Leveraging reverse migration

Dhirendra Kumar | Updated on July 20, 2020

Change agents: Migrant workers, armed with the knowledge of Internet and social media, can revamp rural livelihoods

Putting to use the skills and knowledge of migrant workers can boost livelihoods and quality of life in India’s villages

Post the Covid-19 outbreak in India, rural areas and rural lives — especially of ‘migrant workers’ — have attracted unprecedented attention. Visuals of people, including children, walking hungry and barefooted with blank expressions shook the conscience of the nation. The lockdown brought various activities to a standstill and these workers were suddenly jobless with neither money nor hope. Faced with no other choice, they started going back home, however they could, and thus began the phenomenon so unceremoniously called reverse migration.

Almost at the same time, when the media was abuzz with horror stories of migrant workers, rural India was experiencing something unbelievable. The wheat harvest had begun. A large number of migrant workers returned to their villages during the harvest time (one of the reasons for workers fleeing the cities in droves during the lockdown). Few, who had come to celebrate Holi at their villages but could not return due to the lockdown, joined hands with the others and soon the harvesting of wheat was in full swing. Wheat procurement by the Food Corporation of India (FCI) as on June 23 reached 38.5 million tonnes, surpassing last year’s procurement of 34.13 million tonnes. Soon after harvesting, due to the early onset of monsoon, the sowing of kharif crops commenced.

By the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer Welfare estimates, a 39 per cent increase in the area sown has already been recorded vis-à-vis the corresponding period in last year. Thus, agriculture has emerged as a bright spot even during the pandemic, when all other sectors are gasping for breath. This is good news not only for the food security of the nation, but also for the economy, as the money in the hands of farmers after two successful crops will give the much needed push to demand.

This is also the time to think and work strategically so that the resilience shown by the agriculture sector, with contribution from migrant workers, is not only made more sustainable but is also leveraged to improve the lives and livelihoods of the rural people. The basic aim is optimum utilisation of the skills of migrant workers, especially their knowledge of the Internet and social media, to work on challenges in agriculture and rural areas.

The idea is to reposition the much-talked-about migrant workers as the change agents. For this, three aspects come into play:

Migrant workers’ experience

One of the major challenges of Indian agriculture is ineffective outreach of extension efforts. Technology can play a role here. If messages/technical details on improved agriculture practices and information related to the weather and markets could be passed on to the villages in local languages via the migrant workers, using social media, the results may turn out to be just unbelievable. It may lead to enhanced or diversified production, fewer losses due to the vagaries of weather, and better price realisation.

The waning interest of the youth in agriculture has been a major challenge in recent times. Leveraging the skills and knowledge of the migrant workers, besides improving the productivity of agriculture, may also address the issue of migration to some extent. If this eventually leads to even 10-20 per cent of migrant workers staying back with a new means of livelihood, that is, agriculture and marketing of agriculture produce, it would have a large socio-economic impact. Various Central/State agriculture universities/krishi vigyan kendras may take the lead in this direction.

Promotion of agro processing

Agro-processing, even at a small level, can contribute in a large way in enhancing farm income. Small processing plants can be installed at the village level (for a cluster of around 10-12 villages). Migrant workers, many of whom have technical skills, can be groomed as entrepreneurs/operators.

The Ministry of Food Processing Industries recently launched the Scheme for Formalisation of Micro Food Processing Enterprises under the Atmanirbhar Bharat package. Operationalisation of this scheme will not be possible without technical manpower, and migrant workers with a little bit of skill upgradation and orientation can come in handy.

This would be a source of sustainable livelihood for them, and at the same time, the availability of agro processing right in the neighbourhood would help realise better prices for farmers as well, post processing. Banks, MSMEs, agriculture departments and agro industry corporations at the State level will have to work in a coordinated manner to connect the dots and realise the huge potential for agro processing, for the benefit of both farmers and migrant workers.

Improving quality of life

The quality of life in rural areas needs improvement, and many a times, it is one of the reasons for migration to cities in the first place. Implementation of the Swachh Bharat Mission is still work in progress. Piped water supply is available to only 40 per cent of the rural population. The government, through its ‘Jal Jeevan Mission’, and the various State governments are working in this direction. Installation of small waste disposal plants at the village level is a huge potential opportunity. The sale of manure produced by these plants can be a source of livelihood, besides making the villages filth-free.

Similarly, the greater use of solar power domestically or in irrigation offers huge livelihood potential for many who could be engaged in installation and maintenance of solar plants/panels, while the activity itself would contribute to enhanced incomes of rural households.

Work on all the activities described above need masons, plumbers, electricians, painters, workers with experience in fabrication work and so on. Many migrant workers will fit the bill. This would not only give them work but also serve as an incentive for a good number of them to stay back in villages as their living conditions could improve. Rural development departments and Gram panchayats can explore this opportunity.

Migration by choice is understandable, but may have serious repercussions if it is forced, as is the case with a large number of migrant workers. The avenues described above are aimed at turning the crisis of reverse migration into an opportunity for not only enhancing the income of rural areas, but also to improve the quality of life in villages and, thus, arrest the trend of migration. This is the need of the hour, literally, as work on these opportunities needs to be initiated immediately, that is, before the migrants start returning to cities.

The writer is a General Manger in NABARD. Views are personal

Published on July 20, 2020

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