Like millions of other “Pravasi Mazdoor”, Lala Kaibrat left his village in Ranchi district of Jharkhand and migrated to Himachal Pradesh ten years ago to work as a construction worker and earn a livelihood. And just like so many others, he has forced to return to his village during the nationwide lockdown. And inspite of a comparatively better health infrastructure, Lala Kaibrat says that he returned from Himachal Pradesh sitting in a truck after almost one and a half months of lockdown as he was scared of the spread of coronavirus.

Migrants like Lala Kaibrat are still in a state of shock and have often been unable to come to terms with the altered reality of livelihood opportunities. As he says, his was never a cosy life and mentions that “While I was in Himachal, I used to skip a meal per day due to lack of income”. Now that he is back at home, he is skeptical of returning back to the city as life was not pleasant in the harsh reality of a city life. Given an option, Lala Kaibrat and thousands of other migrants like him would rather work as a labourer in the village itself.

But the problems of the lockdown are not limited to a loss of livelihood only. Much of the media brouhaha about jobs lost stems from an image of the migrant as the builder of the great cities of post-independence India. When asked, migrants look at it from another perspective. Though many were forced to stay in quarantine for fourteen or more days upon return to their village and were often hounded by media person looking for a side-story to the lockdown crisis, Lala Kaibrat says that he would rather stay in his village. And the reasons are not just economic in nature for the lockdown not only robbed them of their employment and forced them into a state of indignity but the sustained uncertainty of an outstretched lockdown continuing till this day has frightened them of a future fraught with injustice.

It is no surprise that amidst the pandemic, more than 5.5[1] lakh migrant workers returned to their villages, using all feasible modes of transportation. Migrants workers who were stranded in Leh and Port Blair returned to Jharkhand in specially chartered flights arranged by the Jharkhand Government. The flights had brought 180 migrant workers from Port Blair and 60 from Leh back to Jharkhand. They said that their employers had tried to persuade them to stay back but they were anxious to leave at any cost. The State Government has signed an agreement with the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) to ensure a living wage a more humane working and living conditions for the workers.

Figure 1 After being stranded for over two months in the Andaman Islands, 180 workers arrive in Ranchi, Jharkhand by a chartered flight.
(Source: Twitter CMO Jharkhand)

Figure 2 A total of 270 ‘migrant’ workers in Leh, Ladakh are being airlifted by the Jharkhand government.
(Source: Twitter CMO Jharkhand)

Livelihood Opportunities for Migrant Workers

Can the State ensure gainful employment for the lakhs of migrant workers who are now returning to their homes in Jharkhand and are not willing to venture out again? 

Bhupesh Mahato a migrant worker returned from Mumbai does not want to go back because of the fear of coronavirus spread in Mumbai. “I want to stay back in my village and work as a labourer,” he said. After their agonizing experience in cities during the lockdown, most migrant workers are willing to earn livelihood in the state itself. Many of them want to work as labour and few are thinking of starting a small enterprise such as shops as per their acquired skill sets.

With most migrant, households in Jharkhand swamped by returnees, the Government is trying hard to incorporate them under MNREGA. However, many migrants may not have the right skills to work in MNREGA as they may not have engaged in hard manual labour for years away from home. Finding the right job is necessary for these migrants especially when almost 1.89 lakh migrants have been found to not have the job cards under MNREGA. Additionally, we see evidence of a spurt in activities as demand for work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) surge. With 36 million households seeking work in May across India and more than 40 million households seeking work in the 25 days of June, the demand for work has increased by more than 70%. While average monthly demand under MGNREGA hovers around 21.5 million households, the sheer increase in numbers of May and June offer relief that families are able to currently obtain employment and yet portend a grave future as people tend to shift to MGNREGA often in terms of crisis.

Figure 3 Women Migrants working under MNREGA in Khunti
(Source: DA Khunti Twitter)

One of the basic amenities is food and nutrition for the rural population which is not available in abundance. In a heartbreaking news, it was found that as many workers are not having any cash or income, almost 50 percent of people have reduced their food intake by skipping one meal per day or reducing a few items from their meal. Most of them are fully dependent on Public Distribution System (PDS) for ration, but they are only getting wheat, rice and gram after the announcement on 20th June 2020 by the Prime Minister. Surprisingly, almost 1.62[2] lakh migrant workers are not having the ration card with them. A migrant worker Sunita Devi said “How could I have gone out to process the wheat in Atta during the lockdown, when not a single shop was open”. She works as a farmer in Bihar who returned back to her village within five days of the declaration of lockdown to Seraikela Kharsawan District of Jharkhand.

Government and Private Initiative

The Jharkhand Government has launched Mission Saksham App for skill mapping of migrant workers. These workers have been placed in 49 categories under 14 sectors. The biggest sector is construction with a total of 49,942 workers employed as masons, painters, carpenters and electricians. The second biggest sector is that of automotives with 34,757 migrants mapped including mechanics, fitters and welders. For the first time in history, the State Government has identified the skill sets of the workers in the state, their employers and the potential areas where they could work within the state. This survey will provide a base for the State Government to create job opportunities in different districts.

Figure 4 Career counselling session for inmates of quarantine centre Sisai, Gumla was organised & Skill mapping of migrant labourers was done. It turned into a placement session with local entrepreneurs offering jobs to labourers (Source: DC Gumla Twitter)

Chief Minister Hemant Soren has initiated Mukhyamantri Shramik Yojana (MSY), an Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme for Jharkhand. It offers guaranteed hundred days work to urban unskilled labour, and in case the Government fails to do so, there is a provision of unemployment allowance too. Such a scheme will be of great help to informal sector workers and reverse migration to a great extent. Furthermore, the State Government has also decided to revamp the working conditions and hone the skills of its urban labour force. Under the scheme, all kinds of provisions have been made including safe drinking water facilities, creches for kids of women labour and first aid kit at the worksites. The scheme was scheduled to be launched on the Independence Day, 15th of August, 2020 by the chief minister Hemant Soren.

With almost 1.8 lakhs migrant workers employed in the agriculture and livestock sector in the state, Non-Governmental groups such as Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN) is working to remove the uncertainties in agriculture by providing market linkages and support to farmer produce groups for selling the produce in the market in a coordinated manner, besides assisting in a livestock based livelihood.

The belated yet wholehearted acknowledgement of Jharkhand’s labour has put the limelight on its people and the need of the hour is for the state, business community and Non-Governmental Organisations to come together and create a definitive increment of opportunities in villages and small towns of this ancient land.

[1] State government data of skill mapping of migrant workers

[2]Skill Mapping Survey Conducted by Department of Rural Development, Jharkhand