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The Jean Dreze Interview: Keeping migrant workers from returning home will deepen COVID-19 financial crisis

Holding migrants where they are is a bad idea, even from the point of view of containing the coronavirus crisis, says economist Jean Dreze in a wide-ranging interview with our Editor GS Vasu.

Published: 28th April 2020 12:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 27th April 2020 10:04 PM   |  A+A-

Jean Dreze (Image|Suvajit)

Express News Service

HYDERABAD: With under a week to go for the present lockdown to end, it is an indisputable fact that thousands of migrant workers are stuck in cities across India, unable to get home. Continuing to hold them "captive" will only adversely impact us, cautions noted economist, author and social activist Jean Drèze, in an interview with The New Indian Express Editor GS Vasu.

Quarantined in a village in Jharkhand, the former LSE and DSE academic, who is an expert on hunger-linked issues, said decisions are largely being taken by a "privileged class of people who are far more afraid of contracting the infection themselves than they are concerned about the consequences of the lockdown for poor people." Excerpts:

There has been a lot of debate over migrant workers, as a majority have gone back to their respective towns and villages. But even those who have remained in the cities would like to go back the moment they are in a position to do so. There is this concern that a good number of them are unlikely to come back. In such a scenario, what do you think is going to happen?

I think the situation and impact is going to be even worse in poorer states like Jharkhand and Bihar where people are now returning because what is going to happen now is that people are going to be afraid of resuming migration for sometime, certainly as long as there are any lockdowns anywhere.

As you pointed out, there is going to be a labour shortage in some states, like Punjab, Gujarat, Maharashtra and so on, but more importantly, it is going to create a huge surplus of labour in places like Jharkhand and Bihar and this is going to create a crisis of livelihood because the wages are going to be under stress and the earnings are going to come down and people will have to fall back on survival activities.

I think the longer we hold them captive and prevent them from moving back, the more is going to be their reluctance to migrate again later on, and more serious is going to be the economic crisis. And this goes for both the labour-short states and the labour-surplus states.

What, according to you, is the solution?

There is no simple solution. It is a very huge problem and it seems to be better to start enabling some of them to return to their homes in a dignified and safe manner now and to do it in a staggered and organised way especially at this time when there are plenty of empty buses and trains, shelters that can be used for them, unused manpower in the public sector and so on and so forth. All these resources could be used to help them return in batches to their homes rather than to hold them where they are for as long as possible and then let the floodgates open. I think that would be a bad idea, even from the point of view of containing the coronavirus crisis.

And I have a feeling that one reason why there is so much of reluctance to let them go is not so much the fear of the virus spreading but the reluctance of the employers in these states, who are employing these migrant workers, to let them go because that is their source of cheap manpower.

If that feeling sinks in among the migrant workers, it is all the more difficult to bring them back, right?

Absolutely. The longer we hold them where they are and treat them badly, the more reluctant they are going to be to resume migration after they reach their homes.

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Are there any specific areas where employment opportunities could be created for these migrants in their hometowns?

I think that the obvious potential is in the Rural Employment Guarantee Act. In fact, here in Latehar, so many people are asking for MGNREGA employment under the Rural Employment Guarantee Act because they have nothing to do. They have been sitting around for weeks and they know that it may last for quite a bit longer. So, naturally, they feel it is better to work on the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and earn something, even if it is not very much, rather than continue doing nothing. There is a huge potential there, it is actually a very important opportunity to revise the NREGA.

Of course, there will have to be some safeguards like maintaining distance at the worksite but I think that can be done. And if we say that we are not going to open a worksite because we are afraid that people will not maintain distance, I think you are trying to impose a standard of distancing that just doesn’t exist in those villages where there is a certain amount of crowding. And to pretend that that’s not there and to say that we won’t open a worksite because we can’t impose the ideal standards that we would like to see would be a kind of denial.

On the contrary, I would say that all public spaces, including these worksites, are opportunities to impart on people the habit of distancing. They know that they should be distancing but many people don’t practise it because it is too abstract for them. But when people see it, like when they go to the bank and they see people maintain one metre in the queue or they go to the shops and they see the same thing, then they start to understand how it can be done.

Coming back to the lockdown, the kind of economic mayhem it has unleashed, do you see a sort of herd mentality among the leaders when the crisis erupted? Or do you agree that this was the only immediate and inevitable solution?

I am not sure if I would call it herd mentality because the question remains ‘Why is the herd going in a certain direction?’ And it seems to me that the problem is not so much herd mentality but rather the fact that the decisions are largely being taken by a privileged class of people who are far more afraid of contracting the infection themselves than they are concerned about the consequences of the lockdown for poor people.

That’s not to say that the lockdown was necessarily wrong but obviously, the way it has been done, giving so little attention to the consequences for poor people and doing so little to help them during this crisis, I think that reflects the class bias in the framing of the big policy.

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There are two independent datasets that are emerging — one from the World Food Programme which states that a further 130 million people could face acute hunger this year. The other is that of the ILO which says that 40 crore workers in India are likely to be pushed into poverty because of this pandemic. Any sense of the numbers and is there anything that we could do to alleviate this crisis?

