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Post-Covid challenge for rural India: 12 crore migrants face 'bleak' future in cities

NGO distribution of essential items in Sarai tehsil, Madhya Pradesh
By Parijat Ghosh, Dibyendu Chaudhuri*
The SARS-CoV-2 virus has infected more than 5.1 million people out of which more than 330 thousand people died. Most of the countries are either under nation-wide or localised lockdown with more than half of the global population confined within their homes. Rest of the countries are also following many restrictive measures to avoid spreading of the virus.
It is impossible to predict, at this point in time, when we can again go back to the normal Pre-Covid life. Even if we develop immunity against the virus or develop vaccine to prevent or medicine to cure, it seems that the world is not going to be the same any more. Our work pattern, travel, and lifestyle - everything will probably undergo many changes.
Around 12 crore people throughout the country migrate to cities and towns from villages in search of labour work. They mostly work in construction sectors or as security guard, domestic help, rickshaw puller or other so called ‘unskilled’ jobs to get at most 10,000- 15,000 rupees a month. When the Government of India called for a nation-wide lockdown for 21 days it became one of the most tragic periods for the daily wage earners, especially migrant labourers.
A lot of rumours, misinformation created panic among them and the administration could not do much due to unpreparedness to handle such situations. When the lockdown began, the migrant labourers started attempting to go back to their villages in fear of having no shelter and food.
Both State and Central governments tried to take up measures like providing temporary shelters, food, etc. but those were not adequate. From different parts of the country we heard incidents of migrant labourers walking hundreds of kilometres with children and elderly.
On their way to home they have been stopped or beaten up by police, met with horrific accidents and experiences -- many of them died. A large number of them are still stranded in different places, in very difficult conditions. They will also go back to their respective villages once the lockdown is over.
Nevertheless, this shocking experience of returning home will remain permanently in their psyche. Majority of them may never again migrate to cities.
Will there be enough opportunities in the villages to provide them the income that they were getting from migration to cities? The answer is No. But, even then, villages can be rebuilt with an alternative perspective so that people will be happier to live even with much lesser income.
To live, we need food, shelter, fresh air, care, love, freedom to express ourselves, basic health facilities, basic education, etc. Can all these be arranged in villages? Well, many things are already there; we need to change our thoughts and actions for the rest.

Unsustainable agriculture

The present-day chemical based agriculture is unsustainable and in long run the production will decline because of loss of soil fertility. Indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides has changed the soil texture, damaged the soil biota and made the soil infertile. 
This has led to the disruption of natural carbon and nitrogen cycles to a great extent. To make village liveable and to get more production on a sustainable manner, the first task is to reinvigorate the natural cycles.
Most poor villages are either in the forest fringe areas or in the forests. There are around 1,96,000 such villages which is almost 30% of total villages in India. For reinvigorating natural cycles forests have to be rejuvenated. Most crucial is people’s participation in the process of rejuvenation.
The colonial mind-set of considering people, living in or near the forest, as enemy of the forest has affected both the life of those people and the forest badly. The simple idea, that if people understand that they need forest for their own benefit they will protect it, can change the entire scenario of illegal felling and declining biodiversity.
Shocking experience of returning home will remain permanently in their psyche. Majority of migrants may never again return to cities
There are examples of how villagers’ motivation in protecting forest can be enhanced. In Jana village (Gumla District) of Jharkhand and Ghughri village (Dindori district) of Madhya Pradesh the elders in the village helped the younger generation to know about different species of flora and fauna in their nearby forest and the uses of different parts of those species in their daily life.
The uses ranged from preparing medicine to making plough with specific timber, for which they had started depending on market. This helped younger generation of those villages to understand the importance of forest and they became forest defenders. The example of Mendha (Gadchiroli district) in Maharashtra shows that giving Community Forest Rights to villagers may lead to much better management of forest resulting in more biomass and more bio diversity.
A rich forest in upper catchment of an undulating terrain helps conserving soil, supplying humus rich materials to the lands in the lower catchment, apart from giving more oxygen. This humus enhances microbial population in the soil resulting into more nitrogen fixation from air and supply of nitrogen, phosphate and many other nutrients to plants.
This process may be expedited by adding compost and bio-fertilisers (containing bacteria which fix nitrogen and solubilise phosphate in the soil). Any chemical which will harm the beneficial living organisms (bacteria, earth worm, etc.) in the soil has to be rejected. This may include pesticides or even fertilisers.
The science of nitrogen and carbon cycles need to be understood by the farmers’ based on which they may come up with innovative ways to take more crops from the same land. Bharat Bhushan Tyagi, an innovative farmer from Beehta village (Bulandshahr district) in Uttar Pradesh, showed how through a multilayer cropping system production can be enhanced many times.
Many varieties of millets and rice were being cultivated in villages, even 20 years ago. Now millets have been disappearing very fast and indigenous paddy varieties have been replaced by so called ‘High Yielding Varieties’ sold by seed companies. These crop varieties are nutritious and climate resilient. Extension workers should facilitate cultivation of these crop varieties rather than helping seed companies to sell their seeds in villages.
The MGNREGA wage needs to increase to at least Rs 350 per day. This is what the daily wage labourers at Delhi get, for which people had migrated to Delhi from villages 1000 kilometres away. The work under MGNREGA in rural areas may include harvesting rain water, conserving soil, and arranging irrigation or making non-arable lands arable.
Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN), a non-profit organisation, in collaboration with state governments has demonstrated implementation of those works in vast areas of West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhatisgarh using provisions under MGNREGA. 
Recently, a terrace farming model has been developed in Chataniha village (Singrauli district) of Madhya Pradesh which has the potential to address the issue of intensive cultivation on hilly areas with around 30% slope. This may bring more areas under intensive crop cultivation.
The village collectives need to be strengthened. This collectives need to regulate the balance between individual progress and community well-being and uphold the values of reciprocation, cooperation, caring and sharing. Mendha village in Maharashtra is an example of such village governance.
And this is the time that the State has to invest in basic health and education in the rural areas and not leave it in the hands of private players who are neither committed for the cause nor governed by the local people. Recently, the Delhi government has done exemplary work to improve quality of government schools. This model may be replicated in the rural areas as well. Other major areas of investment should be around quality drinking water and electricity.
Many voluntary organisations work in Indian villages. Government needs to collaborate with them to build villages worth living from where people will never want to migrate.
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*With the Research and Advocacy unit of the Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN), a national level NGO

Comments

Saurabh Singh said…
Really thought provoking and workable ideas mentioned in the article which is very much required in the present times where every resource will be under stress as the people return to their village and there will be a need to suffice the hunger and other needs of these people returning to their village. It can be seen as an opportunity as they have different skillset which can be utilised to strengthen the local economy and these people, mostly youth when engaged systematically can change the picture of their village and this catastrophe may be seen as a blessing in disguise...

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