NREGA and after: Large-scale migration of rural masses is back in Chhattisgarh
The road map of the work that the government plans to take up in the non-farming months under the NREGA used to be made public towards the end of the kharif season. It didn’t happen this year. The workers were forced to look for other avenues.
Raipur - After a lull of nearly seven years, large-scale migration of rural masses in search of livelihood is back in news in Chhattisgarh again.
While the state government has informed the assembly that nearly one lakh people have left their homes and migrated in search of job in the state in the last three years, conservative non-official estimates put the figure at more than 20 lakhs.
The period of lull coincides with the period the previous UPA government pushed its rural safety net programme, MNREGA, with much enthusiasm; the change has come with the Raman Singh government going slow on it in the state after the Centre reduced allocation to the state government. The rural economy, which witnessed a period of calm - some would call it artificial calm - is back in the turbulent mode.
“The ground situation is far more worrisome than the figures of the migration suggest,” says T Singh Deo, the leader of the opposition in the state assembly. “People migrate either in search of better wage or when there is no wage. This year the change in the central government's policy drastically cut down the income of the farmers by first refusing to buy paddy and then by withholding distribution of the promised bonus. The spending power of the farmers shrunk. To add to the misery of the rural people, the state government faltered on starting the employment generating programmes under MGNREGA. Combined, these two factors have rendered a devastating blow to the rural economy leaving lakhs of landless as well as the small and marginal farmers with no option but to migrate in search of jobs and wages,” believes Singh Deo.
The government bases its figures essentially on the number of permits for migration it issues under the interstate migrant workmen act. 1979. The bulk of the migration takes place without the official license. Besides, it overlooks the migration within the state or even districts. Even these figures tell a story.
According to the official figures of the state, in Bilaspur district 17796 people migrated in 2006 – the year MGNREGA was introduced. The figure kept coming down steadily and in 2010, it was only 1,223. No figures are available for the later years.
Chhattisgarh was first recognised nationally as a supplier of cheap labour towards the end of the 19th century when, immediately after the completion of the Eastern segment of the Howrah-Bombay rail link, thousands of labour from the famine struck plains were carted to the tea gardens of Assam.
The trend became a habit and then a forced way of life in over hundred years thereafter, until MGNREGA - the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act - which the World Bank termed a "stellar example of rural development" in its World Development Report 2014 - arrived in the middle of the last decade. It was the first constitutionally supported measure to help the land-less poor and small farmers to get work in their village at reasonable wages.
The scheme brought migration down drastically. More importantly it provided an upward pressure on the baseline wages and thereby gave a boost to the bargaining capacity of the poor. With the drastic shift of the rural labour from the agricultural to the MGNREGA-backed infrastructure and other non-farm sector, the land holding class in the villages panicked in its reactions in the initial years.
The policies of the state government, preparing to go to the assembly elections first in 2008 and then in 2013, helped in no small measure in bringing the rural economy to its present status.
Keen to please both the segments of the rural society at the same time, it first distributed ration cards to all and sundry and made them eligible to buy rice at virtually no price. This decreased their appetite for work. The absence of hands from the field brought the wages at par with the MGNREGA.
The farmers or the land holders were pampered with the ‘unlimited’ amount of paddy that they were allowed to sell to the government at the minimum support price. This turned tractor owner farmers into smugglers of paddy that was available in the neighbouring states at a cheaper price and to sell it to the government and lay claims on the bonus.
Flush with surplus money, the landowners lost no time in going shopping for the farm equipment like, tractors, trolleys, harvesters and thrashers.
The vacuum created by the departure of the manual help in the agriculture sector was filled up by the machines, plugging to a large extent the window of opportunity for the rural labour to return to the farms.
With the change of the government in Delhi after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the scenario took another ‘U’ turn. The rural economy turned upside down yet again, this time for the worse. The uglier contours of the changed face are coming to the fore now.
First, the Centre tightened its purse strings and the state government, in spite of a much-trumpeted promise in its election manifesto to the contrary, refused to buy paddy from the farmers beyond a rather token quantity. The list of eligible farmers to sell paddy was drastically pruned. No bonus was given.
This gave a deadly blow to the income and purchasing power of the farmer. Neeraj Patel of Botalda near Raigarh is the leading dealer of established brands of farm equipment in Chhattisgarh. He says after the graph of sale going up and up in the past couple of years, it has nose-dived this year. The worse is, he continues, that the farmers are not in a position to repay the loans on the equipments bought earlier.
The labours and the marginal and small farmers were hit harder.
The Modi government immediately after taking over betrayed intentions of giving a re-look to the MGNREGA programmes. The speculated changes were drastic pruning of the area of coverage; cutting down the wage component of the programme; curtailing the central government’s share of funds etc. Whatever the stated intentions of the government were, the indifference had a crippling effect on the state’s rural economy as it spread uncertainty about the scheme.
The road map of the work that the government plans to take up in the non-farming months under the scheme used to go public towards the end of the kharif season. It didn’t happen this year. The labour after a wait of few work-less weeks was forced to look for other avenues. The option of going back to the agriculture sector had almost lapsed with the arrival of the machines and the diminished spending power of the farmers. The fact that in many areas of the state, the dues of the last years’ work were not cleared, added to the urgency to look for options.
The migration was triggered as a natural corollary. According to the government's admission in the assembly, the migration has taken place from virtually every part of the state. The maximum number of people migrated from the Champa-Janjgir district.
The state government has inked MoU with 34 companies with plans to set up as many power plants in this district alone. The proposed power plants with a total capacity of about 34,000 MW will require about 40,000 acre of land, most of which was irrigated agricultural fields till the acquisitions started.
“A total of around 10,000 acres is the requirement of the industry in one Dabhra block alone of this district,” says Murlidhar Chandram of ‘Srijan Kendra’ a Dabhra based NGO active in the agricultural sector. In Chhattisgarh, 82.56 percent population lives in 20,376 villages. About 80 percent population of the state has traditionally depended on agro economy. The Champa-Janjgir district is no exception.
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