Potential of engaging migrants: Not a burden but an opportunity to revive rural economy

Gabion structure, Lotiya Nala Shivnikala

By Biswanath Sinha, Kuntal Mukherjee and Sneha Kaushal*

The global crisis due to COVID-19 has affected India little later in March 2020, while WHO announced it as world emergency on last phase of January 2020. A complete lockdown after China war has been faced by 135 Crore Indians, from 24th March 2020 and within a span of 4 hours’ time everything came to a standstill. It was imposed for one day was a real ‘mock drill’ as it checked the readiness of people to follow it in the coming days. Till now to contain the spread of coronavirus and to minimize the losses, lockdown has been imposed in four phases with various degrees of restrictions and allowances. This was unavoidable as the virus was spreading very fast and the risks were high. The complete closure of urban and semi urban based industry, manufacturing and construction units and agricultural works in rural areas affected country’s economy in many unprecedented ways.

The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) has said the country’s GDP could even shrink to 0.9 per cent in case the outbreak extends and spreads further, leading to prolonged restrictions in existing hotspots and identification of new hotspots”. This has created unavoidable impacts on production, consumption capacity and employment aspects of large number of workers specially engaged in unorganized sector. A recent submission made by the Union Government to the Supreme Court of India reveals that there are about 41.40 million migrant workers in the country during the lockdown and more than 2.5 million are living in relief camps and shelters and 9.93 million are being provided with food. In terms of sheer number, the size of the migrant workers is equivalent of the total population of Spain, one of the worst affected countries under Covid-19.

This article presents the situation of migration in context of Chhattisgarh and describes various income generating opportunities that exist for them in the villages. This also collates the experiences and learnings from the various shelter homes, quarantine centers and verbal interview with migrants during transit; where support was provided to these labors who were returning.

Relation of migration with agriculture in Chhattisgarh

In most of the states in Central India, agriculture is the primary source of income and most of the farmers depend on monsoons for irrigation. Post monsoons, as there are very few means to earn income and they migrate to cities. These pockets, incidentally, are also the poverty zones of India inhabited by huge number of farming communities who own small landholding, generally scattered in different patches. ‘Thirty people were migrating per minute from rural to urban for so called better means of life; they are not disobeying the native but unable to justify better means of life as they are aspiring for, though they are called ecological refugee’ (Singh, 2018 opined in rural nature). It is especially important to mention here that this better means is only 10,000-15,000 INR per month in addition to their present earning. This is the gain which they get from mainstream where they go in distress to meet needs and desires of the urban population.

Reverse Migration in Chhattisgarh

As the cities closed opportunities, during the lock down phase 2 and 3, a huge number of labours started for their native places as the lockdown period was uncertain and troublesome. In the absence of jobs, food, water and sometimes transport services, thousands of stonic and weary migrants workers , who once powered India’s economy, continue their epic journeys towards home either on cycle or on foot, covering over hundreds, even 1000 km( Samar Halankar in scroll on 9th May 2020). As per discussion with the returning migrants on road, shelter house and from electronic media, it’s very clear that there return to native is mainly because they expect to sustain in villages by doing wage labour work in farms or by cultivating their lands in the kharif season. This option also provides them with social and livelihood security to some extent.

Summer machan, Kheti

In Chhattisgarh data for reverse migration indicates that, till now more than 5,00,000 migrant labours have returned (Source: Letter of HCM, Chhattisgarh to HPM, India). This is a huge number spread across the 28 districts and 146 blocks of Chhattisgarh and many more are further expected to back in the coming months. It was a herculean task for the districts and administration to arrange food, shelter and means of transportation for these migrant workers. Small and marginal farmers, and informal workers are the hardest hit and the pressure to provide enough for their families has further increased.

Based on the present situations and during discussions in transit shelter homes, quarantine centers and during transit on road, it was found that the migrant labors have following mental and psychological status( Discussion with around 500 people verbally by author):

  • Fearful about future and insecurity of income: The migrants who return for Kharif agricultural work in each season can be accommodated in villages, but the persons who have been living in cities for a long time may not be able to fit in.
  • Lack of faith on present government systems: Due to massive physical and mental torture during transit, the migrants have very less faith on the existing government systems.
  • Receiving apathetic behavior from neighbors: Due to fear of CORONA the migrant labors might face irrational behavior and social discrimination and might not get cordial reception in the villages disrupting the existing social fabric.

