At a hearing in the Supreme Court in July on the problems faced by migrant labourers due to the Covid-19 pandemic, advocate Prashant Bhushan noted that nearly 28 crore workers had registered on the government’s e-Shram portal that would allow them to access social security benefits, no matter where they were. Despite this, it was not clear how many of them actually possessed ration cards that would allow them to draw on their entitlements under the National Food Security Act, said Bhushan.

The case served to highlight how ambitious government welfare schemes have been undermined by the fact that many workers lack the basic documentation required to access these programmes.

For most migrant workers, the everyday violation of rights and exploitation related to wages, and poor work conditions cannot be dealt with until primary concerns about documentation are addressed.

The holes in India’s security net became all too evident in March 2020 when the government announced a lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus at only a few hours’ notice. Trapped in cities without salaries to buy food or pay their rent, millions of workers began arduous journeys back to their rural homes. The problems they faced during the lockdown made apparent their lack of access to social protection schemes and justice mechanisms, and how difficult it was for them to seek state assistance.

Huge migrant population

The country has witnessed a significant increase in inter-state migration in the past two decades: while the 2001 Census reported 314 million internal migrants, the 2011 Census reported 454 million internal migrants, an increase of 140 million within a decade.

In the absence of more recent data, Irudayaya Rajan of the Centre for Development Studies has pegged the number of internal migrants at approximately 600 million in 2020.

The problems caused by the lack of documents in accessing essential services was made clear in the needs assessment of migrant worker households across the National Capital Region in 2021. It was undertaken by the Migration and Asylum Project, which the authors of this article work for.

According to this study, “...The lack of domicile status in Delhi and restricted accessibility to documentation providing domicile status limited the respondents’ access to various welfare measures such as the public distribution system (PDS), direct benefit transfers, Covid-19 relief packages, and other critical support”.

Rigid, inflexible documentation

Even though the Supreme Court in 2018 ruled that Indians cannot be denied essential services if they did not have Aadhaar – the government’s biometrically linked identity programme – it continues to be required to access a variety of schemes, including registering on the e-Shram portal and for construction workers to obtain labour cards.

The e-Shram portal was launched by the Centre in August 2021 in the aftermath of the pandemic to create a national database of unorganised sector workers and extend existing social welfare schemes to them.

Labour cards are issued by the Building and other Construction Workers Welfare Board. They allow holders to access a range of government programmes, such as health insurance, scholarships for their children and assistance if they are injured.

However, for a population that is constantly on the move and lives in ad-hoc arrangements in the destination state, it is almost impossible to apply for fresh Aadhaar cards at their temporary homes or even update the addresses on their existing identity-proof documents. Living in rented houses without legal agreements or electricity bills also makes it difficult to obtain ration cards in the destination state.

Credit: e-Shram dashboard, Ministry of Labour & Employment.

Even though many schemes and entitlements like registering on e-Shram and obtaining a labour card can be availed of online, they require technological and literary capabilities. This leads migrant workers to rely on other facilitators. In their quest to access entitlements and benefits, migrant workers are often cheated or overcharged for services they are legally entitled to for free.

A significant number of applicants we spoke to faced problems when they tried to apply for labour cards. This was despite the existence of numerous government-authorised Common Service Centres across the country.

Though 74% of the country’s unorganised labour force had registered on the e-Shram portal by August this year, many were uncertain about the benefits of the programme. Currently, only the accidental insurance cover benefit is active while there is no clarity about the schemes to be rolled out under the card and the application procedures involved.

The e-Shram portal was intended to unify existing social security mechanisms but has instead become yet another platform in the backdrop of a multiplicity of overlapping schemes and benefits. It has not proven to be different from its predecessors in terms of reaching its beneficiaries.

Registering for labour cards and availing of the benefits they offer is just as cumbersome. Labour cards are issued by state governments, which means that there is no centralised uniform procedure to obtain one. Besides, the labour card programme affects migrant workers because it disregards migratory trends.

For instance, within the National Capital Region, workers keep shifting between sites in Gurgaon in Haryana, Noida in Uttar Pradesh and other parts of Delhi. However, they are allowed to claim benefits from only one state under one card. This leads to many migrant workers missing out on welfare benefits.

Bridging the gap

Civil society could play a crucial role in bridging these gaps. There are already a few organisations working for migrant populations at the state and central level. It is essential for them to build sustainable partnerships and attempt to benefit from each other’s learnings.

Where many migrant workers have fallen through the cracks in terms of accessing basic entitlement documents, legal practitioners and others working in the field must go beyond the traditional bounds of legal assistance and in fact, expand the very definition of it.

To improve the access of vulnerable populations to their legal rights, it is crucial for civil society organisations to create structures that can engage with State Legal Services Authorities and labour departments.