Editor's note: This is part of a multi-article series on the jobs crisis in the three states crucial to Lok Sabha election 2019: Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
“If you had to choose between your work and your right to vote, what would you do?” Meena Mallah, 60, asks a pertinent question. Her voice echoes in her empty home. Her sons – three of them – and daughters-in-law are away with their kids, toiling as labourers in another district. Meena does not know where. She is living all alone in the village of Ramda in Western Uttar Pradesh’s Kairana district.
About 6,000 people of over 10,000 living in Ramda belong to the Mallah community that traditionally engaged in riverbed farming of fruits and vegetables along the Yamuna – merely 3 kilometres from the village. But over the past half a decade or so, say villagers, the riverbed has been drying up, rendering it useless for farming. It has compelled the farmers of about 20 villages in Kairana – along with Ramda – to migrate to other parts of the state in search of employment.
Mustqeem Mallah, 29, president of the Kevat Mallah Ekta Samiti, says at least 20,000 adults from different villages of Kairana belonging to the Mallah community have migrated. “They either work as labourers in other people’s farms in Bihar, Uttarakhand or the ones that are better off and who lease land in the catchment areas of Ganga and cultivate crops they would have otherwise cultivated here,” he says, taking this reporter through the Mallah basti of Ramda.
The tranquillity of the village is only disturbed by the tyres of the car screeching through the narrow, deserted lanes. The odd breeze on a summer afternoon ruffles the leaves. Otherwise, even a whisper is loud enough to be heard. The most common sight is that of padlocked doors. The grocery store in the basti is open, but the owner is fast asleep on all fours outside the shop.
“For the people to come for a day to vote would mean they would have to renounce their daily wage and spend on travel on top of that,” says Mustqeem. “It is sad that 20,000 people would not be able to exercise their right to choose their representative because they have to worry about their livelihood.”
The Mallahs have been traditionally marginalised. They do not own farmlands, which is why they have been cultivating crops in the riverbed. Education in the community is not great. The current trend of migration is depriving the next generation of schooling as well.
Most of the migrants have migrated with their kids, for there is nobody back home to look after them. The school in the village has over 100 kids enrolled. During this period, it cuts a sorry figure with only 3 or 4 remaining in classes. “It impacts their education and the community cannot hope to progress like that,” says Mustqeem.
Kairana had hit headlines in 2016 after BJP alleged of a Hindu exodus triggered due to the law and order situation. The narrative later turned out to be incorrect. What is happening right now is a different kind of an exodus, which not many are talking about.
Sitting MP from Kairana, Tabassum Hasan, who is contesting on the Samajwadi Party ticket, told ANI, "Migration is not an issue here. When there are no employment opportunities here people will have to go out to work and also for better education. In the coming time, our focus will be on creating employment opportunities here."
The farmers that migrate in search of employment cultivate muskmelon, watermelon and cucumber, among others. The crops are water guzzlers, and can only be cultivated well in the catchment area of the river, which is getting shallower by the day. “The Haryana government does not release water from Hathnikund barrage, and the riverbed dries up,” says Mustqeem. “Both the states have a BJP government. Why can’t they sort it out among themselves and arrive at a conclusion? Further, illegal sand mining worsens the problem. The crops are nurtured in the sand and if there is no sand, how would we cultivate anything?”
The crops in question are winter crops that are sowed in January and harvested around June end. The villages along Yamuna delta are therefore deserted for those 6-7 months. Once the migrants are back, they work as hawkers in Kairana during monsoons. If they make decent money during their time away from home, their priority after coming back is getting their daughters married. But that too is a task.
Twenty people from Gaffar Mallah’s joint family have leased land in the catchment of Ganga in the district of Bijnor in West Uttar Pradesh. He has stayed back to look after the home. “It has become much more difficult to survive,” he says. “The investment in cultivating the same crops in Ganga is double of what used to be the investment here. We have to pay rent and spend on building makeshift huts in which the families stay for six months. If we made a profit of Rs 40,000 earlier, it is down to Rs 10,000 or Rs 15,000 now.”
Gaffar, 24, spends his time looking for labour work in Kairana while his family is away. “I get work twice a week at Rs 250 per day,” he says. “My time passes looking for daily wages.”
Meena is unluckier in that regard. At over 60, she cannot indulge in labour work either. “I cook food for myself, fill up water. There are a few old people like me still in the village. I spend time with them,” she says with a wry smile deepening the wrinkles on her face. “When my family is here, we are 12 of us. I get to spend time with my grandkids as well. My sons call me twice a week when they are away, and I feel alive again. Otherwise, I feel like a ghost in my own home.”
With illegal sand mining and drying up of Yamuna riverbed, very few farmers have space to cultivate watermelon or cucumber along the river. Tanvir Mallah, 50, of Nagalarai village is one of them.
Why didn’t you go?
I did not have enough money to lease land along the Ganga. I thought I would continue to try my luck here. But it looks like I will have to migrate soon. If not around Ganga, I would indulge in labour work.
I had sowed peas. Everything has dried up. Even the borewell I have dug could not save the crop. The money I invested in it has gone down the drain. Now my hopes are on cucumber to recover some of the losses.
How long have you been farming?
As long as I can remember. This is what we have been doing since our forefather’s time.
The riverbed is deserted today. How was it about 10-15 years back?
I am one of the very few still operating here. I remember only 10 years back this place would be full of crops and farmers. You would have had to locate the sand amid the crops. Today, it is desolate. We do not have money, neither do we have any social standing.
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Updated Date: Apr 10, 2019 16:16:22 IST