No jobs, farming season over: How long before migrants returning to Patna set out again?

Faced with miserable conditions at district quarantine centres and no prospect of jobs, the 1.5 lakh plus labourers who have returned to Bihar could well be left with just one option -- go back to where they returned from.

Vikas Kumar was all smiles as he alighted from the first Shramik Train that brought him Jaipur to Danapur, on the outskirts of Patna, on May 2nd. Even as he realized that the smile would be short lived, given the reality of life back in his village of having to take care of his six-member family and his aged parents.

“I am clueless about my future,” said Vikas who worked in a stone cutting factory in Jaipur. “It was a hard decision to return, but there was no other option as we were dying there. I did not get my April salary as my boss said, no work no payment. And the factory owner was not giving us any help”. 

Vikas and his fellow passengers hail from 28 districts across Bihar and are being quarantined for 21 days in their respective districts before being allowed to go home. Nearly 10 lakh migrants will be returning in the coming days, with more than 1.5 lakh labourers stranded in different states like Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Kerala, Telangana, Gujrat, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi having already arrived.

And the state government does not seem to have any plans for them other than making empty promises. The government has no clue either on how to make up for the lost remittance income, which used to contribute nearly 20 per cent to the state’s economy. 

According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), at 10.3 per cent, Bihar had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, the main reason for such large scale migration out of the state. Migrants like Shyam Sundar, who hails from West Champaran district but had to go to the other end of the country in search of a job,  Alappuzha in Kerala.

“I was working in a coir factory there and used to earn good enough to feed my four members family,” said a desperate Shyam Sundar. “All my money got over during the lockdown and I have returned home empty handed. Over here, there is no job nor any industry where I can work. The meagre amount (Rs 1000) provided by the state government is not enough to feed my family.”

Thinking of going back

Some are already thinking of going back to where they came from. Like Chandan Kumar, from Sitamarhi district who returned from Charlapatti in Telangana. ““There are big challenges ahead of us due to lockdown,” said Chandan. “Though I have returned, joblessness and drained pockets is going to create unprecedented problems for people like us. We cannot take up farming because the season is over. Some civil society people and the district administration is providing us food but what after lockdown. I have to return Telangana to earn money so that I can feed my family”.

The different district administrations have converted government schools and colleges as quarantine centres where these returnees are being provided food and clothes. However there are complaints galore from many such centres and the pathetic conditions in these. In fact, many returnees have run away from these centres.

Patna based economist and member secretary of Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI) Shaibal Gupta said that “it is not possible to create job for such large scale returnees”. Other experts too said that in the present scenario there is no opportunity for the new labourers. The existing 3000 small units and trade sectors currently employ about 11.5 lakh people residing in the state, with no scope for accommodating the new arrivals.

Satyajit Singh, for instance, is a Patna-based entrepreneur, managing director of Shakti Sudha Industries which produces a seed called makhana in Hindi and fox or gorgun nut in English. It has become one of Bihar’s biggest exports from its unit located in the Patna industrial area. Altogether 65 people are employed at this unit and all are regular employees. The average salary is Rs 7000. “The state has not created any infrastructure nor promoted any industrial development,” pointed out Satyajit Singh. “Bihar does not have industrial units to accommodate these migrants so they will have to go back after some time.”

Migrant workers being sent to quarantine centres in Patna. Pic Amit Bhelari

No jobs for returnees

Bihar has a large and varied agriculture base, its  main agricultural products being cereals, pulses, oilseeds, vegetables and cash crops like sugarcane, potato, tobacco and fruits. It is the third largest producer of vegetables in India after West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. But the state has no mega food park or any other big industry. Bihar remains one of the most underdeveloped states in the country, forcing people to move out in search of lobs and livelihoods.

In fact, the state government’s unwillingness or inability to promote industry has led to a number of small units consider relocating elsewhere, especially after the current government introduced total prohibition in the state. To give just one example, in 2010 when Bihar was not yet a dry state,a young UK returned entrepreneur Kumar Shray wanted to set up a bottling plant of Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) but  dropped the idea after being made to run from pillar to post to get the required clearances.

He had even purchased the land in Vaishali district and wanted to invest Rs 3 crore, but moved to West Bengal “as no support from state government was forthcoming. It is nearly impossible for any investor to invest money in Bihar,” said Shray.

Similarly, in 2017, a Maharashtra based diamond cutting and polishing factory shut its unit in Patna, which the chief minister had inaugurated in 2013. The reason was alleged extortion from the Labour resources department.

“There are no industries and no jobs in Bihar,” said Bihar Industries Association (BIA), vice president Sanjay Bhartiya. “The only economy is either the rural economy or the trader economy that caters to the state’s huge population. The state government has no plan to establish any business here. The returning migrant labourers will not be able to get any viable job here and they will finally have to go back to the places where they were working.”

Election year sops

But Bihar labour resources department minister Vijay Kumar Sinha insists that the government is fully aware about the problems of migrants returning to Bihar. “The returnees will be engaged in various government schemes like MNREGA, Jal Jivan Hariyali and repair of embankments ahead of the rains,” said Sinha. “The government is sensitive enough to cope up with the situation”. A statement echoed by rural development minister Shravan Kumar.

Chief minister Nitish Kumar, who faces an election year, had uploaded a video on the government’s official WhatsApp group claiming that each migrant returning to Bihar will be paid Rs 500 along with reimbursement of train and other fares. He had also said that Rs 1000 will be paid to each migrant on completion of their quarantine period.

More such sops will no doubt be announced in the coming months. For Nitish knows better than most that the returnees could well vote him out of office later this year before leaving the state in search of jobs once again.

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