Bihar's migrant workers, beset by food insecurity, may further be burdened by ESMA

The Interstate Migration Policy Index (IMPEX), a policy index formulated by India Migration Now (IMN), finds that states in India typically fail to adequately integrate inter-state migrants, particularly in the area of social benefits.

Over 18 surveys conducted with migrant workers in different parts of the country during the COVID-19 lockdown found that most migrants were unable to access ration in cities where they were stranded with no work.

Data from the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution in September showed that the Aatmanirbhar Bharat Package, initiated for stranded migrants all over the country, reached less than 33 percent of the intended beneficiaries because of lack of facilitation.

This was crucial for states like Bihar which witnessed a high influx of returning migrants once travel was allowed.

Bihar has one of the highest outmigration rates (74.5 lakh), second only to Uttar Pradesh.

Despite this, the issues and vulnerabilities of these migrants were not highlighted during the state's recent Assembly elections.  

The past few months have highlighted the dire situation of migrant workers across India. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the challenges migrants face, primarily around food security.

It has led to the unemployment of migrants: this affects their daily sustenance as they also lack access to the Public Distribution System. Despite the One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC) scheme, which is still in the process of being rolled out, food security is a major issue for migrant workers.

This is particularly true for inter-state migrants who cross borders for work: as 54 million do according to the Census 2011.

Bihar has one of the highest outmigration rates (74.5 lakh), second only to Uttar Pradesh.

Essential Commodities Act: Effect on migrants’ food security

Among the new Farm Acts brought in by the Government of India in late September 2020 is the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020: which has been vital in regulating the prices of essential commodities such as cereals, pulses, potato, onion, edible oilseeds, oil and prevention of hoarding.

The amendment takes away the regulatory powers of the State and allows regulation only during certain circumstances: war, famine, extraordinary price rise and natural calamity.

These terms of allowance of regulation are very arbitrary, as they fail to accommodate all the “extraordinary circumstances”: as was seen in case of COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on prices of sanitisers and masks, there are chances of future disease outbreaks affecting food prices.

The Act played a significant role in controlling the prices of essential commodities and also aided Kerala in providing subsidised groceries during the lockdown period.

Kerala, which, also emerged on top of the Interstate Migration Policy Index (IMPEX).

Apart from the mandatory food grains provision as specified in the National Food Security Act, 2013, Kerala provided free food kits to migrants, which included 17 additional items like salt and oil.

Kerala State Civil Supplies Corporation Limited (Supply Co) implements the Act on behalf of the Department of Food and Civil Supplies, Government of Kerala.

It procures 13 essential commodities and provides these at an average rate which is 25 to 30 percent less than the open market prices through its “second line” of PDS.

These subsidised commodities help ensure food security for different sections of the society instead of the mere provision of cereals through the PDS, which is the case in most states.

The provision of subsidised commodities has proven to be especially helpful to ensure food security of migrant workers, who research shows, have to often resort to purchasing groceries from the open market due to unavailability of ration cards in their destination states.

They usually end up paying exorbitant prices for the purchases and sometimes must bear the hostility of native residents due to language and cultural barriers.

As a result of the amendment, the future of State regulation stands threatened and paints a grim picture for migrants who are at the receiving end with no access to the Public Distribution System (PDS).

They are also at risk of being subject to price increases in the open market due to deregulation.

The Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution, while introducing the Bill, argued that India has become an exporter of agricultural produce and is not in the same position as it was when the Act was introduced six and a half decades ago.

However, evidence from field reports during the lockdown demonstrates that irrespective of the availability of food grains, migrant workers were unable to access it.

The food insecurity of migrants is quite apparent from the data provided by the ministry which shows that only 33 percent of the grains under the Aatmanirbhar Bharat scheme reached the intended beneficiaries.

Migrants lose entitlements even when back home 

As of April 2020, 39 lakh people of 71 crore did not have access to entitlements under the National Food Security Act: 14 lakh of these 39 lakh were from Bihar.

The state also saw over 14 lakh migrant workers return from different parts of the country: to weak health and social security infrastructure.

Migrant workers are often unable to assert their political agency, both in their home and destination states, leading to haphazard distribution of resources.

But the presence of the returned migrant voter population had the effect of significantly increasing their relevance to the 2020 Bihar Assembly.

Firstpost’s October 2020 report found that the Election Commission enrolled 6.5 lakh new voters over the last six months as part of the voters’ updation list.

Among them, an estimated three lakh migrant labourers who returned home during the COVID-19 lockdown. Bihar districts such as Bhagalpur, Banka, Aurangabad, Arwal, Gaya and Jamui with high influx of migrants also witnessed an increase in voter turnout.

Migrant workers usually end up paying exorbitant prices for food and sometimes must bear the hostility of native residents due to language and cultural barriers.

But election manifestos seemed to completely ignore the concerns of these returnees. Except for some rhetorical claims around employment, nothing concrete has been proposed to address their issues.

This points towards the lack of political agency of the migrants, even they are around to vote. Be it in their home state or the destination state, their lack of political agency has further marginalised them.

The ONORC scheme’s progress hasn’t been encouraging, with only five transactions during the whole period of lockdown towards migrants from Bihar.

The number has increased to just 638 in the previous month, highlighting the logistical constraints in the implementation of such a scheme.

Despite claiming to have eliminated this food insecurity as validation for the new Farm Acts and increasing corporatisation of agriculture, the case of the Bihar return migrants shows that the Centre has failed to address this crucial issue.

The lack of responsibility of governments: at home, at destination  and at the Centre, leaves migrant workers extremely vulnerable and effectively strips them of their right to food, which is enshrined in the Indian Constitution.

The authors are researchers at Mumbai based migration data, research, and policy organisation, India Migration Now. IMN is a venture of the South East Migration Foundation. Follow their work: Twitter/@nowmigration and Instagram/@indiamigrationnow



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