The returned migrants: Can Uttar Pradesh manage to provide them livelihood?
Over three million migrants have returned to Uttar Pradesh since the country announced lockdown measures. But can the state - the biggest source of migrant labourers in the country - manage to provide them a livelihood?
In Ratnipur, a small village by the National Highway 19 on the way to Auraiya town, an inside joke among the ASHA workers and the ASHA Sanginis is about how the recently returned Satish is always angry and often obstinate.
“Gussel Satish ke wahan" (to angry Satish's house) – this is how Mala, an ASHA sangini answered, followed by an innocent giggle, when someone asked her where she was headed to.
And when you speak to Satish, a father of three who is in his mid-thirties, you understand what Mala was talking about.
"We have been there in Gurugram for the last 8-10 years. But ever since my factory shut on 22nd March there has been no work, no arrangement for food, so we had to return to our village," Satish said in a simmering tone, with his eyes filled with anger gazing down as if to avoid eye contact with people around.
Satish and his family of five had to uproot their lives after his company, which used to make parts for Maruti, stopped functioning in the face of the lockdown imposed to control the spread of COVID-19.
Satish wasn’t the only such person Asiaville met on our 12-day long journey across the heart of Western Uttar Pradesh on our bicycles.
In Budha Dana village of Auraiya district, we met Ajay, who along with his family of four had walked over 380km from Faridabad, Haryana, where he had worked in a shoe factory for over eight years, to reach the village. He too was livid.
"It took us 6 days to reach our village. We moved in large groups of more than a thousand people who did not know each other. But all of us just wanted to get to our homes. We'd eat whatever the people by the highway were distributing and lie down when we couldn't go on anymore. No CM, no government helped us..." said Ajay before launching into expletives to vent out his frustration.
There was another common feature between the two, apart from being driven to uncertainty and destitution - both of them wanted to return to the cities they were working in, if and when the work resumed.
“Idhar rehke kya karega,” (what are going to do in the village?) they ask. While Satish said that he would have to take up labourer's work in the village till things change, for Ajay, harvesting potatoes on someone else's farm seemed like the only option.
Why people move out of UP
According to data from the 2011 census, Uttar Pradesh is the source state for the highest number of migrants in India (this includes both migration within the state — between districts — and out of state). About 12.9 million people moved out of the state to live in other parts of the country.
Multiple factors are contributing to this massive out-migration.
“Job opportunities in both rural and urban areas are very minimal, said Professor Rajendra Prasad Mamgain of National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, Hyderabad. "If we leave out NCR and western region, there is not much industrial activity in the eastern and other parts, which would attract a labour force."
“Agrarian distress also has forced many people to come out of rural areas and migrate. Agricultural land-holding has also become smaller and smaller. If ten years ago the average per capita landholding in rural areas was 1.5 hectares, now it has come down to 0.85 hectares. Along with that, pressure on agricultural land has also increased. So the only option for some people is to migrate,” said professor Mamgain.
In Uttar Pradesh, wages in both the agricultural sector and the non-agricultural sector are very low compared to the national average. On average, the monthly income of people who depend on agriculture is less than their expenditure, shows a study.
The labour migration from Uttar Pradesh is dominated by men from rural areas with relatively poor educational and skill levels. They usually take up low-quality employment in construction, carpentry or masonry and other types of casual work in the informal sector.
Another reason why many leave their villages to work elsewhere is to escape the dependence on prevalent caste hierarchies for their agriculture-centric livelihoods. Religion also plays a part in the high number of outmigrants. Almost a third of Muslim households in UP has a migrant, studies reveal.
“Aspiration for a better quality of life and access to better education are also major factors behind out-migration. Those belonging to Scheduled Castes or other vulnerable communities, tend to migrate out and leave behind their identity and social stigma attached to their identity in the villages. So not only do they get better wages, but they also leave behind the social stigma,” said Professor Mamgain.
Listen to the full conversation with Professor Mamgain here:
With the coronavirus pandemic in play and a draconian lockdown in effect, this migrant situation has completely been upturned. According to government data, close to 3.2 million migrants have returned to Uttar Pradesh just by special trains and buses the state runs. Few more lakhs have returned by foot, or hitchhiking or by hiring cars and private buses.
Satish, Ajay, and dozens of returned migrants we met on our journey had to come back because they were out of jobs, or they did not have enough to eat and they could not pay rent and electricity bills. Now with Unlock 1.0 in process, several want to go back to the cities as they might not have enough livelihood opportunities in the state.
"We will have to go back to Ghaziabad once the lockdown is lifted and work resumes. There is nothing to do here. It is more difficult to sustain ourselves in the village. Earlier there were two of us there, now we are twelve. So will have to go back eventually," Sanjeev Kumar of Budha Dana village told Asiaville.
Anoop, Kishanmurari, Ajay, Sajjan Singh and Satish had the same thing to say - "What will we do here?"
The villages that Asiaville visited were in the Western part of the state, which is relatively well developed. Historically, the western region has had better agricultural growth and also has better per-capita agricultural landholding. It has also seen many agro-based industries popping up. Per capita income in the western region is almost double than what it is in the eastern region.
The situation in eastern parts, which have an even higher proportion of migrants, is bleaker.
“The eastern region is also industrially backward despite the government of UP's efforts to take investment there. They held two investors’ summit there but still, the industry is reluctant to go to the eastern and central regions,” said Professor Mamgain.
