The story is old but worth retelling. Every year several thousand tribal families from south Chhattisgarh are forced to migrate to cities in Andhra Pradesh (AP), thanks to the ongoing battle between the Maoists and the security forces in the state. When they land in AP, they are picked up by contractors and made to work at salaries way low the legal minimum pay because they are not from that state. This, however, is not the only challenge. These poor people also have no access to food via the public distribution system (PDS), schools and health system because these rights are not portable yet in India. The same is the fate of the thousands of others who move from one end of the country to another in search of employment. These migrants depend either on their employer or labour contractor for food provisions or purchase food in the open market. This significantly increases their cost of living and reduces the additional earnings they might hope to remit to their families, say experts. The latest Economic Survey (ES) points to a dramatic spike in internal migration with Delhi and the NCR being the top destinations. Between 2011 and 2016, close to nine million migrated between states annually, up from about 3.3 million suggested by successive censuses, says the survey.
But the long sufferings of migrant workers in India could be a thing of the past if the government accepts the recommendations of a panel that looked into the working conditions of migrants. In its report, submitted last month to the ministry, the panel headed by Partho Mukhopadhyay, senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, has pushed for portability of the PDS benefits across the fair price shop system, affordable housing options and setting up of a migrant helpline to provide information about protections and benefits available to them. Under the PDS, ration cards are invalid in their work state. The panel has recommended “expanding” and “accelerating” portability of the PDS as well as healthcare benefits within states with appropriate technology and universal coverage. The panel was set up by the housing and urban poverty alleviation ministry.
This report should be the first step towards making rights portable. People should be allowed to access their social entitlements — the PDS grain, etc — from anywhere in India. This shouldn’t not be difficult to put in place with the help of technology.