Migrant Lives

Nothing Quaint About India's COVID Exodus To Countryside

The pandemic has prompted many city workers to seek refuge back in the countryside roots. For the government, it's an extra challenge, but also an opportunity for long-term rural development.

At Guwahati train station in Assam, India
At Guwahati train station in Assam, India
Vedika Inamdar and Sumati Thusoo*

-Analysis-

NEW DELHI — The sudden imposition of the nationwide lockdown in view of the coronavirus pandemic in the last week of March resulted in hundreds and thousands of migrant workers, most of them daily-wagers, losing jobs. And with no means of employment, many of them started returning to their native villages. The result is the second-largest mass migration in the recorded history of India, after the 1947 Partition, where more than 14 million people were displaced.

Because of this COVID-19 triggered migration, otherwise invisible lives and working conditions of migrants were brought to national attention when the unplanned lockdown forced them to walk long distances to reach their homes. But to understand the phenomenon, it is important to look at the specifics of rural-urban migration.

Circular migration forms a majority of rural-urban migration and involves the independent male members of rural households migrating to urban areas while maintaining close links with their villages and towns of origin. They send remittances home and often spend a few months, especially during the harvest season, at their native places.

There are various studies that have analyzed the reasons for rural-urban migration. One, by Kunal Keshir and R.B. Bhagat, stated that people migrate due to poverty, inequality (in access to land) and discrimination, along with the mirage of city life consisting of better resources such as livelihood opportunities, education, housing and health facilities.

In a study on internal migrants in Delhi, Harsh Mander and Gayatri Sahgal find evidence of "distress migration," i.e. migration that takes place due to extreme impoverishment which leaves the individual or family no choice except to migrate in search of livelihood opportunities.

It has been established in studies that rural to urban migration brings about significant social and economic costs in urban areas such as higher unemployment rate, increased environmental costs, strained resources, and unacceptable living conditions. In addition, the movement of able-bodied, young, and perhaps better-educated people from rural areas to urban centers leads to an imbalance in human resources needed for rural development.

A study on internal migrants in Delhi has found evidence of "distress migration".

This imbalanced development between rural and urban areas results in the former often being deprived of resources such as funds and lack of incentives from the government and private actors to develop infrastructure. But that conclusion may also be misleading, as suggested in a report by the International Institute for Environment and Development and the International Organisation on Migration.

The report states that it is poor urban infrastructure and planning that causes shortages in urban-dwelling, congestion, crowding, and a declining standard of living in urban areas. When urban governance and policy responds to migration and migrants in a hostile manner, it leads to migrants being pushed to low-income, informal residences and such policies result in stigma and prejudice surrounding slums, slum dwellers, and migrants especially in a city like Mumbai.

Advocates of reverse migration often argue that if policymakers aim to improve urban areas, it is pertinent that they focus on improving rural infrastructure to decongest cities. Using the official data from the Ministry of Rural Development, a study found that there was an improvement in the wages and number of days of work offered under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme during the COVID-19 lockdown in Rajasthan.

Waiting outside Guwahati's train station — Photo: David Talukdar/ZUMA

The scheme also witnessed a rise in demand for work in May and June. There were up to 24.2 million rural households that demanded work in August 2020, which is a 66% increase from August 2019. This has been the highest level of demand for since 2013-14, resulting in many districts exceeding their annual job creation targets.

In addition, official data from the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare has shown a 21% increase in the sowing of Kharif crop across India, compared to the same time period last year, along with an increase in the acreage of other crops. The pandemic-related uncertainty has made even the smallest landholders cultivate their lands to earn, some of which have also solved the labour shortages that rural India was facing because of economic migration to cities.

It is important to ask the government harsh questions.

But there's also a flip side of reverse migration, namely that the highly contagious virus has also started spreading to rural India. In contrast to the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendation of one trained doctor for every 1,000 people, India has one trained doctor per 1,404 people.

With more than 50% of the population living in rural areas and a very skewed distribution of trained doctors across rural and urban landscapes, most rural communities rely, rather, on untrained health workers with no formal medical training. It is important, therefore, to expand the pool of trained doctors accessible to the rural population and make careful use of informal health practitioners as they are trusted more than the trained healthcare professionals, especially when there is a stigma of contagion attached to the virus.

Given that India spends less than 1.5 % of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on healthcare, it is important that healthcare spending especially in rural areas be improved. Learnings from a national conference at the World Rural Health Conference suggest that a focus on family-oriented primary healthcare centers, along with state-funded health insurance schemes and training of healthcare professionals would lead to better health outcomes in rural areas.

The pandemic-induced reverse migration presented the government with an opportunity to concentrate on building rural infrastructure with better agrarian policy — a study affirms the narrative that the agricultural sector has kept the rural economy afloat during the pandemic. Improved livelihood opportunities and effective rural governance are also essential parts of the rural infrastructure. The situation has resulted, however, in unused rural funds and workers returning to cities, according to a rapid assessment survey.

Apart from the other welfare schemes launched during the lockdown period, the government also launched a special employment-cum-rural public works program called Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan for returning migrants. This focused campaign of 125 days spread across 116 districts in 6 states has only been able to utilize 56% of the total amount allocated. The government's inability to spend the stipulated amount earmarked for boosting livelihood opportunities in rural India and creating a durable infrastructure is definitely a cause of worry, especially with little over a month left for the scheme to end.

A robust legal framework is needed to protect the rights of these migrants.

Taking into consideration the pace at which the number of COVID-19 cases is rising in India, it is important for the government to extend its 125 days period because the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown is yet to subside. In addition, the data maintained by the government on intra-country migration needs to be better: A study by India Migration Now finds that state policies towards migrants are unfriendly throughout the country. It is due to the COVID-19 crisis that the otherwise disenfranchised informal sector workers, their numbers and their issues have come to the fore.

Looking at global trends, one can say that no government in the world was prepared for a pandemic of this scale. Still, it is important to ask the government harsh questions. The questions about the number of jobs lost due to the lockdown, absence of data on migrant deaths, which is estimated to be as many as 972 persons, are as important as knowing the impact of such welfare schemes. In addition to that, these schemes hardly elaborate on the long-term solutions for the issue of chronic unemployment in a country like India beyond these 125 days.

According to Amitabh Kundu, from the Research and Information System for Developing Countries, there are around 65 million inter-state migrant workers in India. A robust legal framework is needed to protect the rights of these migrants, wherever they work, while providing them with the choice to migrate for a livelihood option that ensures a decent living.

At the same time, people must not be forced to migrate from rural areas in search of jobs that are often vulnerable and precarious, while living in inhospitable conditions. Improving rural infrastructure and thereby livelihoods, through long term planning, rather than knee-jerk reactions, is one such solution.



*Vedika Inamdar and Sumati Thusoo are researchers at the Department of Sociology, Monk Prayogshala.

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Green

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.


"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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