With millions of migrant workers having returned home to the countryside in the midst of the lockdown imposed to slow the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) ,the Narendra Modi government is weighing multiple options --- from road construction to horticulture -- to find them work. It’s also planning an initiative to upgrade their skills to suit the needs of a post-Covid-19 world.
The employment generation and skills upgrading programme, which includes district-wise mapping of the workers and identifying their skill sets, is being designed by the Prime Minister’s Office with the help of the rural development, agriculture, animal husbandry, skill development and road transport ministries.
Construction work, officials said, hold the key to the targeted programme; an initial assessment shows that most of the migrant workers who returned to their home states after the lockdown took effect on March 25 were employed in the construction sector.
Millions of unskilled and semi-skilled workers and daily-wage earners have left cities and returned to the hinterland by trains and buses, and packed in trucks, in the past two months after losing their livelihoods because of the lockdown that shut many factories and commercial establishments. The workers mainly belong to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal.
To be sure, anecdotal evidence suggests that some workers are also starting to head back to the cities as the lockdown is gradually eased.
A senior official involved in planning the initiative said schemes such as the job guarantee programme, rural housing for the poor and village road construction will be used to provide immediate jobs to the returnees. “Apart from these schemes, we are also looking at supporting them in horticulture, animal husbandry and road construction works,” said the official, who didn’t want to be named.
According to officials with direct knowledge of the plan, the programme will start in June and go on for at least for four months. The initiative will not entail any additional financial support from the exchequer, the officials explained. Existing centrally sponsored and central sector schemes will be used to address a situation they described as extraordinary.
Micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) are one of the major employers in manufacturing, but are unlikely to be tapped for absorbing migrant workers as the sector itself is going through a difficult phase and forced to work on shoestring budgets and with minimum workers.
“MSME units wouldn’t be able to absorb tens and thousands of workers,” said a second official.
Preparing the ground for the plan, the government machinery has already started mapping districts that have received 25,000 or more migrant workers, the officials said. Areas with a higher concentration of migrants would see an early roll-out of the plan.
Keeping in mind the fact that job supply may not match demand, the government is also preparing to unveil the skill development initiative to train workers who don’t find immediate employment.
Under the Centre’s Skill India programme, the skill development ministry has launched a programme under which unskilled workers can take crash courses and be paid a stipend over its duration. Many MGNREGS workers have taken advantage of this scheme to be trained in construction in the past few months.
Although the Centre wants to see a large section of migrant workers engaged in road construction jobs, policymakers are also conscious of the fact that once the south-west monsoon gains momentum this month and arrives in northern India in July, the pace of the construction works will slow.
“We have to design a multi-pronged approach to help our migrant workforce. And there would be many challenges,” the second official cited above said.