Harivansh Chaudhary, 32, set off on foot from Mumbai after the owner of the factory he worked at asked him to go back to his hometown when the lockdown was enforced to check the COVID-19 spread.
With only ₹500 in his pocket and survival chances bleak there, Chaudhary soon joined the group of migrants returning home on foot. He walked along railway tracks for days, surviving on whatever food he found on the way, and eventually reached his hometown in Darbhanga, Bihar last week, covering some 1,800-km distance in 27 days.
“No place is as sweet as home. It’s better to die at our native place in the presence of family members than somewhere afar with no one to carry you to the cremation site,” says Chaudhary. “This is final. Will die here but won’t go out of my hometown again,” he declares.
There are thousands like Chaudhary who are rushing back home on foot, cycles, rickshaw, goods trucks, hiding inside water tankers, concrete mixture truck or by employing other such ingenious methods with their jobs gone and lockdown getting longer and longer.
Their madness to somehow return their homes has to be seen to be believed. It’s likely that this mood could change in due course though. Government statistics suggest there are more than 40 lakh Bihari migrants stranded across various states, such as Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat.
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But there are no rosy scenes at home as well. With agriculture largely shifting towards technologies and industries entirely missing, the lone hope for the returning migrant labourers is manual jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA). But sadly, the MNREGA, the flagship scheme of the previous UPA government, too doesn’t appear to help them much, given the way the ruling Narendra Modi government has gone on slashing funds. The fund allocation towards this scheme has seen a consistent year-on-year decline between 2016 and 2020 at 29.1 per cent, 14.4 per cent, 12.1 per cent and 13 per cent every financial year respectively.
People of Bihar had a very high expectation from the Nitish Kumar government when it came to power in 2005, promising to reopen 29 closed sugar mills and launch a massive industrialisation drive in the state. Initially, he even showed some seriousness on this front by inviting industrialists like Mukesh Ambani, Ratan Tata, Anand Mahindra and Sunil Bharti Mittal, and appealing them to make big ticket investments. But the end result remained a big zero. Let aside brining new investments to the state, even the closed sugar mills were not opened during Nitish’s 15 years in power.
The 15-year-old regime of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) was even worse on this front. The last 30 years since 1990 has, thus, showed no industrialisation works in Bihar.
“Providing employment to the returning migrant labourers is indeed a very challenging task for the state government as there are no big industries in Bihar while agriculture sector has become largely dependent on technologies over the years. Again, they are coming at a time when the lean season has started after the harvest of Rabi crops while the next Kharif season is at least three months away,” said economist Prof DM Diwakar, who has been the director of Patna’s AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies.
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According to him, the state government has announced jobs for the returning migrants under the MNREGA, but strangely, only 15,000 labourers were able to get 100-day work under this scheme last year. The other hope for the returning migrants, he said, is the Right to Food scheme, but 30 per cent of the poor still don’t have ration cards to avail this benefit.
“The problem is that the Nitish government didn’t focus on agriculture even after drawing up agriculture maps thrice, as a result of which crop production growth has gone into negative,” explained Prof Diwakar, warning there could be social unrest if the government didn’t handle their concern properly.
Another economist, Prof NK Chaudhary, too painted a very grim picture of the situation. “There is an urgent need for launching rural works on massive scale and reviving the cottage industries to provide employment to the returning migrants. Currently, I don’t see the returning workers getting jobs anywhere except MNREGA,” said Prof Chaudhary, who has taught at Patna University.
According to him, rural industrialisation was destroyed in Bihar due to the arrival of multinational companies. “But now I see a sudden hope even by default. We are going back to localisation from globalisation, and we must take advantage of this,” he opined.
The stare government said it was trying to convert adversity into opportunity. Bihar Rural Development Minister Shrawan Kumar said the state government was very sensitive towards the problems of the returning migrants and that it would provide jobs to 23 lakh families under various schemes of MNREGA. But his claim doesn’t carry much weight, given the past records of the government.
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According to Bihar Economic Survey, only 28.11 lakh job cards were issued to the poor in the past four financial years — 6.4 lakh job cards in 2015-16, 8.8 lakh in 2016-17, 5.9 lakh in 2017-18 and 7.01 lakh in 2018-19.
Moreover, the average number of days of employment too was very less. It was the lowest (34.0 man-days) in 2014-15 whereas the highest (45.1 man-days) was in 2015-16, according to the Bihar Economic Survey. The share of SC households among all cardholders too has not changed much in the past two fiscals — 24.6 per cent in 2017-18 and 23.8 per cent in 2018-19.
Given the prevailing situation, the chief minister himself is personally looking into the issue of economic distress of the returning migrants and is working on a plan to improve the economic status of these people left jobless due to lockdown.
“Many projects underway in Bihar happens to be labour-intensive. Once the dust settles down, a survey should be conducted to assess the skills these migrant labourers might have and they should be absorbed into the workforce accordingly,” the chief minister told officials at a review meeting on Friday.