Well, I think these numbers are a little speculative because, obviously, we don’t know how long this lockdown is going to last and even the baseline figures about poverty and hunger are not really reliable. The latest poverty estimates in India go back to 2011-12. What I can say is that these figures are plausible. For example, when you say that 130 million people could face hunger this year, if you remember that about 500 million people in India live in households that don’t have a ration card, we are basically saying that one-fourth of these households may be exposed to hunger in the next few months. And I think that’s quite a reasonable hypothesis.

I think we must also remember that there is one important group of people who may face hunger in the near future, and may already be facing it now, and that is the elderly. It is always the elderly who are the most neglected and that is more than 100 million people in India. So, we are basically talking of very large numbers, whether it is exactly 130 million or more or less, we can’t really say but it is in that range that we are talking about.

While some are advocating direct cash transfers, you have been emphasising the need for food transfers over the next few months. Can you elaborate on that?

I think most people recognise that we need both food transfers and cash transfers in this situation. It is very important to realise that right now, it is the food transfers, especially the public distribution system, that are keeping millions alive and secure from hunger. In the district where I am right now, in Latehar, Jharkhand, you can see very clearly, everywhere you go, that people depend crucially on the public distribution system to feed their families.

On food transfers, I feel more needs to be done. I feel that the central government should be releasing much more food grains — it has enormous stocks of food grains from what I have understood — and it is not clear why they are not releasing more. For example, recently, the Jharkhand government sent a request for a very modest amount of extra food grains so that more people could be covered under the public distribution system and that was refused.

I think we need more food grains to universalise the PDS, if possible, at least in rural areas and urban slums and also have, on top of that, emergency food distribution programmes like community kitchens or distribution to migrant workers in addition to the public distribution system.

While you have clarity on the situation in Jharkhand, are you getting inputs from other states in regards to the food distribution programme — how efficiently it’s happening or otherwise?

Obviously, the public distribution system is not perfect but you know, Jharkhand has been one of the worst for a long time and it is actually now working reasonably well. However, the main problem is that many households still don’t have a ration card but those that do are now getting double rations. And even though, it’s not working perfectly, it does work sufficiently well to ensure that a large part of the population is protected from hunger.

In many other states, there are better public distribution systems including neighbouring states like Odisha and Chhattisgarh that are very poor. I think that it can be improved a lot more but it works sufficiently well to be the primary source of security for a very large part of the population at the moment.

Isn’t it time that we do away with ration cards? Can’t it be distributed based on, say, Aadhaar?

No, on the contrary, I think it is the time to realise what an important asset for the country the public distribution system is and that is not to say that cash transfers are not necessary, I think they are also necessary, but the public distribution system has the advantage that it is right there and it is in place — there are ration shops in almost all villages. In this situation, it was very easy to activate because it was already in place.

I think, ideally, I would like ration cards to be given to every household, at least temporary ration cards for one or two years in this situation. Of course, it is true that to do that you may need one or two months and in that interim emergency period, you may have to distribute food to people who don’t have ration cards. What you need is not so much a ration card, what you need is a list of people to whom you are giving food. Once you have that list, I wouldn’t even say Aadhaar, I would say give it to them irrespective of whatever ID they come up with or even no ID, as long as you know who you are giving food to.

And in the immediate emergency, like the migrant workers who have nowhere to go, there are situations where you may not want to insist on any ID. But that’s an emergency situation, you cannot run the PDS like this for a year or two. We should be taking a slightly longer view, then it is better to give ration cards to everybody and universalise the PDS. That is a much more effective and rational approach.

One of the flaws that has come out quite starkly in the wake of the virus spread is in the public health system in the country. What do you think needs to be done to put it back on track?

I think the entire healthcare system needs to be rethought, it has been neglected for decades — that is a quite well-known issue. It is a very prioritised healthcare system, basically based on profit and also very poorly regulated and I think it is well understood in economics that the profit-driven healthcare system is very ineffective as well as being inequitable.

Ideally, there should be no profit-making in the field of healthcare — that may not be easy to achieve — but I think the basic principle of the healthcare system should be what is called ‘universal healthcare’. In other words, everybody should have the right to healthcare in a situation of illness. This does not mean that private healthcare will disappear, some people may still prefer to use the private health facility that is available but it does mean that the system has to be planned for the public good and not for profit and that is where there is a real gap in India because the system is mostly profit-driven. Other countries have done it at a time when they were not much richer than India. In fact, Thailand, which has a very impressive healthcare system based on the principle of universal healthcare, put that system in place around 2001-02 when its per capita GDP was not much higher than it is in India today. So, if Thailand could do that 20 years ago, I think India could do something similar today.

Can you specify three major failures and three steps that need to be taken in the light of the experiences now and post the virus?

Other than healthcare, I think, one of the big lessons of past development policies of India is the lack of attention to human resources through education, training, healthcare and social security. And one reason why Kerala is doing so much better than most other states at the moment is that it has developed human resources. So, it is much better equipped to face the crisis and involve people in fighting the virus.

Then comes social security. The fact that we have a PDS in place is helping us a great deal in this crisis to avoid hunger and starvation. And similarly, if we had a better-developed system of social security in general, including social security pensions, better functioning of the Employment Guarantee Act, maternity benefits and so on, it would have been much easier to go through this crisis and avoid the kind of humanitarian disaster that is happening at the moment with this lockdown.

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