When Narendra Modi imposed a lockdown on March 24 last year to prevent the spread of Covid-19, it had a brutal impact on millions of India’s informal workers. Left overnight without the daily-wage jobs that sustained them, many of them did not have the documents necessary to access social security benefits – most notably, subsidised food through the public distribution system.

Among them was Madhumita, a migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh’s Sultanpur, who lives in Ahmedabad. “We had to mortgage our jewellery,” she said.”We have not yet recovered it six months on. Work is not regularly available and buying food and other daily essentials is becoming expensive. We even have to buy drinking water.’

A year later, a survey of 120 people in Ahmedabad by the Aajeevika Bureau, which works with migrant workers, reiterated that the public distribution system could play a key role in improving access to food for India’s poor – especially in times of crisis.

The study found that migrant workers, who were unable to access the public distribution system because their documents were not valid in the city in which they had found temporary work, are the most severely vulnerable in the age of Covid-19.

Staying put

While the Covid-19 second wave has resulted in the Gujarat government imposing night curfew in all cities, Aajeevika’s field research indicated that many migrants indicated that – unlike last year – they were willing to stay back in Ahmedabad and Surat.

Those who were returning home were not prompted by a fear of a lockdown. Rather, many circular migrants go back home this time of the year for festivals or the harvest.

With so many migrant workers still in Ahmedabad employed in construction, manufacturing, and as loaders, it is imperative for the state to unconditionally facilitate access to subsidised food for them.

Migrant workers in Ahmedabad. Credit: Aajeevika Bureau

According to the estimates of Aajeevika Bureau, Ahmedabad is home to over 1.3 million migrant workers. They include migrants from the adjoining tribal states of Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh as well as from far off states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, and Jharkhand.

As per official records, only 7,512 workers have registered under the Inter State Migrant Workers Act 1979. Under this law, establishments or contractors hiring migrant workers are supposed to register and provide them with facilities such as displacement allowance, journey allowances, full payment of wages, a suitable place for the accommodation, medical facilities and more. Since few of them are actually registered, they easily slip through the social safety net offered by the Central and state governments.

A reply by the Gujarat government to a right to information request shows that about 3.96 lakh ration cards have been deleted from the National Food Security Act benefit between 2016 and 2020. The probable reason cited by some people affected is that they had protested against the inadequate quantities of food they received from the public distribution system and its low quality.

This amounts to 15 lakh beneficiaries and includes some from tribal and backward areas. These exclusions along with inadequate support from the government has made survival a struggle in cities for workers.

Rising prices

Workers told surveyors that food has become significantly more expensive after the last lockdown. The study indicates that migrant workers in Ahmedabad spend about 42% of their total income on food; considerably more than how much the middle-class citizenry spends on food as a proportion of their disposable incomes.

The study estimates that an average middle-class person in the city spends an average of Rs 3,600 a month on food (ration items, vegetable, milk, eggs, fuel, fruit). But migrant workers. They spend Rs 5,506 on average each month. Given that their wages are meagre, bulk buying and stocking up is never a possibility.

During the 2020 lockdown, as workers lost their sources of employment, many were forced to take loans. Forty eight percent of the workers surveyed borrowed between Rs 600 to Rs 9,000 in April-May 2020.

The government’s attempts at providing subsidied food continue to be inadequate. The reports on the data released by the Central government reveal that under the Atmanirbhar Bharat Scheme, out of 8 lakh tonnes of food grain earmarked for migrant workers, only 2.64 lakh tonne food grains were actually distributed by all the states and Union Territories in the country. The government of Gujarat, for instance, has procured about 88% of its total allocation and has been able to distribute only 1% of the same allocation till August 2020.

The study also found that migrant families are split between rural and urban areas: while some family members come to Ahmedabad, others stay in the village. Most migrant workers have been living in Ahmedabad city for more than 10 years. Yet, 98% of workers have ration cards that carry the address of their home villages. Even if the workers have the ration card and can avail of public distribution scheme benefits, the members of the family who live in the city cannot access their entitlements..

To overcome this problem, the Central government launched the One Nation, One Ration Card programme during lockdown, noting that the lack of portability for the ration scheme was the main obstacle for migrant workers accessing rations in the city. However, Aajeevika Bureau research suggests that registration under the programme is proving to be punitive for workers in the cities where they migrate for work opportunities.

Operational challenges

After Aajeevika Bureau registered a few families under this programme in Ahmedabad, public distribution scheme officials in their villages removed their names from the list. Workers suspect that it is happened because they were receiving rations in the cities. However, the scheme says if one member buys her share of the public distribution scheme quota in the city, the share of the rest of the family members can be purchased from their village. These realities indicate that the programme has several operational challenges.

Under the circumstances, buying groceries has become even difficult for workers as they no longer get the option of purchasing the food on credit or in bulk, which could cut down the cost of their expenses.

To meet the challenge, it is vital that India’s migrant workers be properly enumerated, both in the National Sample Survey and the census. Subsidised food under the public distribution system must be extended to them indefinitely. Third, the number of people covered by the National Food Security Act 2013 needs to be expanded rather than adopting proposals to reduce the safety net.

It is vital to note that these steps are not only in the interest of the welfare of workers like Madhumita, the migrant worker from Sultanpur, but in that of the Indian economy, which sustains itself on the shoulders of India’s 140 million strong migrant workforce.

Vikas Kumar works with Aajeevika Bureau as a labor policy analyst in Bengaluru.