No public policy can be expected to be successful if it is based on faulty and insufficient data. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the loopholes in the country’s social security mechanism as the authorities were unprepared for the unprecedented crisis that hit the unorganised migrant workers. While the migrants bore the brunt of the debilitating impact of the pandemic, the Centre’s response to the crisis was patchy and tentative. The absence of credible data on the migrant workforce and the failure to identify them and their immediate needs quickly meant that no meaningful policy intervention could reach them during the time of acute distress. Despite the lofty intentions, several pro-poor policy initiatives in India fail to yield the desired results, largely due to the absence of granular data. Against this backdrop, the central government’s e-Shram portal is a welcome and long overdue initiative that can address the existing gaps. The identification and registration of these workers mark the first stage in the long and arduous task of creating a social security structure for the unorganised labour. The government hopes to register 38 crore unorganised workers who account for nearly 90% of the entire labour force in the country. There is a need for a strong social security net for migrant workers. Niti Aayog’s 2021 policy framework on migrant labour has a range of workable recommendations. These include developing a central database for migrants; setting up a social security safety net — health cards, access to schools, extension of public distribution system (PDS) services, and provision of psycho-social assistance and adequate housing, among other steps.
Unfortunately, no follow-up action has been taken. It must be pointed out that migrant labour is vital to every sector of the economy, especially the informal and medium and small enterprises and their welfare must be given top priority. Official figures reveal that 40.5% of unorganised workers belong to the OBC category, 27.4% from the general category, 23.7% from Scheduled Castes while 8.3% belong to the Scheduled Tribe communities. It is not surprising that a major chunk of registrations on the portal has been in the agriculture sector — 53.6% — since it is the biggest provider of employment for the labour. With the help of this data, the government must tailor specific policy interventions to help those sections of the unorganised labour force who have faced the brunt of economic dislocation. This is not a one-time affair. The data of migrant workers will have to be updated regularly involving the States of origin and destination. The Centre must take the State governments into confidence while examining the issues involving the portability of benefits like giving subsidised foodgrains. Merely creating a database is not the panacea for the problems of unorganised labour. The data must be followed up with the creation of a robust social security architecture.
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