Economist Jean Dreze on Friday claimed the real reason behind the resistance to allow migrant workers to return to their villages could be that employers in host states did not want to lose their “pool of cheap labour”. In an interview with News18, Dreze said the countrywide lockdown – one of the “harshest in the world” – was almost like a “death sentence” for the poor who have been living hand-to-mouth.

Dreze said it would be better to help stranded labourers return in a “staggered and organised fashion” rather than keeping them in overcrowded conditions. The economist said that migrant workers have been anxious to return to their hometowns as they worry about their families. “...many of these young couples don’t have a ration card,” the economist said. “So, the women are now doubly vulnerable: they get no food rations from the PDS and no cash from the migrant workers.”

Dreze said this insight was important to understand how prohibiting their return is harsh. He added that this may be counterproductive for host states as the longer they are forbidden from going back, the more they will prefer to stay at home after the lockdown

Dreze said the policies made to contain the pandemic have been made or influenced by a “class of people who pay little attention to the consequences for the underprivileged”.

“Just think, for instance, of how all sorts of basic services have been shut down without batting an eyelid: outpatient health services, child immunisation, school meals, MNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act] worksites, the lot,” he said. “For good measure, the policies are often enforced in an authoritarian manner,” he added. “Ideally, people should be empowered to face this crisis together, instead of being treated like sheep.”

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The economist also noted India’s continued failure to foster and mobilise human resources for development. However, he highlighted the management of the pandemic in Kerala, adding that it was inspiring.

Dreze said that regular work provided under the MNREGA could help people more than any relief measure and called for it to be scaled up. “At the moment, the best hope most people have of cash relief is a monthly transfer of Rs 500 for three months, if an adult woman in the household has a Jan Dhan Yojana account,” he said. “By contrast, if two adult members get MNREGA work for a month, they can earn at least Rs 10,000.”

The economist urged state governments should open up worksites in every village with little hesitation as the Centre would pay the wages. He further argued for a swift transition to a “MNREGA basic” that would work as a fast-track relief measure. Dreze said the authorities should go for fixed daily wages rather than “piece-rate payments”. “If possible, states should also be allowed to return to cash payment at the end of the week instead of online bank payments,” he added.

The economist also stressed on the need to universalise the Public Distribution System. “If the PDS is universalised, at least on a temporary basis, the danger of hunger and starvation will be largely averted,” he said.