The world today has been severely affected by the covid-19 pandemic and India is no exception. Amid this crisis, the most-affected has been the labour class. The plight of the migrant labour class has shocked the country. The government has tried taking steps with regards to allaying the concerns of the migrant labourers to an extent. Initiatives like cash transfers, public distribution of ration, arrangement of transportation and other forms of short-term assistance have been taken to reduce the suffering of migrants.
However, these have been mostly short-term measures providing temporary relief to only a section of the migrant labourers. As numbers suggest, more than 1 crore migrants have returned to their native place as on date and are unemployed. Their desperate escape from cities within weeks of the lockdown also put forth a major issue that is alarming. These people neither had savings, nor access to welfare schemes or proper healthcare in the cities which led them to rush back to the villages. Going by the present situation, where we see no sign of the pandemic slowing down, or demand picking up in near future, ensuring employment opportunities for migrant labourers back in their villages seems to be the only plausible response to sustain their livelihoods. This seems possible only through massive public investments by the government at this juncture. As critics of the government have pointed the fiscal stimulus to be skewed towards addressing the supply side of the chain, neglecting the demand side, a massive public investment by the government could also be a signal to put money in the hands of poor and taking a step towards reviving demand.
The Garib Kalyan Rojgar Yojana seems to be the government’s initiative that aims to address these core issues, at least for the next few months. The massive employment program launched by the Prime Minister on 20 June is crucial for many reasons. First, this program is targeted towards giving a headstart to the governments ambitious Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan. Twenty-five core works of the government which are instrumental in realizing the “Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan” comprising projects like Jal Jeevan Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, rural housing, railway works, community sanitation, fiber optics, Ganga cleansing, poultry farming etc. will employ returnee migrants in jobs of their expertise through skill mapping. Second, the program ensures 125 days of employment to 67 lakhs migrant workers in states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Odisha and Jharkhand which account for around two-third of the returnee migrant labors. Third, the program encompassing an estimated budget of 50000 crores across 14 existing schemes will ensure the disbursed amount reaches the neediest and revive rural demand which saw a sharp decline post lockdown.
However, for the benefit of the program to reach the target segment at the earliest, the schemes that were chosen to be the part of this initiative were carefully selected based on five broad criteria:
1. Ongoing Funded Scheme
2. Potential to generate employment and livelihoods
3. Potential to accelerate the implementation of rural public infrastructure
4. Broadly implementable in 125 days
5. Realistic trackable output indicators
The criteria mentioned above suggest government also realizes the urgency of the situation and the need to provide employment and cash in the hands of the poor along with strengthening the rural public infrastructure. The initiative will serve as the foundation to strengthening the rural economy by providing livelihood generation opportunities and public infrastructure in the villages eventually leading to “self-reliant villages”. This could take India one step closer to the Mahatma Gandhi’s grand vision of “Gram Swaraj” which even our Prime Minister has continuously emphasized upon.
As most of the government schemes and initiatives generally take a lot of time to reach ground, the government in this particular scheme has also taken steps to ensure effective and timely implementation of the program. Ministry of Rural Development has been assigned the nodal ministry for the scheme.
A committee of chief secretaries and secretaries has been set up to ensure timely review and de-bottlenecking. State/district level committees have been formed to ensure ground level implementation. Joint secretary level nodal officers assigned to each district for better monitoring. Update on the progress will be monitored through a centralized dashboard and app-based monitoring system which will help remove loopholes through the use of technology. Finally, NITI Aayog has been trusted with ensuring the focused implementation of the program across 27 aspirational districts and set the benchmark.
The intent behind the Garib Kalyan Rojgar Yojana seems noble and a much needed one. However, the success of the program depends upon whether its benefits reach the migrant labors in time and is able to revive rural demand by the second quarter. That only time can tell
(The author is an independent empirical economist and a policy researcher. He is a fellow at the Indian Institute of Management, Shillong, at present. The views expressed in this article are his own)