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Punjab: Migrants return home, apprehension of labour shortage

Punjab, which saw an exodus over 5 lakh migrants last year during lockdown and saw less numbers returning back post lockdown, faced around 40% shortage of labourers in the recently concluded wheat procurement season in grain markets.

Farmers in Punjab as well as the government both, amid the second wave, have been anticipating labour shortage like last year ahead of paddy transplanting season as a large number of migrants have either returned home or are in the process of returning home.

Punjab, which saw an exodus over 5 lakh migrants last year during lockdown and saw less numbers returning back post lockdown, faced around 40% shortage of labourers in the recently concluded wheat procurement season in grain markets.

In such a situation, talking about migrant labour issues has become more relevant in states like Punjab, which is highly dependent on this class for its agricultural and non-agricultural activities. The recent lockdown has again brought their matter of safety, security and livelihood in public domain when the Supreme Court of India intervened and asked the state governments to ensure food, ration and transportation facilities for their travel back home.

In such a scenario a recently conducted field survey by three professors (one retired) of Punjabi University, Patiala highlighted the plight of migrants in normal conditions and at the time of disaster and suggested ways of stopping them from returning home in panic and in hurry at the time of any crisis.

Prof. Lakhwinder Singh, former professor, Department of Economics along with two other professors Sukhwinder Singh and Deepak Kumar had conducted a field survey titled ‘Punjab’s migration crisis under lockdown and beyond: Some suggestion for public policy’ in the urban pockets of the state a couple of years back by taking the sample of 1,567 workers to ascertain information regarding their working and living conditions.

The survey revealed their poor plight in terms of earnings, access to basic amenities and pitiable social security provisions etc.

As per the survey, 35.48% were illiterate, 36.95%, 15.06% and 12.50% were educated up to middle school, matric and plus two or higher secondary respectively. 53% of them were self-employed while 47 per cent were salaried/wage earners, while 79.11 per cent self-employed migrant workers were engaged in economic activities either in open spaces or in public shelter.

The estimated monthly income of 58.65 per cent of the sampled migrants was less than Rs 8,000. 19.97% earned between Rs 8,001 to Rs 10,000 per month while 14.36 per cent earned between Rs 10,001 to Rs 15,000, the study revealed. Benefits like EPF (Employees Provident Fund) and CPF (Contributory Provident Fund) was available to only 5.55%, while 18.39 % were entitled to weekly offs and casual leaves while medical leave was available to 21.25 %. Only 33.24% of the women workforce had maternity leave benefits, the study revealed.

While 55.90 per cent were engaged in unskilled labour, nearly 33% were engaged in skilled manual work. Only 5.62% were engaged in economic activities that required high educational skills. Around 88.77 per cent were not able to improve the skill base which they already possessed.

The sample included migrant workers who shifted from rural areas to urban areas at least one year before the time of survey up to twelve years (62.03% in 26-45 age group), 29.87 per cent who migrated from rural areas of Punjab, 69.18 per cent from others states and less than one per cent who migrated from Nepal.

As far as basic amenities are concerned, only a small proportion of 14.04% workers had access to filtered drinking water, 33.63% were able to cook food in proper kitchens. LPG was available to 48.17%, while 24 per cent using firewood/dung cakes and 25 per cent used kerosene while the remaining 2.86% used electricity to cook food.

Nearly one-fourth of the sampled workers owned a motorcycle/scooter while 22.85 per cent used bicycles and 31.01% had no means of transportation.

Toilet facility with flush system was available to 81.94 % and 1.91% were using open spaces. 26.23 % did not have any access to either landline or mobile phone connection.

The analysis of the survey regarding consumer durables amply shows that the most common item possessed by the migrants was electric fan (82.26 per cent) followed by TV (56.60 per cent), refrigerator (30.57 per cent).

“Survey was conducted before Covid, but it was highly relevant when the exodus of migrants started here last year during lockdown. The report reveals the poor plight of migrants in normal times, which was worse during last year’s lockdown in the partial lockdown conditions currently. The study has not only exposed the inadequacy of public policy for migrant workers but also showed a non-responsive attitude of both the employer and the state. If philanthropists and general public had not come to their rescue, the condition would have been even worse during the lockdown last year,” said Prof. Lakhwinder Singh, adding that social media and desperate attempts of the migrants to save themselves from this unprecedented crisis of humanity had forced the government to arrange for their safe travel back home during the first wave of Covid.

“Had the government acted timely related to public policy for migrants then labour shortage crisis would not have been there today,” he added.

He said that India had enacted legislation on internal migration in the form of Interstate Migrant Workmen Act, 1979 which protects and regulates the recruitment and working and living conditions of the migrant workers but it is poorly implemented.

“On the basis of our study we suggested as citizens of this country, migrant labourers must be registered (formal and informal sector) by seeding their mobile telephone numbers and must be provided all types of social security, basic facilities, the urban employment guarantee programme on the lines of MGNREGA and they should be given Rs 10,000 per month per family during lockdown. In urban planning, a space should be reserved for them. The female workforce must be accorded high priority by providing them basic education and skills. It is well known that education and skill development has a capacity of upward mobility in terms of social and economic status” he said.

However, equally important is financial literacy. The opening up of a savings bank account and operating it help the female workforce to realise the use of their income for changing the consumption pattern of the family for maintaining better nutrition and healthcare. The two pronged literacy — education and skills and financial literacy — will help the female workforce to jump the ladders of upward mobility.

To reduce the uncertainty in the life, the law and order implementing agencies such as police need to be educated to respect the human rights of the migrant workers. The above suggestion will not only reduce the discrimination against the migrant workers and but will also ensure the safety and security of the migrant workers.

The resolution of elimination in theory and practice will not only have an enduring impact on them but it will help the smooth transition of the economy from low level of economic equilibrium to self-sustained economic development, suggested the field survey.

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