New Delhi: The absence of a comprehensive database on migrant workers was one of the major reasons that pushed the Narendra Modi government to drop the idea of cash transfers to these workers as part of its Covid-19 economic package, ThePrint has learnt.
Amid criticism that the Rs 20 lakh crore package announced last week did not include cash transfers to migrant workers, senior government officials said the idea was actively debated at the highest level.
But more than financial constraints, it was the lack of a database with details of bank accounts and Aadhaar numbers of these workers that proved to be a hurdle, said the officials who didn’t wish to be named.
The government had a database of only 28 lakh migrants who were in relief camps opened by state governments, along with their Aadhaar numbers and bank account details. The rest, an estimated 7-8 crore migrants, were either residing within the industries where they work or travelling back to their homes, said the officials.
The government had no details about these workers to find a way of enabling cash transfers, said one of the officials.
As a result, the government opted to provide them free food and then work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme, when they return to their native places.
In the relief package, it announced that every migrant worker, irrespective of whether he has a ration card, will get 5 kg of wheat or rice and 1 kg of chana per family, free of cost at a total estimated cost to the exchequer of Rs 3,500 crore.
While making the economic package announcements, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had said that the government is estimating that there are around 8 crore migrants, who will avail of the free food grain facility. She added that this data was collated based on figures received from state governments.
Sitharaman also increased the allocation under MGNREGA by Rs 40,000 crore to over Rs 1 lakh crore.
The government also decided to open up the railway network to facilitate the migrants to return to their towns and villages, said the officials.
Criticism for handling of crisis
After Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown beginning 25 March, crores of workers started their long journey back home to their towns and villages on foot and bicycles after being deprived of their jobs and livelihoods.
The government started special trains to ferry these workers only on 1 May. Thousands of workers are still on the road, nearly two months after the lockdown was enforced.
Opposition parties and rights activists have slammed the government for announcing interventions in its economic package that are of a long-term nature, be it the March 2021 deadline for making ‘One Nation One Ration’ card operational across India or converting government-funded housing in cities to rental complexes for migrant labourers and urban poor.
They have pointed out that the migrant workers who have lost their livelihood need immediate cash in hand.
No comprehensive recent migrant database
The Modi government plans to hasten the process of setting up a comprehensive database of migrant workers, but experts say this will be easier said than done.
“There are no credible numbers after the 2011 census. Even the 2011 census will not give you data about the distressed workers. All people who have moved from their state to another state will be classified as a migrant as per the Census definition, even if they hold good government or private sector jobs,” said P.C. Mohanan, former chairman of the National Statistical Commission.
“There is no way of getting a realistic number of casual labourers,” he said.
Before the Census, there is a National Sample Survey Office survey of 2007-08, but no recent survey or data is available, said Mohanan. He added that the Census 2021 exercise should be used to ask a few more questions about whether a worker is a migrant and a casual worker, or self employed.
However, he flagged that due to the National Population Register (NPR) exercise, migrants may be hesitant to disclose their true status. “Migration data will be the first victim of the NPR exercise,” he said.
Census 2011 had estimated that the total number of inter-state migrants was 5.42 crore, of which 1.25 crore had moved looking for employment. Inter-state migrants in urban India were estimated at 3.83 crore, of which 1.04 crore moved looking for employment.
Former chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian had used railway passenger data in the 2017 Economic Survey to estimate an annual inter-state migration of around 90 lakh since 2011. But this approach was criticised by many economists and statisticians.