employment, the challenge of restoring employment at the very base will remain unresolved by this scheme.

This is a serious oversight of parts of the economy that are hurting the worst - daily waged workers, workers compensated on piece rated basis, home based workers in manufacturing supply chains, domestic workers, brick kiln workers, sex workers and the like, who were hit hardest after the lockdown.  

The other big boost to employment has been envisaged through increased capital outlays for infrastructure projects (roads, highways and textile parks) that have long gestation periods and are unlikely to generate more immediate employment for those in quest of work just at this delicate time.

The support to Micro, Small, Medium Enterprises (MSME) sector has been upped to Rs 15000 crores (USD 2.058 billion) in the current budget but over 60% of this support has been designated as a credit guarantee available to registered MSMEs.

The overwhelming number of firms that operate as unregistered, informal and “survivalist” enterprises are very unlikely to avail of this credit scheme and will remain outside the scope of the intended stimulus. This in turn affects their ability to generate or renew jobs for informal workers. 

There could have been no better time to announce an urban employment guarantee programme for all urban poor inclusive of seasonal migrant workers in cities.

An employment guarantee programme extending to urban and industrial areas will validate the right to work for all who rely on the urban economy for survival -   also it has the powerful potential of establishing standards of decent work with state participation.

On similar lines, an unemployment or wage insurance programme for informal workers would have put money in the hands of the working poor to continue being consumers and buyers without cutting down on essentials of survival.  

Provisions to strengthen industrial relations especially for aggrieved workers including conciliation and preventive mediation has been reduced considerably in comparison to the previous years.

Budget for this has also been moved to a head named ‘Other Expenditure related to Chief Labour Commissioner, Central Government Industrial Tribunal, Research and Information Technology’ that contains an assortment of various items.

All of this together reflects a dilution of the dire need for legal recourse to workers. In a year that saw a heightened rights violations in the form of wage denials, uncompensated work hours and forced retrenchments, a weakening of state mechanisms for legal recourse does not bode well for worker welfare and security. 

Affordable rental housing has been provided for, through tax holidays for builders. It is not immediately clear how the builders will be appropriately incentivized to reach out to a vast majority of seasonal, mobile workers for whom proximity to work locations (that change often) is a major determinant of housing choices. 

The misery inflicted by the COVID lockdown did bring some measure of spotlight on migrants and informal workers, yet the budget does not do nearly enough to compensate them fairly for the hardships they faced. They needed a greater sense of urgency but have received only distant promises. 

Divya Varma and Raghav Mehrotra of Asjeevika Bureau both contributed to this article