In Odisha's Villages, Returning Migrant Workers Stare at Severe Uncertainty

“The money lender comes every week asking us to pay the interest on the loan I took last year. I tell him I do not have a job. But he won't listen,” says a migrant worker from Odisha

Mayurbhanj, Odisha: Bajuram Marandi counts himself among the lucky ones.

He managed to leave Bengaluru, where he was employed as a construction worker for two years, and return to his village in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district days before the lockdown was imposed on March 24. The 34-year-old, who belongs to the Santhal tribe, is from Kendugadi village in Khunta block.

While Marandi is relieved that he did not get stuck in Bengaluru like so many other migrant workers, he is the first to admit that “life is not the same anymore”.

His worries are mounting. “Sarkari babu (government officials) are instructing us to stay at home. But our children need food. My father is a diabetic and needs his medicines. There is no work here. How we will survive?” he asks. He and his wife have two sons and one daughter. His parents live with him.

Bajuram’s father, Sahadev Marandai, has his share of anxieties. He says, “We are happy that Bajuram is in our midst. But we are worried at the same time. How we will survive without his income. If there is no money, how I will buy the medicines that keep my diabetes in check?”

Bajuram’s situation is not unique. Forty-six-year-old Rabi Mankadia – he belongs to the Mankadia tribe – who is from Dengam village in Khunta block, happens to be in the same boat. Since 2016 he has been working as a carpenter in a local factory in Old Delhi. He returned a day before trains to Odisha started getting cancelled around the third week of March. His father sent him the money for his ticket.

Bajuram Marandi with a food packet provided by the administration during his 14-day quarantine in Kendugadi village. Photo: Srinibas Das

Rabi is in a fix. “The money lender comes around every week asking us to pay the interest on the loan I took from him last year. I tell him I do not have a job; I do not have money. But he simply will not listen,” he said.

He had taken the loan to repair his house. Now, with the extended lockdown extending his period of unemployment, Rabi wonders how he will repay the loan. Besides, his younger sister’s marriage is set to take place in September. “From where we will get the money for her marriage? Naveen sarkar (Naveen Patnaik’s government) should provide some assistance to us,” he says.

Within two weeks of returning from Delhi, Rabi sold off two pairs of goats to buy food and other essentials for his family. “I don’t know what all we will be forced to sell,” said Rabi. He adds, “I returned to my village because I did not want to die in a strange land. But look at us now, we are dying a slow death daily.”

Rabi’s wife, Raibari, 38, feels just as helpless. “Our children should eat at least two meals a day. We are managing with one meal now. If we are not careful, the food stocks will finish soon. I dread that day,” she said.

Khunta is one of the most remote and backward blocks of Mayurbhanj district. Almost 60-70 % of the population is tribal and the rate of inter-state migration is high.

Also read: Why Bengaluru’s Migrant Construction Workers Are Marching Home

“Income-generating activities are barely available in villages,” Bulu Das, a local journalist based in Khunta block, told The Wire. The problem, he said, was that most of the migrant workers had taken loans which they needed to pay back. “If the government does not intervene with some schemes to address the issues of the migrant workers, their situation will worsen further,” the journalist added on a cautionary note.

Bajuram and Rabi exemplify the plight of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who have succeeded in returning to their villages but are finding it difficult to survive in the absence of work. Amidst the lockdown, there has been a growing concern among tribal rights activists to ascertain the ground situation in Schedule V areas, predominantly inhabited by tribal communities.

Rabi Mankadia outside his house in Dengam village. Photo: Srinibas Das

According to Sandeep Kumar Patnaik, a senior research fellow with the National Centre for Advocacy Studies, Bhubaneswar, half of India’s 1.3 billion people lack access to adequate and nutritious food and among them the condition  of tribal and scheduled caste people is even worse – about 60 % of them happen to be anaemic.

Describing the impact of the lockdown on tribal communities, Patnaik said, “The lockdown has had a ripple effect on them. As it is, they face disadvantages when it comes to accessing essential services and medical care. Their struggle has further intensified at this critical time. The state government needs to do a rapid assessment of their situation and intervene immediately,” he pointed out.

