Beyond 14 Days....

With the Centre further extending the lockdown period by two more weeks, patience is running out among the 130 crore people of India. There are reasons for Odisha to get more worried than other regions, because the state was gradually improving both economically and socially. However, things have changed in just 45 days; the state is now back to where it stood a decade ago.

Odisha’s main resource is its hardworking people who nurture least expectations. Most people work locally; many prefer to migrate to other states to earn their livelihood or to supplement their family income. The pandemic has changed the situation.

Odisha is not industrially an advanced state as 70 per cent of its population still depends on cultivation. However, the people have meanwhile changed their attitude and now prefer to migrate to other states to earn a little more.

According to the 2011 census, there are 12,71,221 people enumerated outside the state. This figure by now could easily run to 20 lakh. If one member of a family goes to work elsewhere, he should be sending at least Rs 3,000 to his family in Odisha. Therefore, the migrant workers from Odisha send at least Rs. 600 crore to their families a month which is certainly a big addition to the state’s economy.

The state presently has about 80 lakh families. Therefore, one fourth of the families gets additional income through migrant workers. Remaining 60 lakh families eke out their living by engaging themselves in businesses, jobs and professions.

Now with the global pandemic having a severe impact on every sphere of life including economy, about 10 lakh people will return to the state. Providing jobs to them is certainly a major challenge to any government. The state may spend over Rs 2,000 crore in tackling Covid-19 and no one knows how long the situation will continue and what the final bill will be.

The state is sustaining loss, by way of both loss of income and incurring expenditure to protect lives and livelihoods. The third most important challenge is to provide employment to an army of about 10 lakh migrant labourers returning to Odisha due to the lockdown. As there is no end point to the pandemic, the government also cannot estimate how many days the situation will persist. No government on earth can create 10 lakh jobs over night, leave alone Odisha.

Protecting human lives is certainly the primary responsibility of the government, but at the same time, it must also think of generating employment for them. If lives are saved from the pandemic due to intensive healthcare interventions, many may die due to poverty, hunger, anxiety and loss of jobs. We have not seen the situation of ‘Na Anka Durbhiksha’ (The Great Odisha Famine) in 1866. It is said that there was not a leaf left on trees as people were forced to eat those due to lack of food.

Human beings reduced to skeletons were moving in every nook and corner of the province. Though situation has changed now, one should not forget the popular saying, “A hungry man is an angry man.” When people lose their livelihood and starve, they may go to any extent, even indulge in crime.

Therefore, it is a prime responsibility of a government to arrange earning for the people who are losing jobs. This is not that only migrant workers will be jobless, many white color persons including those in IT industry may also lose jobs. Apart from migrant workers, many people will be unemployed and the prime responsibility of the government is to work in this line in order to avert an impending crisis.

Before the arrival of migrant workers from different states, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has directed authorities to enhance the person days from the existing 5 lakh to 10 lakh under MGNREGA. Scaling up the person days to 10 lakh is a difficult task. This apart, most of the migrant workers over their long stay in other states have also developed skills in certain areas. They can create miracle in Odisha if they are provided proper facility. What the government has now to do is to identity the skills and formulate policies considering their acumen in specific fields. The Skill Development Authority of Odisha has a major role to play here and guide the state government.

For example, the real estate sector in Odisha deploys its major work force from outside the state. This crucial infrastructure sector is now crying for work force as more than 70 percent of them have left for Bihar and West Bengal. As migrant laborers are returning in lakhs, they can be provided skill development training, who can replace the outsiders. So Skill Development Authority needs to plan it out in a big way. 

Providing a better quarantine facility for 14 days and giving Rs 2,000 incentive after completion of the mandatory quarantine is certainly a welcome step by the government. But, time has come for policy makers to think beyond that. This could also be treated as an opportunity for the state to create an army of skilled manpower.

In order to retain its skilled and unskilled workforce which to a certain extent is being exploited by other states, a strategy is needed to be developed so that people will not be forced again to leave the state for their livelihood. The state can use this opportunity to add to the state’s economy in the long run, if not immediately now.

The State has to ensure that people do not lose their earnings apart from remaining healthy. It may be a difficult task for any government at this critical stage. But it is not impossible if things are taken up in a systematic manner as Covid-19 has provided an opportunity to create an army of skilled manpower. It is time our policy makers gave a serious thought to the months and years ahead, certainly beyond the 14-day quarantine period stipulated for the returnees.

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