Way Forward and supporting families

These people reaching villages will start looking for opportunities to earn money with village ecosystem and if provided with enough opportunities can become an asset for the rural economy. It is important to note that most of these migrants have some or the other skills which rural populace doesn’t has and that should be leveraged.

Let’s explore some old and some new options of livelihoods from which the returned workforce can generate much needed income in the present times –

Farming in kharif season:

Small and marginal farmers constitute more than 85% of farm households, cultivate about half of all farmlands as per agriculture census 2015-16 and produce about 60% of farm goods, critical to India’s food security. However, so far, they remain invisible in the current discourse, due to their shadowed presence in economy and lack of recognition in the society. It is also important to note that, there is always a labour deficit in agriculture as most of the activities such as land preparation, transplanting and weeding etc. are labour intensive.

In peak periods, where transplantation, weeding and harvesting must be done there is always labour scarcity and people manage with their family members. Due to lack of labor, farmers often leave transplantation and weeding halfway, and it severely deters the outputs. Let us take an example of a block in Chhattisgarh, where there is 45,224 acres of total land of which 37,009 acres belongs to small and marginal farmers in rainfed areas (SECC 2011) and it is observed that per acre paddy cultivation requires 40-50 person days. If we assume that only 50 % of the workforce is available then, there is an approx. labor shortage of 7.4 lakh person days. So, these person days are opportunity for these 5000 migrants who can do contribution of 150 person days in this cropping season. Thus, unskilled and semi-skilled migrant labours can be used this year as additional work force in agriculture.

Engaging in large scale water conservation under Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA)

MGNREGA can be a big opportunity for those migrants who are not skilled to work in agriculture or manufacturing activities. It can make villages more conducive for accommodating migrants in this time of crisis. It is also best time to invest more on natural resource management in rural areas for creation of permanent natural resource management-based assets in private land of farmers.

Already Central Government, has increased the wage rate but total budget allocation and number of days of work in an year should be revised to 1 lakh Cr from 61 thousand Cr and days per job card should be 100 to 200 days ( Demanded by CM, Chhattisgarh to PM, India and opined by Mahapatra and Mit, in IDR online dated 8th May 2020). This increase in funds can be reasonably justified if we look at the potential of MGNREGA in a block.

Let’s say if a block in has following profile of the job cards and labor budget for FY 2019-20.

For this year, in 18,255 active job cards if we consider that 75 % will be working and if we assume that 2,000 more job cards are added, with 80 days of job will lead to generation of 12,55,280 person days. For this there will be labor budget requirement of 3975 Lakhs i.e. additional 2091 Lakhs investment would be needed and if 80% is spent on INRM than 3180 Lakh will be invested on natural resource management which can lead to long term improvements in agricultural productivity. Thus, each block has potential for intense engagement around asset creation.

Well constructed at Bahanakhodra

Preparation of new job cards should be done by the Gram Panchayat for labours who have returned to the villages and as per number of available workers more and more work should be opened in the villages. In addition, for Kharif season the farm-based asset building works like trellis preparation for creepers cultivation can be included in permissible work list under MGNREGA.

Through small startup and skill development program:

All migrants may not be fit for farming or unskilled wage works. For them, the livelihood options related to manufacturing and trading can be explored.

In our experience following trades have been successful in rural set ups are –

1. Possible Skill based activities for agriculture promotion

a. Small scale agricultural equipment’s construction by blacksmith training

b. Organic Manure and repellant preparation

c. Agriculture entrepreneurship and technical skill development for forward and backward linkages and field demonstration

2. Possible skill-based activities for livestock development

a. Development of parent stock, feed preparation for small ruminants and chick’s development

b. Livelihood business plan of skilled youths for door to door support for vaccination as PARA Vet

3. Value addition

a. Collection, value addition and packaging of forest produce like Tamarind, Mahua, Chironji, Mango for Amchur etc mainly the consumable non nationalized products

b. Mini rice husking mill for value addition

c. Local consumable products like pulse, spices, flour, development of agriculture entrepreneur for forward and backward linkages etc. (chh1)

4. Non-farm related activities

a. Manufacturing-bike/cycle repairing

b. Electric work, mason work

c. Painting, carpentry, and plumbing

d. Food products packaging

5. Forward linkage for agriculture and allied products

a. For vegetable produce

b. For NTFP collection, collectivization and marketing ( Lac, Tasar, Tamarind, Mango Chur etc)

A regular tracking of returnee with their skill sets will have to be maintained.

