Coronavirus lockdown | Pandemic adds to the penury of tribal migrants in Madhya Pradesh

Given the unsustainable conditions in hamlets in the tribal districts of Madhya Pradesh, people have no other go but to move out again for work

Updated - May 11, 2020 11:30 pm IST

Published - May 11, 2020 10:25 pm IST - Barwani

Residents of Limbi village in Madhya Pradesh’s Barwani district holding a meeting on May 11, 2020.

Residents of Limbi village in Madhya Pradesh’s Barwani district holding a meeting on May 11, 2020.

In February, Gulab Jamre’s family made the biannual trip from Barwani in Madhya Pradesh to Junagadh in Gujarat, some 700 km away, hoping to clear some debt through work and also buy farm implements. In fact, they made enough money this time.

Full coverage on coronavirus

But then the lockdown was announced, scuttling their plan to return in March and draining all their earnings. Before they starved, the family of three decided to board a truck back home paying ₹6,000.

“I will go back after the rains. There is no work back home,” said Mr. Jamre, 30, who worked in Junagadh as an agricultural labourer along with his wife. A loan of ₹10,000, taken for medical expenses, is outstanding. And the half-acre land back in Sawariyapani village of Barwani can sustain the Barela adivasi family for only two months.

Widespread malaise

The Jamres are not alone. As thousands of adivasi migrant workers return empty-handed amid the extended lockdown, battling uncertainty and hunger, their villages have little to offer. Their land holdings are small, local agricultural wages are low, payments under the MGNREGA are sluggish and measures to create local employment have faltered — the very predicaments that drove them to leave home for work in the first place.

In Gujarat, the workers make ₹300-400 a day, almost three times the wages in Barwani. “Our fathers had meagre plots of land. And now it is divided among four-five brothers,” said another migrant adivasi, 40-year-old Saka Ram.

Also read: Coronavirus | Madhya Pradesh caught between pandemic and penury

As workers boarded the bus to Gujarat ahead of the harvest, each paying ₹700 as fare, they were accompanied by villagers who were stepping outside for the first time. “We get a commission of ₹50 for convincing a villager to come with us. Next year, they will convince others,” said Mr. Ram.

Coupled with a faltering economy in the villages and the incentives of working for a decent wage, the number of migrants is swelling each year.

“Our forefathers depended mostly on forest produce,” said Valsing Sastia, of Limbi village in the district. “But foliage has disappeared gradually with felling of teak trees for timber.”

Also read: Coronavirus | Madhya Pradesh pushes working hours from eight to 12 in factories

This time, said Kailash Solanki, the village’s Rozgar Sahayak, around 300-400 more villagers than usual had applied for work under MGNREGA.

Delayed payments

“The demand has increased now as more workers are returning than before. Under the scheme, they get paid in 15 days, but outside, they are paid the same evening. That’s why they migrate,” he said. Of the 2,380 voters, 887 have MGNREGA job cards.

Sawariyapani’s Rozgar Sahayak Suresh Lakdiya Jamre said, “Uncertainty of payments under the scheme drove workers away.” Around 900 households have job cards, while the village's population is 4,000.

Also read: Coronavirus | In Madhya Pradesh, power play during a pandemic

“If it doesn’t rain enough this time, they will migrate now. If it does, they will migrate after three-four months,”said Madhuri Krishnaswamy of the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan. “These are marginal farmers who eke out bare subsistence from farming. It feeds them for only a few months.”

Workers in the Nimar region of Barwani, Khandwa, Khargone and Burhanpur districts, were lately moving to work in industries, where conditions were worse, added Ms. Krishnaswamy. “The supply of labour is more than the demand in agriculture locally,” she explained.

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