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Homeward bind: What lies ahead for migrants who have returned to Maharashtra’s villages

Radheshyam Jadhav | Updated on June 26, 2020 Published on June 26, 2020

Special effect: The Covid-19 pandemic is likely to bring more women into farming   -  ABHIJEET GURJAR

For the workers who fled the cities of Maharashtra after the lockdown, life in the village could mark a return to meagre farm earnings and the reality of caste discrimination. For minor girls, it could mean the end of education as families scramble to make ends meet. But all is not lost. There are stories of hope and enterprise, too

* The pandemic is likely to change migration patterns as fears over the virus will continue to influence decisions till an affordable vaccine is found

* The exodus is also likely to impact the education of children and the number of people signing up for the job guarantee NREGA scheme, besides pushing more women into the role of farm workers

* During the lockdown (in place since March 25), about 1,200 farmers in Nashik established a direct supply chain with 57,000 customers in Mumbai, Pune, and Nashik.

Vikas Sawant doesn’t know which road to take. Should he go back home, like thousands of others around him, or should he stay back in Mumbai, the city of dreams that changed his life?

He likes it in Mumbai. The city has given him economic stability and enabled him to send his son for higher studies. A contractual worker with the Maharashtra state government, Sawant, 52, had once thought he would live in the city even after retirement. He was sure he would get some kind of work. And by then, his son — now a third-year BTech student in Pune — would be working.

His mother and brother live in Sawantpur village in Sangli district of western Maharashtra. Sangli is where Sawant grew up. An arts graduate, he tried his hand at various kinds of jobs there, but finally moved to Mumbai in 2012, where he now lives with his wife. He thought he’d always live there. But that was before the Covid-19 outbreak.

As thousands of people continue to leave the city, which recorded close to 70,000 Covid-19 cases on June 25, Sawant is shaking from within. His family members in Sawantpur are worried and want him to return to the village. But Sawant works in the health department, which falls in the essential services category, and he knows that once he takes a break it will be difficult for him to come back to his contractual job.

Every day, he sees people from his district getting ready to leave. They pay ₹15,000-17,000 to private transporters to take them to Sangli. Sawant is getting more and more anxious with each passing day. Unsure about what will happen to his and his wife’s health, he continues to drag himself to work even as the number of Covid-19 cases continues to rise in Mumbai.

“The question is what do I do if I go back to the village? Who is going to pay me the salary I am getting in Mumbai? I came late to this city and now when I am trying to settle here, this Covid-19 outbreak has shaken my confidence,” he says.

With just 32 gunthas (a total of less than an acre) arid land in his village, farming is not an option he can explore.

According to him, many of the estimated 16 lakh people from western Maharashtra — comprising the five districts of Pune, Sangli, Satara, Solapur and Kolhapur — working in Mumbai have already left the city in fear of the deadly virus.

Among them is Nihal Mulla, who is in his 20s and worked as a chef in a small Pune restaurant. He left for Kolhapur soon after the Covid-19 outbreak and now his mother, Farida, a domestic worker, does not want him to return to Pune.

“Cities are the hub of Covid-19 and I don’t want to put my son’s life at risk,” she says. Mulla, however, says he does not know how he will earn a living in Kolhapur.

Some two lakh people have left cities such as Pune and Mumbai and returned to Kolhapur district, says Satej Patil, the district guardian minister (a state-appointed post that puts him in charge of the district). “The inflow continues as people are under tremendous pressure and fear has gripped their minds. This is the scene in all districts and the state government is readying a plan to tackle this migration from cities to villages. We are holding discussions with district collectors on how to facilitate their stay in their native places,” Patil tells BLink.

To generate employment, the government is in talks with industries, seeking to connect them to local youth. “In the first phase, we will connect the unemployed youth with the industries. Also (in the second phase), we are launching a training programme to generate skilled workers within the district,” he says. Kolhapur is a sugar-rich district with flourishing agribusiness and dairy units, and many of the local people might not go back to cities if the plans succeed.

In arid land

However, life is not going to be easy for the people of Wakalwadi, a tiny village in the drought-prone region of Satara district. The entire economy of the village is dependent on Mumbai. For generations, the village has been sending at least one person per family to Mumbai to work as a labourer and who, in turn, has been sending money back to the village.

Wakalwadi woes :The economy of this village is dependent on the money that its men, working as labourers in Mumbai, send home   -  RADHESHYAM JADHAV

 

“Farming here is largely dependent on the monsoon. In the last few years we have been getting water from a canal coming from the Urmodi dam but it is not sufficient,” says Sharad Ingale, a farmer. “There is no other option but farming, which is never a profitable venture. But there is no farmer suicide in the village as we manage to survive with the money that comes from Mumbai,” he says.