The Uttar Pradesh government has announced that it is setting up a Migration Commission for the employment of migrant labourers in the state. According to the Additional Chief Secretary (Home and Information) Awanish Awasthi, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath also directed officials to give insurance to migrant workers so that their life is secured, and prepare a scheme so that they get job security.
According to reports, the state government has already completed the skill-mapping of over 23.5 lakh migrant workers who have returned to Uttar Pradesh since the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown was enforced in March. This is being done as the Adityanath government looks to ensure their employment by connecting them with the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) sector and the allied agriculture sector.
Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) will also be a major part of the government's relief measures to address the migrant crisis.
The village Pradhan of Budha Dana village told us that ever since the migrants have returned, the demand for jobs under MGNREGA rose by up to 70%.
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Meanwhile, the state as a whole has witnessed a 299.3% rise in demand in May 2020 compared to the same month last year. CM Adityanath has said that around 42 lakh people were already absorbed in the state through MGNREGA and others are getting enlisted for several construction projects that have resumed in the state.
However, experts are unsure as to whether MGNREGA would be a credible solution to the problems of the returned migrant workers.
“I have spoken to returned migrants and some told me that they don’t even have the money to buy the spade they need to join work. So the capacity of people to access MGNREGA is quite limited,” said Professor Priya Deshingkar of the University of Sussex, whose research areas include migration and poverty alleviation.
“Plus, the way work is allocated is also quite problematic due to factors like clientelism and other irregularities. MGNREGA will make a difference in the short term, but it is not going to provide a long-term solution and it’s not going to provide relief to everyone who has come back,” said Professor Deshingkar.
Professor Mamgain thinks that it is unfortunate that MGNREGA is being visualised as a permanent source of employment.
“MGNREGA work is usually done by unskilled workers with less education who are unable to migrate out. This work is also not available round the year. In UP, the average was 40-42 days employment out of 100 days,” he said.
The Chief Minister has also said that a comprehensive project has been prepared by the state. Skill mapping of all migrants is being done and they are working together with industries, businesses to provide them jobs.
When the government surveyed over 2.35 million migrant workers who have returned to the state, over 1.8 million of these workers, or 77 per cent, want to stay back and work in Uttar Pradesh.
The UP government has said it has signed agreements with the Indian Industry Association, Laghu Udyog Bharati, and the National Real Estate Development Council to employ the labourers to benefit over 1.1 million workers and craftsmen from the state. The government seems to be confident that it can create jobs in the MSME sector and by attracting investments from international companies.
But an industry analyst Asiaville spoke to said that the creation of new jobs will be extremely difficult in the state due to the poor economic situation after the COVID-19 lockdown. Only the investment commitments made during the 2018 investment summit may have some chances to materialise, said the analyst, who didn't want to be named.
“MSMEs are not going to generate much employment until and unless there is demand. There are horizontal and vertical linkages between MSMEs and other industries. So if other sectors and industries are not progressing MSMEs are unlikely to progress. Also if the government had given some wage subsidy for the workers for immediate relief, it would have incentivised the micro and small industries to hire people,” said Professor Mamgain.
While the state is trying to create new jobs, it has not been able to provide adequate support for existing industries that are major job providers. Tanneries in and around Kanpur is one such industry.
During our journey we visited the tanneries in Jajmau, Kanpur to take stock of the situation. Industry estimates say they provide about a million jobs, directly and indirectly.
Stringent regulations, including lockdowns imposed to reduce the pollution of the Ganges river, and lack of labour to continue production of fine leather goods, were among the problems that the entrepreneurs said they face. They said that even basic demands like waiving of electricity charges during the lockdown period had not been met by the government.
Remigration and filling the gaps
The country is currently is in the unlock 1.0 phase. Several industries have already resumed business leading to a remigration of workers to the industrial areas. In Faridabad, Asiaville witnessed several factories that were operating with 30% - 50% of the required number of labourers following the opening up, as the workers had left for their homes.
“Almost 50% of our employees have left for their homes. Now we are managing with the rest, as only half of our machines are operating, and there aren't many orders pending. But as things get back to normal, we will need more employees,” said Sunil, a manager at a textile dyeing unit in Faridabad.
He said that the company was in touch with most of the employees and they are willing to return.
“See, cities are areas of opportunity. So especially skilled workers will look to re-migrate and it has already started as industries are restarting. It could be the case that the workers might not go back to work with the contractor or the company due to the humiliation they had faced, but a lot of circular migrants will get back to the cities for work,” said Professor Deshingkar.
Watch the full conversation with Professor Deshingkar here:
Professor Mamgain also said that going back to the cities remains the only option for a lot of migrants. “Because not only will they earn higher wages by migrating, they’d also be employed for longer periods and have access to a better quality of life and education,” he said.
Speaking to Asiaville, two journalists from Lucknow also hinted at this phenomenon of remigration.
Meanwhile, the Uttar Pradesh government is also looking at filling up the gaps that have been created due to the outflow of thousands of workers in the state who have returned to their home states of Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh among others. These workers used to be employed in factories in UP’s industrial cities, including Kanpur and Ghaziabad.
“See this crisis is no hiccup. This is a national emergency. I understand that there are aspirations among the state government to use the returned skilled workers to revitalise their own states, but they need to first understand why the skilled workers are leaving in the first place. It’s no good just setting up a migrant commission or employment generation programme without addressing these issues,” said Professor Deshingkar.
(This report is a part of a series of ground reports on the migrant crisis in Uttar Pradesh by our reporters who undertook a 600 km bicycle journey from Delhi to Lucknow. See the CoronaCyclips blog here.)