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View: India should use migrant labour crisis to transform economy, society

Privations undergone by our migrant workers have awakened us to urgently address underlying poverty and inequity and create supportive ecosystems that are disaster-proof.

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Last Updated: Jun 04, 2020, 12.06 AM IST
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A virtuous cycle of universal access to health, education and social security, high quality local governance, local employment, purchasing power and demand generation is critical.
By LAKSHMI PURI

Since the partition of India in 1947, when 14.5 million people migrated, the biggest internal dam burst of migrant labour as ‘Covid-19 refugees’ is happening. Unable to wait out the unavoidable pandemic related lockdown due to job, income and food insecurity, fear psychosis and uncertainty about return to normalcy, they desperately sought havens in home states.

Not willing to be taken for granted anymore, they signalled that they be assured the trinity of economic, social and health security, if the Indian economy is to benefit from their labour. Moved by their predicament and amid concerns about the Covid-19 contagion and the sheer logistical challenge of doing this during lockdown, the government transported millions of returnees.

Privations undergone by our migrant workers have awakened us to urgently address underlying poverty and inequity and create supportive ecosystems that are disaster-proof.

Rural-urban and interstate develop-ment gaps forced people from populous states to move to urban areas and more industrialised, developed states for employment. Comprising 20% of the workforce, migrant labour became vital to every economic sector, especially the informal sector and MSMEs, constituting nearly 50% of India’s GDP.

The Covid-19 triggered exodus is a sudden reversal of this cumulative migration of seven decades. The resulting churning is an opportunity for India’s socioeconomic renaissance.

Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Odisha face a multiple disaster scenario and are scrambling to provide healthcare, sustenance and employment for returnees. The major host states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Delhi and Kerala are trying to minimise the loss of labour and skills and prime for ‘unlocking’ of economic activity.

UP and Bihar, with largest returnee loads, have realised their shramiks’ asset value. They are establishing data bases, skills directory and migration institutions. Yogi Adityanath and Nitish Kumar are working to secure better economic and social security bargains for them and MoUs with host states. Home states will draw upon the Centre’s Mig rant Workers Welfare Fund and other poverty eradication and economic empowerment schemes, including enhanced MGNREGA.

The Centre is establishing online portals and databases, and undertaking legislative and regulatory reform including updating Interstate Migrant Workmen Act, 1979, to redefine their status. This should boost their human rights protections, incentivise formalisation while creating predictability for employers/investors and workers in home/host states.

India is poised to reap the demographic dividend lasting decades. Our fertility rates are declining and youthful and skilled labour force growing faster than dependent populations, freeing up resources to invest in people, technology and capital. Notwithstanding the economic ravages of Covid-19, with “whatever it takes” public and private investment, it should lead to rapid poverty reduction, rise in living standards and GDP.

Investing in migrant workers who reflect the demographic profile of young India – world’s best, with 65% of population below 35 years of age – is key. They represent a pool of multisectoral, upgradable and valuable skill sets. They are mobile, aspirational, technologically hungry, risk-taking and entrepreneurial – ideal for powering the Atma Nirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) engine.

Empowering all women educationally, economically, socially and politically is an exponential source for realising the demographic dividend too. India’s total fertility rate (TFR) is at 2.2 per woman and declining. Lowering high fertility rates in populous home states of migrants will require enhancing gender equality and women’s empowerment and universal access to contraceptives and sexual and reproductive health services.

Harvesting the demographic dividend demands that all states propel local development – rural and urban – using the human development, SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) and ANBA templates, and deploying trained local human resources for building 21st century economic, social and technological infrastructure.

A virtuous cycle of universal access to health, education and social security, high quality local governance, local employment, purchasing power and demand generation is critical. Centre-state and interstate concentration and symbiosis is indispensable for India’s economic rebuilding.

It must be based on a win-win competitivenesscomplementarity continuum of interstate production, investment, labour and local to national and national to global supply chains. By enhancing the capabilities of the poor, youth and women, and igniting local development, those states most lagging behind could be enabled to leapfrog into achieving the SDGs for all by 2030.

The samudra manthan (great churning) of the Indian economy by Covid-19 pandemic has spewed the poison of a major economic and human development setback for India. If we use the migrant labour crisis as an opportunity to transform our economy and society, the churning may yet bring up the amrit (nectar) of immortal progress – the demographic dividend – a key goal of PM Modi’s Atma Nirbhar Bharat.

(The writer is former assistant secretary general, United Nations)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
(Catch all the Business News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on The Economic Times.)

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