The heartbreaking migrant crisis after the initial lockdown captured people’s imaginations and forced policymakers to include certain provisions for them in the announced aid schemes for the poor. The migrant crisis after the second wave was a silent one. Although partially mitigated by the continued exploitation of public transport, it nevertheless affected millions of migrants. It also came on the back of the first crisis, where the same workers who have suffered since the first lockdown faced a second period of distress, return to migration and unemployment. Yet this crisis is only part, albeit a significant one, of the recurrent crises affecting the lives of the vast majority of informal workers, greatly exacerbated by the pandemic and the policies that have followed it.
On June 29, the Supreme Court finally ruled on the plight of the migrant workers, also providing a sort of inventory of how little had changed for them in the intervening period. The judgment was limited in scope and confined to the framework of existing social security systems, but it was noteworthy for two main reasons. First, it recognized that migrant workers and other informal workers were widely excluded from existing schemes due to the lack of registration and outdated eligibility lists. It noted that no benefits will be denied to migrant workers for lack of an Aadhaar card and that food aid will be provided to migrants not covered by the National Food Security Act. Second, it linked informal workers and migrant workers, who both experience exclusion, and mandated that the portal for the registration of all informal/migrant workers should be fully operational by July 31.
Nearly a decade and a half ago, the National Commission for Enterprises in the Disorganized Sector (NCEUS) pointed out that circular migrant workers are a disadvantaged group among informal workers. We now estimate that these migrant workers make up nearly 60 percent of non-farm occupationally vulnerable workers. Building on its approach, NVEUS had called for a comprehensive law protecting the rights of all informal workers, including migrants, home workers and domestic workers. It had also recommended a universal registration mechanism based on self-declaration, with the issuance of a smart social security card, and a national minimum social security package legally available to all informal workers, within a specified time frame.
When drafting the Social Security Act for Unorganized Workers, which was passed by Parliament in December 2008, the then government deleted the mandatory elements of the NVEUS proposals and did not include a national minimum social security package, nor a provision for mandatory registration. The Supreme Court’s judgment may now push the government in the direction of the second, but that will only become clear in the long run.
The Covid-19 crisis has exposed the many similarities between all economically and occupationally vulnerable informal workers and seasonal/circular migrant workers and exposed the fault lines and gaps in the existing social security system. But at the same time, it has also underlined the additional vulnerabilities that segments of informal workers face based on their social and cultural identity and position in the labor market. During the crisis, a number of investigations focused on the condition of these workers. Azim Premji University’s 2021 State of Working India Report presents an overview of studies along with the findings of its own studies. Aside from job losses, it reports a deterioration in job quality, debt as a coping strategy and lower incomes compared to pre-lockdown levels, pushing hundreds of millions of households into poverty. While circular migrants were hit hardest, the effects were disproportionately large on the poorest households, women and young workers. Apart from the PDS, the social protection network provided few households with protection, and the benefits of the extended schemes were also limited, especially for migrant workers.
This crisis should draw the attention of policy makers to providing a minimum level of guaranteed social security/social protection for all informal workers and their households within a specified time frame. This would provide a clear framework and a commitment to devote more public resources to social protection, as a large group of workers in India have no identifiable employer and a contributing social insurance system will not work for them. Investing in social protection is not charity or ‘helicopter money’ as some contemptuously call it. It is an investment in employee productivity and equitable growth. It is, as the UN pointed out in 2009 when it outlined the Social Protection Floor (SPF) initiative following the global financial crisis, the surest way out of a crisis by boosting demand at the bottom of the pyramid. The report of the ILO Advisory Committee, in which India was represented by its labor secretary, provides a strong rationale for establishing a universal SPF during economic crises. As a result, all ILO members adopted Recommendation 202 on social protection floors at the International Labor Conference in 2012.
Unfortunately, in the years before this crisis, the government reversed the trend of increasing public spending on social protection. Estimates show that central government spending on all major social protection programs fell from 1.96 percent of GDP in 2008-09 to 1.6 percent in 2013-14 and to just 1.28 percent in 2019-20.
Skeptics may wonder how the government can achieve a universal SPF under the financial constraints brought by the current crisis. Undoubtedly, the government should have spent more on the poor during the crisis, as the allocated spending was inadequate and insignificant as a percentage of GDP. More importantly, these were discretionary, ad hoc one-off expenses, while additional funds should have been spent as part of a final plan to achieve a guaranteed minimum, which is invoked as a right.
To end the silent, painful and ongoing crisis for the workers, as well as the crisis for the economy, the government urgently needs to recognize the right to social security enshrined in both the Indian Constitution and international covenants, ILO – embrace recommendation 202 and work towards this in a time-bound manner.
This column first appeared in the print edition on 17 July 2021 under the title ‘The silent crisis’. The writer is director of the Center of Employment Studies, Institute for Human Development and former member of the NVEUS.