India’s fight against poverty may get uphill unless the Central government attends to the extant exigencies thrown up by the mass reverse exodus of migrant workers towards their native states.
Coronavirus cases in the country are likely to peak between May 5 and June 5, according todirector of AIIMS, Delhi, Randeep Guleria but epidemiologists are predicting that the future trends in Covid-19 spread will largely depend on the situation that develops after millions of migrant workers reach their native states.
Experts also say that in the aftermath of the economic damage caused by coronavirus, India’s fight against poverty and achieving other sustainable development goals, including zero hunger, gender equality, quality education, good health and clean water and sanitation, by 2030 would need recalibration of deadlines and targets.
Expressing his personal view, Ashok Kumar Jain, principal consultant, Niti Aayog, told mediapersons that in view of the post Covid-19 situation the United Nations may need to revise the targeted year to achieve the SDGs or revisit the targets under each SDG set for 2030.
As India grapples with the control of the pandemic in its backyard, achieving SDGs will test our economy and resilience. “The SDG India Index 2019 released by Niti Aayog clearly indicates India’s lower performance on SDG 1 (No poverty), 2 (Zero hunger) and 5 (Gender equality) vis-a-vis other SDGs,” he said.
Rajan Kotru, lead strategist, Redefined Sustainable Thinking (REST), Palampur, Himachal Pradesh, and Jain’s co-author in a private opinion note on the issue of post-Covid-19 challenges in fighting poverty, said, “As most of the countries will remain self-occupied to control this pandemic and the consequent economic recession, the measures suggested in SDG 17 – for partnership between developed countries to assist the least developed to achieving the SDGs - will take a back seat for a while.”
SDG 17, is an enabling SDG for revitalising global partnership for the universal achievement of the SDG targets fixed by UN member countries for themselves. SDG 17 puts the responsibility on the developed countries to assist the least developed and developing countries in terms of finance, technology transfer, systemic issues, capacity building and promoting the trade etc. Without the multi-stakeholder partnerships and assistance as envisaged in SDG 17, it will not be possible for the least developed and many developing countries to achieve the set milestones.
In view of the global focus on impacts of Covid-19, the frugal achievements so far pose a massive challenge to achieve SDGs, a revision of the targeted year to achieve the SDGs for countries like India is in order, said the note prepared by Jain and Kotru.
Meanwhile, Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee too has talked about the need for the Narendra Modi government to offer cash to the poorest 60% of the population and waive off loan repayments for small businesses in the June quarter. He said offering cash to the poor will spur spending and, thus, generate demand.
His suggestions came in the backdrop of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi targeting the Narendra Modi government for not doing enough to turn the corona fear in the minds of people into a sense of confidence before moving towards relaxation in shutdown. “People are very scared of this disease, so we are going to have to make psychological changes in the minds of the people. The government, if it wants to open up, has to turn this fear into a sense of confidence,” he said.
Prime Minister Modi announced a relief package worth Rs 1.7 lakh crore (0.8% of GDP) for the poor and the vulnerable on March 26, with the extra budgetary component of it being about Rs 75,000 crore. It offered Rs 500 per month to 20.4 crore women through their Jan Dhan accounts for three months, among others.
While supporting the idea of direct cash transfer to people, Banerjee asserted that the relief should not be limited just to the poorest of the population and suggested that such doles should not be extended before the lockdown curbs are lifted as the beneficiaries will not be able to spend the cash received and add to generation of demand. "Getting some cash into the hands of the population is the best way to kick-start the economy," he said.
“I think spending is the easiest way to revive the economy. Because then MSMEs get money, they spend it and then it has the usual Keynesian chain reaction," Banerjee said. “We cannot shut the entire retail sector because they are situated in the coronavirus red zone,” he said.
Meanwhile, in the battle to impress the reverse migrating workers, Sonia Gandhi and the Congress scored a brownie point by announcing that the party would bear the partial cost of their return journey on trains to their native states.
The mass exodus of migrants has also raised doubts in the minds of politicians if this is the beginning of a humanitarian crisis as the daily wagers lose their income and stare at hunger and homelessness in the backdrop of a record unemployment. According to a survey by think-tank CMIE, one in four lost jobs across the country in March-April as joblessness rate shot up to 23.5% in April and touched 27% in the first week of May.
Perhaps, fearing the risk in allowing exodus of productive migrant workers, Karnataka government imposed cubs on movement of migrant workers but later took a U-turn. The concern was dual – a spread of Covid-19 threat held by the travelling workers and the fear of labour shortage in most factories and projects, but the BJP government had to relent later after requests started coming in from other state governments.
Experts suggest that to deal with the problems faced by migrants, the Central government should consider offering temporary ration cards to people so that they can take advantage of the subsidised grain supplies through the public distribution system in neighbouring states where they find employment in future.
As millions of migrants head towards their native states, the challenge of controlling Covid-19 would test the resources of their home states. The Modi government’s strategy to fight poverty would require close coordination with state governments that need to consider what the migrant workers with almost no savings would do after the 14 day quarantine period.
Absence of jobs in the home state will be a challenge for the returned migrant workers – a threat for spreading poverty among the jobless workers. Exploitation by labour traffickers would also be a threat for the repatriated workers once they start looking for employment.
The Modi government faces a big test in the coming weeks while looking to mitigate the sufferings of migrant workers. The return of millions of workers can be used by the government for their proper documentation, conducting awareness drives against trafficking and encouraging them to register themselves with the relevant authorities before heading away from the state. Known for his knack to convert adversity into advantage, Modi can use these challenging times to regulate migration and smoothen the flow of workforce from one part of the country to the other by thinking of creating an online employment exchange for migrant workers. This, perhaps, will be a big step in ensuring prosperity of migrant workers and shielding them from poverty.