Demonetisation Has Broken Bundelkhand’s Labour Migration Cycle

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While those in the villages cannot afford the bus trip that takes in the city, people who had migrated earlier are coming back to the village after being unable to work.

A group of migrant labourers, who work seasonally in various states across North India, recently returned to their village in Tikamgarh district, Madhya Pradesh as they were unable to find work or receive their salaries in the form of cash payments. Credit: Hina Fatima

A group of migrant labourers, who work seasonally in various states across North India, recently returned to their village in Tikamgarh district, Madhya Pradesh as they were unable to find work or receive their salaries in the form of cash payments. Credit: Hina Fatima

Chhatarpur: An hour’s drive on a rugged highway from Madhya Pradesh’s Chhatarpur – home to the famous early medieval Khajuraho temples – and another hour-long sluggish, bumpy ride on a broken kuccha road will get you to Bhagwan village. Flanked by hillocks on one side and a flooded river on the other, the remote village’s unfriendly terrain makes commuting in the area difficult. People in and around Bhagwan plan their work around one minivan to Chhatarpur town that goes past the village twice a day.

It almost sounds unimaginable that a privately-operated 45-seater bus, which runs daily from Bhagwan to the national capital of Delhi (approximately 650 km), has become the lifeline for thousands of people living in the area. But for this one mode of transport, many here would have been bereft of any form of employment.

For many decades, landless Dalits, Adivasis and a section of economically backward classes (EBC) of the area – more than 25 % in Bundelkhand – have been migrating to work in brick kilns, factories and construction sites. Delhi and other adjoining areas have been their favourite destinations. In every village of Chhatarpur, a part of Bundelkhand, thousands leave their homes with families for around eight months in a year. They return in the monsoons, when labouring in cities is generally hit by rain.

According to various estimates, around 50-70% of rural households living under the poverty line in Bundelkhand have at least one member who migrates annually or has migrated permanently. A survey last year pegged the number of people migrating to Delhi at around 18 lakh. Seasonal migration for work has become a routine part of life here.

Due to the nature of this constant traffic, private bus operators run daily buses from remote villages in Bundelkhand to Delhi.

“The bus from Bhagwan never carries less than a 100 people, all packed into this 45-seater, every day. Since this bus is the easiest and cheapest way to reach Delhi, most prefer it at the cost of their comfort,” said Jitendra Thakur, a forest officer posted in Bhagwan.

Watch: A Cashless India – Bundelkhand Shows It’s Only a Fantasy

However, the usually over-crowded bus, which never had a shortage of passengers during this season, now finds it difficult to even fill all the seats. The shortage of cash in the area because of the ban of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes has disrupted migration patterns and have left this floating population in a state of despair.

“Most of them do not even have Rs 600 (the cost of one-way travel) to purchase a ticket. Around this time of the year, the traffic is so high that we start to reserve seats. This year, we are desperate for passengers. It is difficult for us to meet our costs,” said Dhan Singh, the driver of the bus.

Families which migrate earn substantially more than the wages given in their villages. For the landless poor, agricultural labour or sharecropping is the only way to survive. However, a feudal economy and larger agrarian distress have intensified their exploitation at the hands of ‘upper’ caste landed peasants over the last few decades.

Thus they prefer to work in cities for higher wages. A chain of labour contractors – extending right from the village level to the cities – operating on the basis of commissions ensures that work in cities in sustainable, however exploitative it may be.

“For every thousand bricks, a labourer is paid Rs 500. If every member of the family, including the children work, a family of five can make Rs 2,500 per day. Despite the high cost of living in cities, each family saves at least Rs 10,000 a month. However, to cast 1,000 bricks out a day, each would have to put in at least 14 hours every day,” said Ravi Tomar, an activist with Parmarth, a water rights advocacy group.

Similarly, their incomes in factory work or construction sites also fetch them a higher wage than agricultural work in their villages. Although their children’s studies are badly affected because of migration, the assurance of a permanent income is enough for the poor in the region to migrate.

Impact of demonetisation 

While people are struggling to go to cities, many who had already migrated are rushing back home.

Usually, people migrate after a labour contractor arranges work at particular sites. In the last one month, however, none of the labour contractors could fulfil the demand for work in Chhatarpur and the adjoining Tikamgarh district. As a result, many who migrate during the November-December cycle are stranded without work in their respective villages.

“The labour contractor keeps saying that he is looking for work. It has been 15 days he has not got back to me. Notebandi has affected work in cities too, he says,” Dhaniram Raikwar of Bada Mallaya village in Chhatarpur told The Wire.

Those who found work are struggling to arrange money for travel and other minor expenses required to migrate. “No one in our community has any money right now that we can borrow. Usually, the contractor gives us money for initial expenses but he has asked to arrange the cash on our own this time. This has made things really difficult,” said Puran Kumar of Bhagwan.

“The only option left now,” he added, “is to borrow money from the bania (moneylender). Many have already done that. That is better than staying here without any income.”

Debt cycles have deepened in the area as, left with no other alternative, many have sourced their initial expenses on interest or are contemplating to do so. Lack of agricultural work because of intensified agrarian distress ushered in by the note ban has left the poor in an unpredictable situation.

Reverse migration

The other visible evident trend is a sort of reverse migration. Many who had migrated after Diwali, in the month of October, have come back to their respective villages. In the normal cycle, once people leave after Diwali, they return only before the next monsoon.

Ek time khana bhi nahin mil raha tha (I wasn’t being able to afford even a single meal a day),” said Pancham Sour of Kaudiya village in Tikamgarh.

Sour’s family and, along with ten others, had migrated to a constuction site in Bhiwani, Haryana. The cash crunch induced by demonetisation derailed payments so much that they were forced to return.

“Labour contractors said they did not have cash. Some of us were offered old notes, which no one was ready to take. Then he (the contractor) asked us to work on credit or take only Rs 150 as dehari (daily wage), which is generally Rs 300,” said Lakhan Lal of Kaudiya, who had migrated with Sour.

Reduced wages and delays in payments have created a huge labour deficit in cities, with most people returning to their villages. This has affected both the labourers and contractors alike. In at least ten villages of the two districts, which The Wire visited, scores of people have come back from cities, precipitating a reverse migration-like situation.

Also read: In Bundelkhand, Farmers Sink Into Debt As Rural Economy Collapses Under Demonetisation

“At least in our village, people help each other. If I do not have atta (wheat flour), I can ask someone. But in cities, you have to buy everything. Initially, we used some savings there but if we did that for some more time, we would have risked finishing everything that we had. So we thought, coming back is a better option,” said Lal. Most expected the disruption caused by demonetisation to end soon, so that they can go back to cities.

Jo jaana chahta hai woh ja nahin pa raha, jo gaye woh wahan rahna nahin chahte (People who want to go out can’t go, and those who had already left can’t stay there),” said Om Prakash Sour, a Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGS) activist in Kaudiya village. Sour said that the village has been demanding NREGS work since mid-November but the Madhya Pradesh government remains unmoved.

Dhan Singh, the bus driver, is perhaps the biggest witness to this dismal state of affairs. He started feeling the pinch of demonetisation soon after November 8. “Usually, in each trip from Bhagwan, we made around Rs 24,000. Since notebandi, we are struggling to get past even the Rs 10,000 figure. But the traffic has swelled in trips from Delhi. There is a huge rush while coming back, and that has saved us until now, ” he said.

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