As Coronavirus spreads, besides the government, various well-meaning NGOs have joined hands to fight this menace. Most are distributing food; others are distributing protective gear and some are helping with sanitation and medical aid. These efforts, though laudable, have still left migrant workers and daily wagers in trauma and anguish.
Due to the lockdown, most daily wagers have lost their jobs. The recent tragedy of a Gurgaon labourer selling his mobile phone for Rs 2,500 to buy groceries for his family before committing suicide is heart-rending. In Mumbai too, there was a reported incident of a person committing suicide by strangling himself in his own auto-rickshaw. These are not corona deaths. These are due to loss of wages and the fear of not being able meet daily needs. All this is happening in spite of the great efforts of large number of agencies who are teaming up to provide food, shelter, etc.
Clearly, relief efforts limited to food and shelter are not helping. Most migrant workers want to return to their homes because they don't see the situation changing anytime soon. Due to this, they want to be close to their families in these trying times.
While there is an effort by some governments to get these persons back to their villages, this may not be a solution. If the idea is to reduce hardship to these daily wagers, it is important that their wages are protected. Only if these persons are provided their basic minimum daily wages can the situation change.
Let's look at the math in all this.
Daily wages as per Chief Labour Commissioner, Government of India, in Class A cities for unskilled, semi-skilled, skilled and highly skilled workers ranges from Rs 383 per day to Rs 504 per day. So, for our calculations, we can take an average figure of Rs 400 per day per person. This is assuming that there will be more unskilled as compared to skilled labour. Data available from the Office of Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India for 2001 shows India had roughly 31 crore main workers and around 9 crore marginal workers. Maharashtra had 3.47 crore main workers and 64.25 lakh marginal workers. As per definitions, marginal workers are those who did not get work for regular 183 days in 12 months; taking the absolute growth of population from 102 crores in 2001 to roughly 138 crores today, our figures of main workers and marginal workers in India will be around 41 crores and 12 crores respectively. Out of this, Maharashtra's share today will be approximately 4.6 crore main workers and around 85 lakh marginal workers.
If we have to provide wages in Maharashtra, taking an average of Rs 400 wages per day to only the marginal labour, considering that they normally work around 15 days a month, this will be around Rs 6,000 per person. This will roughly be a payment of around Rs 5,000 crore one time. Well, this figure may sound huge but this is doable. It is only 0.15 percent of the current Maharashtra gross state domestic budget, which is 32,24,013 crores and 15 percent of the BMC budget of 33,441 crores.
Besides, this idea is not novel at all. The US is handing out around USD 292.4 billion to around 165 million (almost 50 percent) of its population. Given that USA is USD 20.5 Trillion economy as per Nov 2019 data, this is around 0.143 percent of its total GDP.
Even if the state finds the Rs 5,000 crore figure too daunting, resources from well-meaning persons and NGOs can be pooled together. In fact, this will save the duplication of efforts as all money will be given directly to the beneficiaries. Money spent in buying provisions, masks, etc and money spent in distribution by NGOs will all be saved.
Distribution of this money can surely be done through Jan Dhan Yojana accounts. For those who do not have these accounts and have below poverty line yellow ration cards, they can be provided the pay out based on this data. For those who have neither bank accounts nor BPL cards, cash can be provided. To avoid duplication, all recipients can be temporarily tattooed on similar lines as quarantine markings which were very effective. Rolling this plan out can be thought through and won't be too challenging considering that we do have a well spread out banking and public distribution system.
Giving this money today may help in more ways than one. This will provide security to the daily wage earners. It will help in making them stay put, which will avoid the spread of this deadly disease. And lastly, it will ensure continuity of development activities and support functions as labourers will be readily available. Once gone, these labourers won't return too soon, which will hit the economy even more harder than the current damages of just around Rs 5,000 crore for Maharashtra.
(Sanjay Pandey is Director General of Home Guards and Civil Defense in Mumbai and is an Indian Police Service Officer of Mahrashtra Cadre)
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