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Returned Migrants

Returned migrants: A pause or the end of a dream?

Lockdown has forced migrant workers to return home. Left with no cash savings and duped of overdue wages, their future seems uncertain more than ever

Men who migrate - seen here during a break - to work in brick kilns and construction sites, are back in the village, facing an uncertain future (Photo credit: TRF Multimedia)

We have noted several times earlier that all over the country, workforce in agriculture is increasingly being dominated by women and by older men. Some of the younger men permanently shift their residence to cities in which they find employment.

A large number migrates each season. These seasonal migrants tend to be young men, often below 35 years of age.  Young men tend to leave their village after doing the minimum work they have to do on the land at the start of each season. They work in cities or on construction sites or brick kilns or wherever they find work through the year.

A large number returns home around festival times and at the end of each summer for the next crop season. Till last year, they returned with some savings from their arduous urban life, paid off at least a part of their debts to their traditional moneylending ‘seth’ in the nearby town and gave the rest to their parents or wife.

The younger and unmarried men typically used to return wearing jeans trousers and fancy looking T shirts, gaudy sunglasses and perhaps possessed a smart phone too, often boasting of their urban escapades. 

Those who are down and out are usually recruited by a thekedar (labor contractor), who buys their labor power by giving them an advance to meet their subsistence needs.  This category usually comprises the Dalits, the landless and the deeply indebted people. They have no choice. Literally, they cannot call their body their own. I have read of numerous instances of the thekedar’s goons beating up reluctant men refusing to follow his diktat.

While the migration pattern has changed, it continues, with more and more villagers moving to other places for better livelihood opportunities. With the COVID-19 and lockdown pushing the migrants back to their village, we explore how they are coping and what the future holds for them.

Migration pattern

Over a period of time, income earned from labor during distant migration has started accounting for an ever increasing proportion of the total income of rural families. This has been the situation in the densely populated Gangetic plains in eastern Uttar Pradesh and north Bihar for over a century now.

In addition to permanent migration, circular or seasonal migration set in with the dawn of irrigated agriculture in other parts of the country.  Destinations changed from Kolkata in older times to Punjab after Bhakra Dam got completed, and then on to Mumbai and other western and southern boom towns.

The rain-fed and drought prone areas in south Rajasthan, Bundelkhand, Hyderabad – Karnataka and Telangana were next to follow in this trend as population pressure on unproductive lands mounted and as construction, textile, hospitality and other industrial sectors started attracting labor.  Rural areas in Odisha, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and the Northeast joined this trend this century.

Dreams for better future

Migration as a way of accessing more lucrative opportunities has been a running theme all over the country. For decades, the more fortunate and better-connected rural youth from Kerala, Gujarat and Punjab migrated abroad to lucrative opportunities.

Among others, the more fortunate young men from families which have grown enough basic food migrate in search of employment for supplementing family’s cash incomes. Rarely do they go completely aimlessly. They go with someone who has gone before.

Most young men migrate in search of employment. Many of them go with a dream in their eyes. A dream in which they escape the vagaries of the weather and the drudgery of agriculture life and in which they have steady, respectable incomes and a life in which they can access urban amenities they see in commercial advertisements and in films. 

The actual nature of their engagement varies a great deal. It varies by their skill sets. It varies by the social contacts through whom they found the job. It varies by their initiative and smartness. And of course, it varies by their immutable destiny.

Issues at destination sites

In general the living conditions of the migrants in destinations are nothing to write home about. Three sets of issues constantly haunt them. The first is basic subsistence needs of residence and of arranging for food for themselves. The second issue concerns their access to public services needed for human existence. The third is the sense of security.

Conditions in which they live and manage their food vary a great deal with destinations but almost everywhere they are forced to live in sub-human conditions, either in very crowded tenements or in very flimsy shelters right under the sky on the street or public lands. Access to safe drinking water and to public conveniences is a major issue in all cities while this may be less of an issue for migrants going for agricultural labor work in rural areas of prosperous states.

Access to health facilities for themselves and for the families and education facilities for children is a major problem. Most states do not recognize migrants from other states as eligible for free health treatment in state hospitals. The migrants do not get BPL status for their ration card, etc. Absence of verifiable permanent address in cities makes it difficult for them to get LPG connections or even mobile phone connections.

Migrants in general tend to be very vulnerable to hostilities from host communities and from police in the host cities. They not only have no local assurance but they are routinely suspected in the event of any crime that occurs in the locality in which they live.

Yet migrants have been the ever increasing ‘reserve army’ of labor which has built the urban and in part industrial / commercial prosperity of India’s cities.

Uncertain future

There is no doubt that COVID-19 and lockdowns have dealt a very severe blow to the migrants. As the example of Delhi in March 2020 suggests, they were kicked out of their temporary homes unceremoniously and left in the lurch with no assurance of food supply.

Many employers cheated migrants of their wages when the lockdown hit, some gave part wages knowing full well that the migrants will have no recourse to get the balance back. Absence of ‘eligibility’ deprived them of state-declared free food schemes and they were left almost entirely at the mercy of such civil society help as came about.

During the last three months, most of them are back home, tired, disillusioned, without money and without a clear notion of what lies in store for them. Is this the end of their sketchy dreams? Or will they be able to resume their urban sojourns again when the economic activity picks up? If that happens, will they get better conditions of work, residence and security?

How are the returned migrants coping with their life situation now? Do they see continuing to live in their villages a feasible option at all? We explore some of these questions in this series of notes that we would bring out every week.

Sanjiv Phansalkar is the director of VikasAnvesh Foundation, Pune. He was earlier a faculty member at the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA). Phansalkar is a fellow of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad. Views are personal.

Sanjiv Phansalkar
Sanjiv Phansalkar
Sanjiv Phansalkar is associated closely with Transform Rural India Foundation. He was earlier a faculty member at the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA). Phansalkar is a fellow of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad. Views are personal.

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