Distress sale of MFP

For tribal communities, minor forest produce (MFP) plays a key role in supplementing their household income. In Odisha, March to June is the peak time for collection of MFP such as mahua, kendu, chahar, amla, tamarind, etc. But selling what they manage to collect is difficult during the lockdown period as local weekly markets, or haat, have been virtually shut down. Hence, they are forced to sell the MFP they harvest to local petty traders at throwaway prices. Sometimes they don’t even find a buyer for their MFP.

“Last year, we earned about Rs 3,000 by selling kendu and chahar,” said 29-year-old Ujaldei Mankadia, Rabi’s wife. This year has not gone well due to the lockdown. “I have earned only about Rs 700 so far. Because buyers are scarce, we are sharing our harvest with our relatives,” she said.

Local civil society and community-based organisations point out that tribals are often duped by local petty traders who fix a low price for MFPs. Unfortunately, they are making the most of the lockdown by spreading disinformation among the communities that if the tribals do not sell their harvested MFPs as per the price fixed by the local traders, they will find no takers.

“It is a vicious trap,” said Manmohan Pradhan, director of Agrani, a not-for-profit organisation addressing issues of sustainable development of tribal and marginalised communities in Mayurbhanj district.  He further explained, “The real problem is that the majority of tribals in these communities are not aware of the government price for certain MFPs. It is the window of opportunity that unscrupulous traders need to earn a huge margin of profits.”

A ray of hope

Amid all the uncertainty and frustration brought upon by the lockdown, people like Bajuram and Rabi can learn from the efforts of those migrant workers who decided to return to their villages much before the lockdown and have made a success of it.

Also read: Understanding the Implications of the COVID-19 Lockdown on Migrant Workers’ Children

Take Lingaraj Mankadia, from Dengam village (in Khunta block), for instance. He worked as a plumber in Visakhapatnam for over four years. Last year he decided to return to his village. He has created a livelihood for himself by growing vegetables in the village and is able to sustain his family on it.

He has his reasons for coming back. “There is money in the cities. But there is no peace. One day I decided to start farming in my village. Working on our land is the most peaceful thing we can do to survive,” Lingaraj said with a smile.

True, Lingaraj might not be earning as much as he used to in Visakhapatnam, but it is enough to feed his family of six members. Thanks to vegetable farming, what appears on their plates is nutritious food. Every little achievement makes Lingaraj happy. “Earlier, we used to buy vegetables. Now we grow our vegetables. By selling the surplus, I have earned about Rs 2,200 in the last three months,” he said. While he is happy with this amount, other villagers have not been as fortunate during the lockdown.

There is a need to revive agriculture in tribal and rural villages, pointed out Sibashankar Ho, the sarpanch of the Laxman Sahi panchayat in Khunta block under which fall both the Kendugadi village (where Bajuram lives) and Dengam (where Rabi Mankadia and Lingaraj Mankadia live). “Agriculture has sustained the people of our area for generations. The government should promote sustainable agriculture. This will reduce distress migration,” said Ho.

For over three years, Sibashankar has been training tribal farmers to prepare organic kitchen gardens and undertake backyard farming. The purpose is to increase both their food and nutritional security. He said, “We have seen that migrant workers in cities and their families in villages have poor access to nutritious foods. We can promote vegetable gardening among their families at least.”

Well-known food and trade policy expert, Devinder Sharma, put it succinctly when he said, “Reviving agriculture is the key to rebooting the economy.” According to him, the right mix of policy can revive pride in farming and give farmers back their dignity, thus enabling them to become self-reliant in their villages.

Creating conditions for agriculture as a sustainable livelihood 

However, to provide sustainable, agriculture-based livelihoods for tribal farmers that can stem out-migration caused by distress, several other related aspects need to be looked at, such as several bottlenecks in the supply chains of agro-produce. This is one big reason for the waning faith in agriculture among farmers. It is apparent that the trickle-down approach is not working.

In the villages of Khunta block, farmers have persistently reported low prices for their vegetables in the local markets. As a result, most youths in the block do not see agriculture as a feasible livelihood option. Many believe that migration is their only option.

Sundar Maji, a tribal farmer from Sanmamudia village (Karakachia panchayat) in Khunta block, is one such person. He has his own story to tell: “Last year, I harvested about 800 kg of tomatoes, 500 kg of bitter gourd and 200 kg of onion. But I was forced to sell them for a meagre price. Vegetables are highly perishable and there is no cold storage system in our area. So, we are not able to preserve our harvest.”

