Migrant crisis calls for revival of Gandhi’s Gram Swaraj

Dharmendra Chandurkar | Updated on June 01, 2020 Published on June 01, 2020

A self-reliant, independent, self-governed village built on the premises of sustainable growth is the need of the hour

Ever since the country went under lockdown, the mass exodus of migrant workers and their plight dominated the headlines. While there have been efforts by States, tales of hardships, desperation and destitution have been moving all and sundry. And, help has come from unexpected quarters — citizenry and civil society, who have gone to great lengths to support the most affected group. A significant proportion of the migrant workers has already reached their home States, thanks to the relaxations announced under lockdown 4.0. But will they go back when order is restored in the post-emergency new normal?

A major proportion of this workforce — estimated at 80-100 million — will be there in the villages, at least in the near future. And this new ‘stay-back-at-home’ decision will have widespread impact both in the place of work and, most significantly, at the place of residence. At the macro level, disruptions are expected in the industrial and agricultural clusters nurtured by the migrants and these would be more visible over time. The immediate effects are already being felt with State leaderships asking the locals to stand in for the migrants.

However, the most significant impact will be in the rural hinterlands — the villages where these migrants return to. The huge influx is already having an adverse immediate impact on multiple aspects of rural lives and livelihoods. A recent study by a leading a civil society organisation, anchored by Vikas Anvesh Foundation and Sambodhi, has reported that 50 per cent of rural India is already eating less. The already stretched food reserves have to now cater to this incoming populace that may result in acute food shortages.

The Centre for Sustainable Employment, Azim Premji University, has reported significant losses both in jobs and incomes. The returning workforce will only aggravate the situation. With limited opportunities in local agriculture or under MGNREGS, underemployment and unemployment will both see as exponential increase.

No takers for the skilled

But the most significant effect is in terms of an unprecedented skilling of the rural economy — the skill-sets brought by the semi-skilled and skilled migrants who would remain in the villages. A skill set that was a livelihood asset in the pre-Covid times, is not finding any takers in the new scheme of things. Given the present state of things, the machinists, plumbers, electricians and the likes will have little space or no space in the village economy or the rural ecosystem.

In the MNREGA scheme of things, the returning workforce would be sub-optimally utilised, mostly wasted as wage labourers. Ditto in agriculture. The classical situation of more mouths to feed with less hands to work. And, add to this, a range of societal and psycho-social issues — domestic violence, alcoholism, substance abuse, and the like.

And, therefore, something needs to be done to address the issue — which, definitely, is being done. There are initiatives for developing a database of migrants and the skills. Discussions have started on how-best to use these skills for local development, and initiatives are being furthered for linking with local industries. Micro-enterprises, village-based industries and clusters have regained their space in the discourse, are also being thought of and furthered to provide avenues for the absorption of this new workforce.

Sustainable solution

No doubt, the alternatives are reactionary but very necessary as we navigate through the crises and try alleviating the adverse effects to the maximum extent possible. Sustainable solution in no ambiguous terms questions the contemporary paradigm of development. Why these people have to leave their homes, families and travels thousands of kilometres in search of better opportunities. Can their aspirations of better income, education, health and life be fulfilled only in a distant place, away from home and family? What if opportunities were in a place close by or in the village itself?

Is it the time for Gram Swaraj redux? The Gandhian vision of Gram Swaraj envisioned a self-reliant, self-sufficient village entity where all that is needed for dignified living is there. The village economy maximises the potential of local resources and possibilities, built on non-exploitative regimes — of people and resources. A self-reliant, independent, self-governed village built on the premises of sustainable growth, prosperity and happiness to all.

Almost 15 years back, I was facilitating a discussion on quality of life among a group of Baigas — a forest-dwelling primitive tribe — in Dindori district of Madhya Pradesh. Quality of life for them meant abundant bamboo in forest (to construct houses), flowing streams for drinking water, no debt and, most importantly, ‘no need to go out of village for work’.

As I look down every morning from my 11th floor balcony and see the groups of migrants walking to their homes — with all belongings on their heads, and small children in tow — the question I ask is: “What did we do that they have to leave their village?” The message is getting louder and louder — of a Gandhian Gram Swaraj re-imagined for the post-Covid world.

The writer is Co-founder, Sambodhi Research & Communications

Published on June 01, 2020
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