The absence of credible data on the migrant workforce, the inability to identify them quickly enough, meant that little policy support could be extended to this section during a period of acute economic distress.
The migrant labour crisis that played out during the Covid-induced national lockdown last year exposed the gaping holes in the social security architecture in India. The absence of credible data on the migrant workforce, the inability to identify them quickly enough, meant that little policy support could be extended to this section during a period of acute economic distress. But this absence of comprehensive, granular data extends well beyond the migrant workers, and encompasses the entire unorganised labour, which accounts for roughly 90 per cent of the entire labour force in the country. In its absence, it is difficult not only to design appropriate policy support, but also to ensure delivery of benefits during times of need. To address this glaring gap, the government has launched the e-Shram portal — a database of unorganised workers. This is a welcome and long overdue step. The identification and registration of these workers marks the first stage in a long journey towards creating a social security structure for this part of the labour force.
As reported in this paper, roughly a fifth of the estimated unorganised workers in the country are now registered on the database — the government hopes to register 38 crore unorganised workers. Odisha leads the coverage with around 87 per cent of its unorganised workers registered on the portal, followed by West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Bihar. Preliminary snapshots of the database reveal that 40.5 per cent of unorganised workers belong to the OBC category, 27.4 per cent are from the general category, 23.7 per cent are Scheduled Castes, while 8.3 per cent are Scheduled Tribes. The portal also gathers information on the occupations the workers are engaged in. As reported in this paper, maximum registrations have been in the agriculture sector (53.6 per cent), followed by construction (12.2 per cent), and domestic and household workers (8.71 per cent). Considering that some sectors/occupations have been hit worse by the pandemic, this is vital information. Governments could tailor specific schemes to help those sections of the unorganised labour force who have faced the brunt of the economic dislocation. Reportedly, the database will also be linked to Unnati — the proposed labour matching platform.
There are several issues that require greater government attention. For one, the information gathered on workers, especially on migrants, will need to be regularly updated. The states of origin and destination will need to do this and keep track of circular migration. Second, registration for those unwilling to do so will need to be incentivised. Third, eligibility criteria for schemes that depend on information that is not collected by the e-Shram portal will also need to be integrated. There is also the issue of portability of benefits, extended at both the central and state level, that will need to be examined. Merely creating a database of workers is not enough, but identifying them, registering them, is a step towards including them in social security schemes, and creating a more comprehensive and robust social security architecture.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on November 23, 2021 under the title ‘Identifying & including’.
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