“The solution to that problem lies in creating farmer producer companies,” said Kulaswami Jagannath Jena, a livelihood development expert at Agragamee, a not-for-profit organisation working for the empowerment of tribal communities in Odisha.

Also read: Odisha Govt Ill-Prepared to Handle the Lakhs of Migrant Workers Coming Home

Jena, a former Fellow at the University of Wageningen (the Netherlands), emphasised,  “Farmers are not organised and therefore they are more vulnerable to being duped by petty traders. A farmer producer company strengthens the farmers’ bargaining and negotiation skills.” Moreover, he points out, if properly sensitised and trained, farmers can make agriculture feasible once again, which will substantially reduce distress migration.

Deepening social discrimination

Right now, the crisis that faces returnee migrants in Khunta block is far more basic. Even those who have completed the 14-day quarantine period successfully are being perceived as carriers of the virus and are thus facing virtual ostracism in their native villages.

Bajuram’s wife says that every time she goes to fetch water from the community hand pump, she is subjected to taunts by some of the village women. “They say, ‘we need to be careful of them. We can catch the virus from them,’” she said.

For the returnees, who are facing high levels of stress as it is, the fact that they are being further discriminated in their villages which they had considered a safer place than the cities, is a striking irony.

“Everyone is living in fear,” said Manoj Sahu, a youth leader from Athapada village (Bisipur panchayat) in Khunta block. “The moment news spreads that someone has returned after completing their quarantine period, people get curious and panicky,” Manoj said. He feels that “it is not proper.  People should change their perception. They should demonstrate responsible-behaviour in the crisis and not ostracise the returnees.”

Unfortunately, the opposite is happening. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a Baripada-based journalist disclosed that “cases of discrimination in the name of caste and class of workers are on the rise. The pandemic is distorting the social fabric of our villages.”

The more stigmatised people are, the more afraid they are to seek medical help, say psychologists. And that creates a challenging situation when the effort is to effectively contain the virus.  As there is a lack of understanding about Covid-19, especially in the tribal hinterlands, communicating vital information and sensitising people to become aware of their misconceptions is critically important.

There should be special focus on vulnerable groups such as women, children, the elderly and differently-abled people,” stated Benoy Peter, an expert on internal migration and executive director of the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID), a Kerala-based non-profit organisation advocating and promoting social inclusion of migrants in India.

The magnitude of the problem

As per independent estimates, there are about 139 million migrant workers in the country. It is expected that about six lakh Odia migrants will return from other states. The state government needs to develop a comprehensive strategy to effectively address the issues that the return of so many migrant workers would raise in the current situation.

Also read: COVID-19: Odisha Workers Stranded Because They Don’t Have Aadhaar

Several suggestions are forthcoming. Dinesh Suna, coordinator at the Geneva-based Ecumenical Water Network, World Council of Churches, told The Wire that “migrant workers should be supported financially, reassured and sensitised about the gravity of the pandemic.” Srinibas Das, programme officer, Odisha Livelihood Mission, government of Odisha, is of the view that the prime focus should be on cash transfer and distribution of food items to the returnees.

Visualising a post-pandemic scenario

Experts estimate that there will be a drastic reduction in the rate of inter-state migration in the coming days. Migrant workers not only play a critical role in boosting the urban economy; they also replenish their home states by sending money to their families. Against this backdrop, regaining the trust of workers by providing better working conditions and facilities as well as robust social security measures are critical to ensuring a balanced flow of migration, suggest several trade union leaders.

Globally, the pandemic has resulted in untold human tragedy. In India, the pronounced effects of the pandemic-induced lockdown on migrant workers have exposed, perhaps for the first time and on an unparalleled scale, the hidden realities of migration and the lack of a social safety net for the poor.

Suddenly, the invisible migrant worker has become visible in the largest democracy of the world.

And just as countries are talking in terms of a ‘Before Corona’ and ‘After Corona’ world, there is an opportunity at hand to ensure that the India ‘After Corona’ is more self-reflective, where there is justice for Bajuram, Rabi and millions of their poor brothers and sisters.

Abhijit Mohanty is a Delhi-based development professional. He has worked with indigenous communities in India and Cameroon, especially on the issues of land, forest and water.