In the last few years, government babus and other well-heeled people from the cities have been eyeing farmland in the region. Villagers say that they have been trying to purchase land at meagre prices, hoping that once an irrigation system is fully operational, the rates will skyrocket. But “Mumbai money” has come to the aid of the local farmers, saving their land from the city-wallahs.

Covid-19, however, might change lives for the worse. Villagers who were working in Mumbai are coming back home, having to choose between life and livelihood. Now, the fear of losing their livelihood as well as land looms large in this village.

The agrarian crisis and shrinking landholdings had pushed internal migration from villages to cities in Maharashtra in the last few years. At 92.2 lakh hectares, small and marginal (up to 2 hectares) operational holdings account for 45 per cent of the total area of operational holdings in the state. The number of small and marginal operational holdings is 121.55 lakh, about 79.5 per cent of the total number of operational holdings.

According to the 2011 population census, in the last nine years, about 94.07 lakh people moved from one place to another within a district, while about 72.67 lakh people moved from one district to another in the state. The pandemic is likely to change migration patterns as fears over the virus will continue to influence decisions till an affordable vaccine is found.

Crisis in the suicide zone

The situation is grim in Marathwada villages, where 109 farmers took their lives during the lockdown period (March to April). Lakhs of people have come back to their villages, says activist Sunil Kamble from Osmanabad district. And when they eventually return to the cities in search of urgent work and money, they are likely to leave their families behind, holds Kamble, who works with small and marginal farmers.

Hit a wall: While lakhs of people have returned to their villages in Marathwada, the region has also witnessed 109 farmer suicides in the lockdown period of March to April   -  EMMANUAL YOGINI

 

“People will return to cities in Marathwada and Pune and Mumbai. There is no work in villages. But they might keep their families back in villages and go to the city for work. Farming is under tremendous pressure and now this reverse migration might put additional burden on the sector,” he adds. This pattern is also likely to impact the education of children and the number of people signing up for the job guarantee NREGA scheme, besides pushing more women into the role of farm workers.

Marathwada’s eight districts — Aurangabad, Jalna, Parbhani, Hingoli, Beed, Nanded, Osmanabad, and Latur — cover 64,590 sq km. Nearly 73 per cent of the region’s 1.87 crore people live in the rural areas.

The 2011 census reveals that 65 per cent of the total female workers in India are engaged in agriculture and nearly a third of the 118.7 million cultivators are female. Out of 144.3 million agricultural labourers 42.6 per cent are women. In 2001, female agricultural labourers were 21 per cent, which increased to 23 per cent in 2011. Even the Economic Survey of 2017-18 made note of the increasing feminisation of the agricultural sector, with more and more women joining the field as cultivators, entrepreneurs and labourers. However, women’s access to resources such as land, credit, water, seeds and market is not addressed.

Bhau Chaskar, a teacher in a government school in Ahmednagar, says that not only women, but minor girls will suffer as well because of the crisis. “More girls will be taken out of school as parents will not be interested in continuing their education because of the economic burden,” he says, adding that more and more teenage girls will be married off.

Dalit families will be severely affected, too. In Jigthan village near Aurangabad, Dalits have locked horns with the government and are seeking to claim ownership of village grazing land that they have been cultivating for years. The villagers stress that they are not just fighting for land but also for dignity.

“Villages are dungeons of caste discrimination. It was Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s message to the Dalits that they must migrate to cities in search of their identity. After the Covid-19 outbreak, thousands of workers from scheduled castes and tribes returned to their Marathwada villages,” says Beed-based social activist Ashok Tangde. “But they have no place in their own villages. If they want to continue to stay in the villages, upper caste villagers will want them to return to their traditional work such as cleaning village roads and drains,” Tangde says.

A survey conducted by Jagar Pratishthan, an NGO in Beed, has found that villagers from the district are going back to cities to resume work. “They have no other options as villages won’t accommodate them and they will lose their jobs in cities if they don’t resume work,” Tangde adds.

Signs of hope

Fruits of labour: During the lockdown, more than a thousand farmers in Nashik established a direct supply chain with customers in the cities   -  VEERU KADAM

All is not dismal, of course. After the closure of Agriculture Produce Market Committees (which regulate the marketing of agricultural produce and livestock) during the lockdown (in place since March 25), about 1,200 farmers in Nashik established a direct supply chain with 57,000 customers in Mumbai, Pune, and Nashik. They have sold vegetables and fruits worth ₹15 crore. These farmers, part of Sahyadri Farms, the leading farmer-producer company in Nashik, used e-commerce, social media, and other forms of technology to establish a direct supply chain between producers and consumers.

Vilas Shinde, director of Sahyadri Farms, says that the novel coronavirus spread has a positive side too. “Farmers will have to come together to make farming a profitable venture. The collective effort will help farmers and rural areas and we have proved this,” he says.

