Shiv Prasad has a plan—one that he feels can change his destiny. The daily wager from Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region has experienced crushing poverty, trying to provide for his 10-member family. Hunger has been a constant companion.

A few months ago, he returned to his village in Banda district from Lucknow where he worked for more than three months, laying electric poles. All he got paid was for 15 days. To make matters worse, two weeks ago, his 17-year-old son Baldev returned from Bilaspur, his hands singed by the searing heat of molten steel at the factory where he worked.

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This time, Prasad is willing to go for broke. It’s his chance to escape a lifetime of debilitating poverty.

“I will go to Panna to look for diamonds. If God is kind to me, I might find something," Prasad says, a smile crossing his lips.

A few hours’ ride from Prasad’s village are India’s only known diamond deposits in Panna, Madhya Pradesh. There, anyone can lease eight-by-eight metre plots and dig shallow pits to mine for diamonds. The work is back-breaking and the chances of finding anything worth the effort are thin. But Prasad is unwilling to let go of the chance to alter the course of his life. “I was there once and found a small diamond, which went (auctioned) for 28,000." So what if this exercise cost him more than what he earned?

Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region, a hilly and arid landscape spread across seven districts, has been blighted by repeated droughts. With dimming prospects in farming, wage labour has become the primary means of livelihood for most families. “Palayan (distress migration) is a way of life here, but reverse migration is a more recent trend," says Raja Bhaiya, who runs a rights-based non-profit Vidya Dham Samiti in Banda. “Since the note ban was announced (in November 2016), most families have struggled to find work in cities like Surat and Delhi... many are returning to villages to a food-insecure future."

Prasad himself owns a tiny plot of land, now unsown due to a drought, and owes local moneylenders 3 lakh, borrowed for a daughter’s marriage and sundry household expenses. The numerous holes and stitches on his faded blue sweatshirt lay bare his utter poverty, a common sight in the Dalit hamlets of Bundelkhand.

The situation was not so severe even during the crippling drought years of 2014 and 2015 as villagers could migrate and find work in other states, says Suresh Kumar, a social worker from Jhandu Purba village in Banda. Among the 92 households in the village, 43 members have returned in the past one year, Mint found during a visit earlier in January. One of them is 20-year-old Ashish Kumar. “I was in Rajkot (Gujarat) last month... in the 15 days of stay, I found work in a textile factory for a week. All my earnings were spent on food, stay and transport... so I am back to Banda. I want to finish college now," says Kumar.

India, where the trend of jobless growth has played out since 2004, was thrown out of gear due to the twin macroeconomic shocks of demonetization in 2016 and introduction of the goods and services tax in July 2017. Job creation took a hit as small and medium enterprises and real estate, sectors which employed unskilled youth like Kumar, struggled to stay afloat. At 6.1%, the rate of unemployment in India was at a four-decade high in 2017-18, showed a National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) report leaked to Business Standard. According to NSSO, joblessness among rural men in the 15-29 age group tripled to 17.4% in 2017-18, compared to that in 2011-12.

The Narendra Modi government launched a host of schemes—Make in India, Skill India, Stand-Up India and Startup India—but there has been no visible impact. “Most of these schemes were not thought through... the event was bigger than the content," says a senior officer requesting anonymity. “The problem is that we, being part of the government, cannot acknowledge that demonetization seriously disrupted the flow of (economic) activity and massively contributed to employment-related problems."

A visit to a government-run industrial training institute (ITI) in Banda, nestled inside a village named Motihari, is testimony to the utter lack of employability even among the better skilled. The ITI tasked to train rural youth in skills such as electrical, computing and machining is also part of a state-level skill development programme that is funded by the Union government’s Skill India initiative. But none of the four trainers on contract has been paid in months, as the government only transfers funds (around 12,000 per student) in tranches after a course is complete, the trainees clear an exam and students receive an offer of placement.

“I am working without pay to gain some teaching experience, which is mandatory to apply for a permanent job in ITIs," said a garment-sewing trainer, who did not want to be named.

A short ride from the Motihari ITI is the village of 20-year-old Nilangshu Chauriya. Last January, after being trained as a security guard under the state skilling scheme, Chauriya went to Vapi in Gujarat to take up a job that promised a decent salary, free accommodation and meals. But unable to cope with 13-hour-long shifts with a 15-minute break for lunch, discretionary penalties and measly portions of food, the young man wanted to quit and return to his village.

“Not only did they not pay for the days I worked, the company took 15,000 from me for uniform and shoes, and did not return my original degree certificates," says an upset Chauriya. Penniless in Vapi, he worked in a garment factory for three months after which he made his way back to Banda.

Surviving on food doles

As jobs are hard to come by, most families in Banda and Mahoba districts are now heavily dependent on subsidized food under the National Food Security Act. However, in all the five villages, Mint met many women who complained they are missing their monthly entitlement of 5kg of grains per person due to poor internet connectivity and unmatched fingerprints while carrying out Aadhaar-based biometric authentication of beneficiaries, a mandatory requirement since February 2017.

To add to their woes, the federal government-run rural job guarantee programme (MGNREGA) has ceased to be the safety net it once was. “It has been months anyone from my village got work in the employment guarantee scheme... we have also lost interest to work in the scheme since wage payments are delayed and we prefer immediate payments," says Khemraj, 45, a resident of Kutra in Mahoba district. Data from the rural development ministry shows that 560,000 person days of work was created under the scheme during 2018-19 (till 16 January) in Mahoba where 240,000 workers are registered, or less than three days of employment per person.

According to Raja Bhaiya, the fact that wages have hovered around 200 per day in the past two years, dipping to as low as 150 at times, supports the anecdotal evidence on reverse migration: abundance of cheap labour in rural areas due to lack of opportunities elsewhere. In the absence of any hard data or estimates on migratory trends, that reality conforms to the stagnation in (real) rural wages across India that grew at just 0.02% per year since May 2014, when the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government took charge.

“The stagnation in rural wages is the biggest proof of lack of jobs in labour-intensive sectors like real estate and manufacturing... it also means worsening inequality and rising impoverishment in rural areas," says Himanshu, associate professor of economics at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, and a Mint columnist.

Apprehensive of the political fallout of the lack of employment opportunities, coupled with agrarian distress, the Modi government announced a direct income transfer for marginal and small farmers in the budget last week, but left out the most vulnerable: landless families dependent on daily wages for survival. By the last count (Census 2011), rural India was home to less than 120 million farmers but more than 140 million daily wagers.

The poorest would have benefitted if the government chose to inject cash into the rural economy via higher transfers under the employment guarantee scheme, economist and former member of the erstwhile Planning Commission Abhijit Sen said in an interview this week.

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