Startup village entrepreneurship Program (SVEP): Out of 5000 migrants in a block if 500 can be enlisted for NRLM’s Startup Village Entrepreneurship program by providing small startup an amount of @ 50000 INR to 1 lakh for trading, manufacturing, skill building ( mainly on rural trades). An estimated return of 60%-70% of rolling the working capital/ start up within 1.5-2 years in profit margin of 10,000 INR per month has been experienced in field. DDUGKY , PMKVY can also be a good option for training and post training employment. RSETI can also used as a institution of skill building training. Side by side relook on enlisted trades and emphasized on rural job/entrepreneurship-oriented trades can be emphasized.

Engagement for supply of agricultural inputs:

Seeds and manures can be given to all migrants who have lands (small and marginal framers) as one-time grant or seed capital before kharif season especially for food crops and directly consumable cash crops. Following cropping model can be used by these farmers: (cch4)

In this also, there is a huge scope that young people will be trained and converted into agriculture extension workers/entrepreneurship. Youth who have basic literacy skills can be good to trained in technological dissemination and entrepreneurship to contribute extensively in increasing agricultural productivity and forward-backward linkages.

Other initiatives to reduce vulnerability of migrant labors which we feel are important in context of Chhattisgarh are:

  1. Leasing reforms for landless- For landless, in post pandemic period government can consider accommodating returnee migrants in small farming by legalizing and implementing leasing reforms. NITI Aayog came up with the model land leasing act 2016, which encourages states to legalise land tenancy benefitting both tenants and landlords. Land leasing reforms and documentation can aid more inclusive delivery of public service entitlements to these vulnerable tenants critical to trigger rural revival (opined by Pandhe and Choudhury in 2020 in financial express).
  2. Induction, inclusion, and exposure of migrant labors in village level organizations – Vision to include all migrants under one umbrella can go a long way in making them feel secured about their financial security in the villages. They can be mobilized under SHGs, VO and farmers club to give them a sense of identity and association with village affairs. It is imperative that during the kharif season the returnee migrants will need working capital. For this arrangement of credit (through RF/CIF/VRF) must be made in to boost confidence of farmers for kharif planning. Currently there is provision of revolving and Community Investment fund at the community institution level under National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM). This provision can further be enhanced and expanded to include all migrant labors within these ground level institutions and will also prepare community to prepare with unseen emergent situations.
  3. Involvement of youths: The youths who returned from distant place after losing job and along with a pain of loss of dreams should be engaged properly. The forest land which gave and will be given through IFR/CFR and forest resources can be allocated among these youths by forming Youth Groups by Gram Panchayets. These groups can be do the regeneration, husbandry and management of these allocated forest resources and can do above mentioned NTFP based works through primary groups or later versioned apex body. These youths can be involved in above mentioned skill development works after proper skill mapping and counselling. This engagement can help them to nest in their native otherwise the possibility of trapped these potential resources towards antiestablishment may be experienced later.

In conclusion, it is right that after Kargil war, we have not faced any war in our country. We have not faced any famine in last two to three decades. COVID 19 has created an emergency in front of us and administration. In the present situations we are not prepared for this and not able to judge its impact. But COVID 19 has also given us an opportunity to think twice about our priorities, it gives us a chance to pause and reflect on our engagement and the development approach of last decades. Are Smart Cities really required?? which require huge investments, or we can build smart villages through more investment in MGNREGA and livelihood programs? We need to think that the workers returning to village are burden or opportunity to revive rural economy.

Time has come to think about long term gains and to discourage migration to the cities. ‘Pradhanmantri Garib Kalyan Yojna’ or ‘Garin Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan’ is an excellent initiative but without investment on market, credit, insurance, supply, research, extension services, infrastructure creation and assetization in rural areas; it will turn to a one-time relief only and nothing more. It is high time to pause and think, to boost our primary production hubs existing of rural areas of country, through appropriate nesting of our returnee brothers and sisters!

*Biswanath Sinha is associated with TATA TRUST, based at Mumbai and Kuntal Mukherjee and Sneha Kaushal is associated with PRADAN, based at Raipur, Chhattisgarh and the views all expressed here are strictly personal

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