By Gyan Pathak
The Centre’s “apathy and lackadaisical attitude” on extending welfare measures to migrant workers have now been noted even by the Supreme Court of India, which termed it “unpardonable”, and then passed an order that the very instrument – the National Database for Unorganised Workers (NDUW) – through which welfare measures are to be implemented be commenced by July 31, 2021. Not only that, the SC had to pass an order to the Centre to allocate additional foodgrains, and the states and the Union Territories (UTs) to frame appropriate schemes. However, the orders cannot be carried out in their true sense within the cut-off date, and here lies the real challenge of their implementation.
The Supreme Court, therefore, would need to monitor the implementation of the orders for a long time to come if at all the country really wants to feed all the hungry stomachs by covering all the people stricken by poverty under the National Food Security Act (NFSA). The top court may also need to rectify the present policy defects in the ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ (ONORC) scheme which does not cover all migrant workers, but only those who are covered under NFSA. It must also be noted that millions of people across the country are identified for benefit under NFSA, but are unable to get their ration cards even after years.
Further, the COVID-19 crisis has pushed millions of people under poverty, who also need to be covered under this new scheme, for which the government would need to provide them with relevant document as a proof of their poverty. No doubt, since the order has come in special reference to ONORC scheme, it may benefit millions of others yet to be covered, including about a million nomads. In this scenario, order to act will not be sufficient, because some of the omissions and commissions of the government and the officials are clearly ‘unpardonable’, and if it is correct, such guilty ones must also be punished.
Both the issue of ONORC scheme and registration of migrant workers are not new. The ONORC was introduced in the country in April 2018, while the Supreme Court had made an order in August 2018 to the Ministry of Labour and Employment to make available a module to states and UTs for the registration of unorganised workers. It may also be noted that majority of unorganised workers are actually migrant workers.
It is another matter that the Centre had launched ONORC in August 2019 for the whole country. Prior to this launch it was introduced with the launch of the (Integrated Management of Public Distribution System (IM-PDS), with the idea of reforming the PDS that has been historically marred with leakages and inefficiency. ONORC was initially launched as an inter-state pilot project. When COVID-19 outbreak and the subsequent lockdown announced on March 24, 2020 forced millions of migrant workers to return to their homes due to loss of livelihoods and lack of support from the government, everyone felt the need to provide them at least foodgrains to feed themselves. Modi government took five months to decide on expanding the ONORC, the work on which was to be completed by March 2021, which could not be done. Supreme Court had now fixed a deadline July 31 for its completion.
ONORC system allows inter and intra state portability aiming at enabling migrant workers and their family members to buy subsidized ration from any government fair price shop across the country under NFSA. To implement the system the Centre had even put it as a precondition for additional borrowing by the states during the pandemic last year. However, only 17 states implemented it and borrowed additional Rs 37,600 crore during 2020-21. Numerous reasons have been cited for non-implementation or faulty implementation of the scheme, of which the problems relating to database and electronic Points of Sale (ePoS) are chiefly responsible which was the primary responsibility of the Centre in which it miserably failed.
As of now 81 crore people are eligible to have subsidized foodgrains under NFSA – rice at Rs 3, wheat at Rs 2, and coarse grains at Rs 1 per kg – but as on June 28, 2021, there are only 23.63 crore ration card holders in the country. Apathy of the Centre is well pronounced. Why 57.37 crore eligible poor are not even given ration cards? Clearly they don’t have access to food support while the Centre goes on announcing food support programme for 81 crore people during the pandemic. This is the ground reality. Food support announced for the poor are not reaching even the identified ones, what to talk about others who are yet outside the scope of NFSA, but the pandemic has pushed them into poverty. Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs has put the average monthly portability transaction under this scheme at about only 1.35 crore. Given the number of migrant workers over 40 crore, this average transaction is too low to have any significant impact on welfare of the migrant workers.
Four states – Assam, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, and West Bengal – are yet to join ONORC scheme. They have cited various reasons for that but majority of them are not acceptable. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s demand in noteworthy. She has rightly demanded that all the migrant workers should be covered under the scheme even when they are not covered presently under the NFSA, but the state has issued them ration cards, because they are needy. Her demand must be viewed in the context that even 57.37 crore eligible persons don’t have ration cards, including millions of identified poor. Millions of others newly pushed into poverty also need to be identified as such to get the benefit of various welfare schemes.
As for the registration of unorganized labourers and migrant workers, the Supreme Court has fixed another deadline of December 2021. The Centre had announced creation of such database in the Budget 2021-22. However, work is not progressing at the desired speed, chiefly due to lack of coordination among the states, UTs, the Centre, and the employers. The court has directed all parties to comply with the order and complete the process of registering all before the deadline. The present process of registration is cumbersome, which depends on the information given by the employers. Unemployed workers are finding themselves unable to get registered on account of several issues ranging from their digital illiteracy to getting certified as unorganised or migrant workers. The whole process thus needs a relook to enable all to at least get registered to avail social welfare schemes. (IPA Service)