How Did Union, State Govts Fare on SC's Order Providing Safety Net for Migrant Labour?

In the wake of the migrant worker crisis, the Supreme Court issued five major directions to Union and state governments on June 29, 2021.

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In the wake of the sudden announcement of nationwide lockdown in March 2020, millions of people decided to go back to their villages, towns and cities. Television channels filled with images of men, women and children, walking barefoot, some lugging suitcases with children on top were brought to living rooms of middle classes.  

The Supreme Court took suo motu cognisance of the plight of migrants in Re: Problems and miseries of migrant labourers, writ Petition No SMWP(C) 6/2020,  and on June 29, 2021, it passed an order of great significance for the well-being of migrant labour. 

There are five major directions in the said order, which will be discussed in this two-part article series. The first four directions of the Supreme Court will be discussed in the first article, and the fifth in the second article. 

Firstly, the Union as well as the respective state governments have to put in place a portal for the registration of the unorganised labourers and migrant workers by July 31, 2021. The process of registration must be completed at the earliest, but no later than December 31, 2021. 

The idea is to ensure that the benefits announced by the Union and the state governments reach all such workers. It is important to highlight here that in addition to the migrant workers, unorganised workers who have stayed back in their home towns and villages, are also supposed to be registered on this portal. While precise estimates are not available, out of about 38 crore unorganised workers, migrant workers could be about eight crore. Since most of them may not be benefiting from any government scheme, their identification and registration will be very challenging. Similarly, the registration of the balance 30 crore workers (who have not migrated) is also not going to be easy.

Also read: In Chhattisgarh, a Migrant Workers’ Jury Is Hearing ‘Pleas’ From Government Representatives

Second, the Union government was directed to allocate and distribute food grains as per the demand of additional food grains from states for the distribution to migrant labour. The government has already allocated 204 lakh tonnes of additional food grains for the period from July to November 2021. About 80 crore people whose names are registered in the ration cards are eligible to get an additional 5 kg per person of food grains, free of cost, under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKAY). 

However, those without ration cards are not eligible to get food grains under the normal allocation of 5 kg per person per month under the National Food Security Act, 2013 (NFSA). Also, they will not benefit from any additional allocation under PMGKAY. Thus, those having ration cards under the NFSA are entitled to get 10 kg per person per month while the poorest of poor, Antyodaya Anna Yojana families can get 35 kg per family per month, irrespective of the size of family.

Third, the Supreme Court further directed the state governments to prepare a special scheme for the distribution of food grains to migrant labourers, which should be implemented by July 31, 2021. The states can ask the Union government to provide additional allocation for the migrants under this special scheme. Such a scheme may be continued and operated till the COVID-19 pandemic continues. So far, no state appears to have formulated any scheme in compliance with this direction, nor sought additional allocation from the Union government for migrants this year. Hopefully, they would operationalise the mandated scheme by the specified deadline.

Women carry free ration collected from a fair price shop during the ongoing COVID-19 nationwide lockdown, in East Delhi, Wednesday, May 6, 2020. Photo: PTI.

It may be recalled that last year, in May 2020, the Union government allocated food grains for migrants also. They were entitled to get 5 kg food grains and one kg gram dal per person per month from May to November 2020. It was projected that about 8 crore migrants will be entitled for this and 8 lakh tonnes of food grains were allocated. However, states could identify only about 2.8 crore migrants and lifted 6.41 lakh tonnes of food grains for distribution to them.  

Even if there is no Central allocation, state governments can still provide food grains to migrants by lifting wheat and rice from the Food Corporation of India under the Open Market Sale Scheme (OMSS),  but they have to pay Rs 1,800 to Rs 2,150 per quintal for wheat, and Rs 2,000 to Rs 2,200 per quintal for rice, depending on the year of procurement. Mostly, state governments are reluctant to lift food grains under OMSS as migrants cannot be charged such a high price.

Fourth, the Supreme Court has directed that all the states should implement the “One Nation One Ration Card” (ONOR) scheme by July 31 2021. Assam, Chhattisgarh, Delhi and West Bengal have not joined the scheme so far. The ration shops in these states are not using Point of Sale (PoS) machines, and Aadhaar authentication is not being done while issuing food grains. 

Proper implementation of ONOR will require real-time collection and analysis of data of distribution at ration shops. Additional allocations will have to be provided to ration shops from where cardholders of other states lift their food grains. The allocation to ration shops in the original place of ration cardholders will have to be accordingly reduced. As per a press release of the Press Information Bureau (PIB), about 1.35 crore intra-state and inter-state transactions are conducted every month. The number of inter-state transactions is however very small and just about 1.70 lakh beneficiaries took food grains under ONOR in June 2021. 

Effective implementation of ONOR will involve a reduction of allocation of food grains to states which are sending migrants and an increase in allocation of states which are receiving migrants. 

Fifth, the Supreme Court has directed the Union government to conduct an exercise under Section 9 of the NFSA to re-determine the total number of persons who will be eligible to receive subsidised food grains in the rural and urban areas. 

This is the most complex part of the Supreme Court’s directions and it will be examined in the next article of this series. 

Siraj Hussain is Visiting Senior Fellow ICRIER. He was Union Agriculture Secretary. Jugal Mohapatra was Union Fertiliser Secretary.