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In MP’s Bundelkhand, migrant workers far from poll spotlight

Gautam Gond, a labourer from Tilguwan village in Panna district of Madhya Pradesh, first migrated for work when he was 14 years old. Gond, now 26, has travelled as far as Mumbai, New Delhi, and Chandigarh to work as a construction worker in the past few years. “Whether we live or die, no one cares. So, who will care about us when we travel to find work?” he said with his toddler in his lap.

Nearly 65 km away in Otapurwa village of Chhatarpur district, Murlidhar Prajapati and Poona Devi Prajapati are at the other end of their migration cycle. Years ago, they used to migrate for work, leaving behind their two sons in the care of Murlidhar’s parents. Now, both their sons are migrant workers, and their children stay behind with the couple.

“It hurts us to see that first we had to leave home for work, and now our sons must. If we had had enough opportunities locally, life would have been better,” Devi said.

Gond and the Prajapatis are part of India’s 140 million domestic migrant workforce, which often faces the brunt of irregular work flow, low wages, and poor social security access. Both Panna and Chhatarpur districts are part of the backward and drought-prone Bundelkhand region, making the issues faced by them more pronounced.

As the state goes to the polls on Friday, migrant workers from this region say that political parties should pay more attention to them, create more employment opportunities, and take care of families that stay behind in the villages.

This is the first election that will take place in MP after the Covid-19 pandemic struck in 2020 and brought to the fore the crisis faced by migrant workers across the country. In MP alone, more than 7.5 lakh workers returned to the state after the first wave of the pandemic, as per a Union government reply in Parliament.

In the nearby Kalyanpur village, Rampath Adivasi, too, has migrated to several North Indian states in the past decade. In Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, and Delhi, he gets paid Rs 600 a day and can find steady work for 20–25 days in a month. For the same work locally, he gets paid anywhere between Rs 400 and Rs 500 daily and can find work only for up to 10 days in a month.

“There is work here. But unlike in the cities, it is not regular. As soon as there is no money left, we must think about where to go next. We want political parties to help us get employed locally,” said Adivasi.

Both Gond and Rampath Adivasi are part of the Scheduled Tribe (ST) community, and earnings from minor forest produce such as tendu and mahua are key sources of the family’s income. Panna and Chhatarpur districts have a high forest cover area and are home to the Panna Tiger Reserve.

As per the 2011 Census, Madhya Pradesh has the highest tribal population in India, accounting for 14.7% of the total tribal population in the country. Of the state’s total population, 21.1% is tribal, according to the census.

“Bundelkhand is a peculiar region in terms of its vulnerabilities and is known for its social hierarchy. There is a sizeable population of SCs (Scheduled Castes) and STs living below the poverty line. Labourers go out for livelihoods because there is little to no opportunity available locally,” said Yatindra Singh Sisodia, director of the Madhya Pradesh Institute of Social Science Research in Ujjain.

Sisodia added that governments have paid attention to the region, including special packages, and efforts were made to address their concerns after the Covid-19 pandemic broke. He, however, added that migration was a ‘harsh reality’ of the region given its topographical limitations and historical context.

Migration from MP

Madhya Pradesh is a high-outmigration or source state for workers to go out and find work in other states. The Economic Survey of 2013 noted that Madhya Pradesh to Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Gujarat were on the list of the top 30 state routes for migration in India.Historically, MP’s Bundelkhand region, spread over six districts, has seen high single-male migration or families migrating to find work. Many of them are seasonal and circular migrants who earn and remit money back home.

However, workers like Daulat Ram Ahirwar from Chhatarpur, who engages in a long-distance migration to Jammu, said that after paying for living expenses in the city and sending sustenance money for his family, very little gets saved.

“My family is in agriculture, but farming activity has reduced over the years due to rising input costs. We hope that in this election, political parties do something about giving cheaper electricity and helping with sourcing seeds and fertiliser. If farming improves in this area, many of us would not need to go out to find work,” Ahirwar added.

Benoy Peter, executive director of the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID), said that if agriculture fades away as a principal source of income, then non-farming daily wage income is hard to come, which makes people desperate to move out for better livelihoods. He added that inter-generational poverty and climate change act as further push factors for migration, particularly by indigenous populations.“Marginalisation in native places is often the reason why workers migrate. Existing caste and social dynamics also encourage deprived communities to move out. But at the destination also, they don’t have voting rights, which means they do not get prioritised by the political class in general,” Peter added.

Political attention

In the ongoing Madhya Pradesh elections too, migrant workers from these two districts said they do not see their concerns featured in the campaigns or in the promises made by local representatives and political parties. In this election, Madhya Pradesh’s longest-serving chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, is seeking a fifth term and is facing a tough fight from the Congress party.

Soon after the pandemic hit in 2020, the BJP-led state government launched a migrant workers portal with the aim of providing employment by mapping their skills and experience. News reports said that 7.3 lakh migrant workers were registered on this portal, and along with family members, this figure stood at 13.1 lakh. Chauhan also promised recently that if voted to power again, his government would provide one job for every household.

“Our state government has focused on developing infrastructure to generate employment. One district, one product, has picked up pace in districts like Panna, and forest produce is being sold at good rates. A lot of developmental work is happening in that region,” said Rajneesh Agarwal, state secretary, BJP.

He added that people migrate based on their needs and skills, and the situation should be seen from a comparative perspective in terms of how much progress has been made. “We have been focusing on Aatma Nirbhar MP, and its positive impact is being felt in these districts too,” he added.

“Bundelkhand is a backward area and has unfortunately remained so. If Congress is voted to power, we will promote MSME (medium, small, and micro enterprises) to create more jobs. We will also revamp the MGNREGA scheme to ensure that workers in rural areas find jobs easily,” Feroze Ahmed, a Congress state spokesperson, said. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act promises 100 days of work in a year to every rural family.

However, promises aside, high mobility among migrant workers is seen as a key cause for reduced political agency across the country. A 2020 report by the International Labour Organisation noted that in the “absence of civil and political rights in their urban work destinations”, migrant workers are unable to access several socioeconomic rights.

In December last year, the Election Commission said it was ready to pilot remote voting for domestic migrants, which would mean they do not need to travel back to their home state to vote. It held a meeting with political parties in January, where many raised concerns over the plan. The EC has since maintained that exploring remote voting is a ‘work in progress’. However, until it happens, migrant workers like those in MP could continue to remain out of the electoral spotlight.

(The writer is an independent journalist based in New Delhi)

(Published 13 November 2023, 21:03 IST)

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