New Delhi: It’s a double whammy for migrant labourers and workers in the unorganised sector. Not only have they lost their livelihoods in the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown, but many of them don’t have bank accounts, which means they will not get the benefit of the Rs 1.7 lakh-crore economic relief package that Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced last week.
Sitharaman had said that 80 crore poor people will benefit from the package, but these are beneficiaries who have bank accounts into which the government can directly transfer money. The number of poor and homeless who do not have bank accounts might be small, but the government has not figured out how to reach out to them.
By the time the package was announced, many of these migrant labourers and unorganised sector workers had already left their place of work and had crossed borders on the way to their villages. With the government deciding to seal borders, these people are now stranded in the middle of nowhere without food or shelter, or in cities they have never lived or worked in and where they know nobody. Only a handful of them stayed back at their places of work.
“The government has said that employers should pay the wages of all labourers employed with them. But where are these labourers going to get their wages from, now that they have left the cities they were working in? A majority of them don’t carry any documents and don’t have bank accounts either,” said social activist Nikhil Dey, also a Right to Food campaigner.
No strategy in place for those without accounts
Workers without bank accounts include temporary construction workers who have come to cities from villages and lived at construction sites as well as a segment of service providers like maids and drivers.
Multiple sources in the government said, as of now, there is no strategy in place for this segment of the population.
“These people can go to any of the food distribution centres in the cities they are presently in and get free meals. But there is no provision to give them any subsistence allowance,” said a government official who did not want to be named.
The official said the penetration of bank accounts in the country is about 90 per cent. These include the nearly 38.3 crore bank accounts that have been opened until date under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet Jan Dhan Yojana. Of these, more than 20 crore accounts are in the names of the women of the household.
“All of them will benefit from the economic relief package,” the official said.
The government has contended that it has managed to ensure a bank account for every household. According to Census 2011, there were nearly 25 crore households in India.
A finance ministry official, who did not wish to be identified, said the government has, through its announcements, tried to reach a vast section of India’s population.
“Be it through free foodgrains, free cooking gas, MGNREGA or benefit to construction workers, the aim has been to reach the maximum number of the vulnerable population,” the finance ministry official said, adding that even before the Covid-19 crisis, instructions were issued to banks to facilitate the opening of accounts.
To be sure, opening bank accounts at branches will be easier said than done in the current scenario for those workers who are left out.
From 27 March, banks have been offering only basic facilities at their branches, including cash deposits and withdrawals, clearing of cheques, remittances and government transactions, the Indian Banks’ Association said in a statement.
Give dry rations
Activists like Dey are now demanding that the government give dry ration food packets to the hundreds and thousands of labourers stuck across cities.
“The government should direct the states to give dry ration to all the migrant labourers, without any paperwork. The government has opened food distribution centres, but it will be a logistical challenge to provide food twice a day to the hundreds and thousands of labourers who are stranded across the country,” Dey said.