Nawada, Bihar: Amipur may be a small dot along the national highway from Patna to Nawada, but its ambitions are big. In the 50-odd households in the village, sparsely populated and rife with an uneasy quiet, most men have left for work outside Bihar.
Siyaram Chauhan is the one who returned. He was rescued last month by the state government officials from a brick kiln in Uttar Pradesh’s Bahraich where he worked as a bonded labourer. Savaged by rigours of work, his body is dark and he is afflicted with constant cough and fever but when he talks about the days in Bahraich, Chauhan’s eyes glint with hope, and apparent hunger. There were, he remembers, “piles of bricks to bake, even though it burnt hands" and “plenty of food".
So when the season of brick kilns kicks in in October, Chauhan says he will venture out again. Like several others from the village, he is part of the rapidly growing tribe of migrants—while Bihar’s capital Patna, 120km from Amipur, wakes up to return of the moneyed class and an economic boom riding the wave of massive construction activity, its rural poor, stricken with poverty and unemployment, have stepped up migrations from the state in bigger numbers than before.
IIPA’s Girish Kumar talks about migration out of Bihar and what can be done to reduce it
A yet-to-be released study by the Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA), one of the major social science research organizations in India, a draft copy of which was reviewed by Mint, and the first ever dedicated research on migration of the rural poor from Bihar, estimates the number of migrants at 5.2 million, much higher than the 3.5 million estimated by the National Sample Survey Organisation in 2001. “Seventy-three per cent of both migrant and non-migrant households perceived an inclined trend in migration even in the last two to three years of the new government. With underdeveloped industrial base and largely subsistence agriculture combined with the recurrent flood and drought problems, social violence, caste enmity and above all, population pressure have created massive push forces, driving individuals out of home desperately in search of livelihood opportunities," says Girish Kumar who compiled the IIPA study with colleague Pranab Banerji.
Click here to see a slideshow on the rural poor leaving Bihar in search of greener pastures
The postal-order economy, which thrives on money orders sent by people to their families, of the state has been booming. “On an average, every migrant is able to send Rs15,000 annually to the state which works up to Rs7,500 crore, 5% of the GDP of Bihar," Kumar stresses. “Improvement in law and order and infrastructure will have an impact on the high-income group but migration of the poor will continue."
What spurs drought-prone Amipur’s wave of migrations, says labour enforcement officer for Nawada district Kishore Jha, is a thriving cartel of local contractors who create debts for landless labourers.
“Trucks after trucks line up in villages here to ferry people outside the state. Till a few years ago, people would travel in hordes; now we do routine checks, so they are provided train tickets and discreetly move in smaller groups. What doesn’t seem to stop is the blatant exploitation," Jha adds.
Chauhan agrees: “My employer in Bahraich promised to pay Rs150 per day, but would hand out only Rs125. When I protested, he demanded the advance of Rs25,000 he had paid to me for leaving my village and taking up his work."
Overnight, he found himself in debt and for the next three years, he was forced to work as a bonded labourer until the day police came hunting.
Much like the colonial days when the British shipped thousands of labourers to their colonies in Africa and South America, migration in Bihar continues to be distress-induced. Fifty-seven per cent migrant households in Bihar are in debt, estimates the IIPA study.
Back in the village, the sun sets right over the ripening paddy fields and Chauhan spends all day plucking arhar (a variety of pulse). Very soon, all the crops would go for sale and he would be left without any work. He hasn’t heard of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which ensures 100 days of employment to the rural poor.
“This is what the problem is. They just don’t know the options available to them because they are illiterate," says Jha. It is here in the villages that people no longer talk about Punjab and Haryana, which for the large part of the 1990s offered farm jobs to labourers from Bihar.
This wave of migrations has a new slogan: Dilli chalo (Let’s go to Delhi). “The exodus has now tilted from rural to urban destinations such as Delhi, Faridabad and Noida, where migrants are working in factories as unskilled labourers," Kumar says.
In a state where agriculture continues to be the backbone of its economy, the slow progress of industrialization is also failing its rural population. There are seasonal agricultural jobs available but even with regime change, not enough industrial units have come up to generate employment.
At the State Investment Promotion Board, the newly set up body to attract and approve investment projects in Bihar, adviser S. Vijay Raghavan claims 156 investment proposals worth Rs91,000 crore have been cleared by the board in the last three years including those for 19 power plants, 23 sugar mills, 18 food processing units and 16 steel processing and cement plants. “We estimate that these projects would create job opportunities for at least 100,000 people in Bihar," Raghavan stresses.
On the ground, though, projects will take years to take off, and Raghavan admits as much. “We have cleared the proposals but all the major investments will happen in the next tenure of the government," he states.
The latest Bihar Economic Survey (2008-09) underlines the factors leading to high level of industrial sickness in Bihar: inadequate infrastructure, lack of working capital, non- availability of raw material, inadequacy of road network and communication services, poor and uncertain power supply and weak research support. “What is needed now is to identify and promote some rural areas with ancillary businesses to create employment," says Binod Khadria, a professor at School of Social Sciences at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
But migration in each case is not always due to lack of awareness and employment opportunities in Bihar, which has seen massive infrastructure work in the past four years—at least 500 bridges and flyovers have been constructed.
For a number of migrants, moving outside the state for work is a symbol of upward social mobility and freedom from the repressive caste hierarchy in the state.
In Amirpur village in Nawada district, infamous for its caste violence such as the massacre at Chakwai village where 10 people from backward castes were killed in 2004, Shivalak Majhi’s father Sukhdev worked as an agricultural labourer for 40 years, but could never buy a small tract of land. “We were always hand-to-mouth, and half the year, my father would have no work. My mother would then clean toilets in the rich households," Majhi, who belongs to the Dalit community, says.
By the time Majhi was 20, he took the train to West Bengal with his two cousins—for better wages and work. “I work in a dye factory in Murshidabad for Rs140 a day. If I had stayed back in the village, I would perhaps have tilled land or done menial chores in households for peanuts," he says. He is back in the village for his sister’s wedding.
Only 42% of migrants working in rural areas would appreciate having a job in Bihar, notes the IIPA study. “Out-migration for employment sake has now become a craze in rural Bihar. It has entered into the life cycle of nearly one-third of the households. So much so that now staying at village is equated with laziness among the fellow villagers," says Girish Kumar.
For many, it’s the lure of better wages—in Bihar, farm labourers get paid anywhere between Rs70 and Rs120, and year-round employment that readies them for migration.
But for the likes of Naresh Mahto, it’s a matter of social prestige. A native of Gaya district, he works in a Sulabh Shauchalaya as a sweeper in Delhi. But when he goes back home, no ones asks what he does.
“Everyone is happy that I am making good money here," he says. “I live in Delhi."
Next in the four-part series on Bihar: “The roads more travelled".