Hamirpur: Twenty-eight-year-old Manmohan Yadav, a resident of Patkhuri village in Uttar Pradesh’s Hamirpur district, is contemplating moving to Delhi in search of a job. Any job would do, he says. He has passed eighth grade and is hoping to land a job as a labourer or a security guard. It would be his first time living outside his village but coming from the drought-prone Bundelkhand region, he is no stranger to migration.
In the last two decades, the Bundelkhand region — spanning across multiple districts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh — has witnessed more than 10 episodes of drought. Farming has long since become unsustainable and migration is a way of life. Yadav’s family managed to buck the trend, it would seem, but not for long. He works on his father’s land with his two brothers, who also used to take up odd jobs in neighbouring villages and towns to supplement their agricultural income. But this is no longer enough. Local jobs are scarcer and farming even more uncertain.
“If not today, then tomorrow I will have to go out. So, I am going now," he says.
Leaving with him are the lakhs of hardened migrants who had to return home suddenly during last year’s lockdown. Having survived the following months, thanks to an expanded MGNREGA and the onset of the farming season, they are preparing to leave home again. Farming season is coming to a close and MGNREGA has been scaled back.
Consequently, the pace of migration has picked up. “We have been running five to seven buses every day. Mostly for Delhi-NCR, Gujarat and cities like Indore. We transport around five hundred people every day, most of them are labourers leaving their villages to earn a living," says Mubarik Khan, who supervises transport agency Warsi Travels.
The status-quo returns
Those who haven’t left yet are waiting for the harvest. Amid the scarcity of water and agricultural facilities, the Bundelkhand region still manages two seasons of crops annually. Wheat, gram and pea are produced in the Rabi season, while urad, moong, soybean and peanuts are grown during the Kharif season. During sowing and harvesting, a large number of people are required in the villages. Because the availability of labour is always higher than demand, the wages are low. Though not comparable to the wages they are used to in the big cities, these are enough to survive in the village, says Upendra Yadav, another resident of Hamirpur district who returned home on foot last year after losing his job in a factory in Gurgaon. After waiting for months to be hired back, he is returning to Delhi to look for a new job.
Beyond farming and other odd jobs, MGNREGA is the only source of employment in the villages. This too is plagued by low wages, delayed payments and a limited number of workdays. Social activist Shivnarayan Singh, who works in the Bundelkhand region, says as much as MGNREGA saved people from starvation during the lockdown, it was never going to be a sustainable solution, especially since it is prone to manipulation by village pradhans towards political gains.
In June 2020, the central government had increased the budget for MGNREGA to create employment in rural areas. As the impact of the lockdown was decreasing, 62 lakh people in Uttar Pradesh asked for work through MGNREGA that month. According to the Labour Enforcement Office in Hamirpur, after the lockdown, a total of 27,785 migrant labourers returned to the district and got an average of 33 MGNREGA days of employment. Arun Tiwari, the nodal officer for MGNREGA in Hamirpur, told 101Reporters that between March 25, 2020, when the lockdown was imposed, and March 18, 2021, more than 1.52 lakh labourers were employed under MGNREGA, getting about 51 lakh workdays.
But in the 2021-22 budget, the allocation for MGNREGA was reduced by Rs 38,500 crore to Rs 73,000 crore. The deduction has critically affected the availability of employment in rural areas such as Bundelkhand. For people like Pushpa (name changed upon request), there is no question of staying back. A resident of Bagi Itaura village, 90 km far from Hamirpur, she is going to Faridabad in the Delhi-NCR. "After the death of my husband, I went to Delhi and got a job in a sewing company. But during the lockdown, I lost my job and had to return to my village. Now with things opening up again, I will go back to find a job. Life will be better from now on. My son is still studying. Now I will return only after my son gets a job," says Pushpa.
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