Tools of trade: Sahyadri Farms, the leading farmer-producer company in Nashik, used e-commerce and social media platforms to reach customers   -  IMAGE COURTESY: SAHYADRI FARMS

Shetkari Sanghatana, the apex body of farmers in Maharashtra, carried out a “constructive campaign” connecting farmers to consumers and to facilitate the direct sale of agricultural produce without middlemen.

“During Covid-19 many small farmers across the state came together and, setting aside middlemen, established supply links with consumers. This could be a new beginning,” says Sanghatana president Anil Ghanwat. He adds that there will not be a sudden change in the agriculture supply chain but farmers are now confident that they can be suppliers along with being producers.

Mango farmers in Konkan region have been successful suppliers, too. Breaking from the past practice of selling their produce to middlemen, they offered Alphonso mangoes directly to consumers.

All transport was banned during the earlier days of the lockdown, which meant that the suppliers could no longer load and transport produce for sale. Farmers, on the other hand, were permitted by the government to sell their produce. Without having to pay middlemen, farmers earned ₹800-1,000 more for every carton of mangoes.

The lockdown caused by the rampaging virus has led to some other positive effects, too. In Ahmednagar district, 105 villages have resolved to observe an eight-day lockdown every year. The panchayat samiti that administers these villages in the taluka has approved the resolution. Ramdas Bhor, a panchayat samiti member who tabled the resolution at a recent meeting, says that Covid-19 has taught a lesson to humankind.

“During the lockdown, human intervention in nature was minimised. It reduced water and air pollution. Not only did people slow down their daily activities, our cattle and fields also got some respite. The lesson we learned is that we and our environment need a break,” Bhor says.

A new beginning

Some believe that the pandemic will also turn the lens on rural Mahrashtra. Home to 11.24 crore people, Maharashtra is highly urbanised, with 45.2 per cent of the population living in towns. It is the most industrialised state in the country, with a gross state domestic product (GSDP) of ₹24.97 lakh crore and the largest economy in India, accounting for 15.01 per cent of the country’s GDP in 2017-18.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic has shaken the cities, which form the core of urbanisation. The reverse migration to villages might be a temporary scenario but veteran social activist Sampatrao Pawar says that this is an opportunity to hold back the manpower in rural areas and create a new economic structure.

“Self-reliant and prosperous villages will reduce the burden on cities,” says Pawar, who has experimented in water conservation in rural parts of Sangli. There are many islands of hope in rural Maharashtra, and Hiware Bazar is one such model. The village saw people returning to their homes for work long before the Covid-19 outbreak.

In the last 25 years, farmers in Hiware Bazar have increased their income by an estimated 38 times. The village is located in an arid zone and villagers carried out water conservation, rainwater harvesting, and watershed management work from the 1990s. Farmers changed cropping patterns and also resolved to stop growing water-guzzling sugar cane crop and opted for vegetables, pulses, flowers and fruits instead.

Farmers run dairies and have made farming a profit-making venture. No family is below the poverty line.

More Hiware Bazars will help thousands of people like Vikas Sawant return to their villages. But, as of now, Sawant continues to be part of Mumbai’s faceless crowd, pursuing a livelihood and stalked by the fear of Covid-19.

It’s knot time

Farmers are in demand in the marriage market

The tale of two young men tells the interesting story of how the marriage market has changed since the Covid-19 outbreak. D Shriniwas, a young communication professional who had shifted from Solapur district to Pune a few years ago, recently decided to move to Mumbai for better work prospects. When he landed a good job, he sought to marry a woman from his home town. The two families agreed to the proposal and the marriage ceremony was to have been conducted in May. However, once the novel coronavirus spread, the woman’s family called off the wedding, saying that they did not want to risk the life of their daughter by getting her married to a boy in Mumbai. Shriniwas now plans to return to Pune and find a new job — and then look for a bride.

The pandemic, on the other hand, has brought a smile to the face of Sambhaji Magdum, a young farmer who holds an MBA degree and possesses 10 acres of irrigated family land in Arjunwad village in Kolhapur district. He grows sugar cane and grapes and earns good money.

He once worked in a private firm that paid him a meagre salary. “I worked there because girls don’t want to marry a farmer and I was looking for a match. But then I decided to work on a farm and use new technology to experiment in farming,” he says.

With Covid-19 spreading relentlessly through the cities, Magdum says that young farmers in rural areas are now getting marriage proposals. He is confident of getting married soon, too.

Young women and their parents who earlier turned down marriage proposals from farmers are now more open to them, points out Jaishree Shelar, the owner of a marriage bureau in rural Satara district.

Meanwhile, Ashok Bhokare, the sarpanch of Godhegaon village in Ahmednagar district, has a different kind of a proposal for newly-married village youth. At a village meeting, he urged them to adopt family planning methods to avoid pregnancies during the pandemic.

“The health system is already under tremendous pressure and we don’t want to expose the mother and child to the Covid-19 crisis and the ensuing situation,” Bhokare says.

Published on June 26, 2020
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