perspective: Labour trends

The migrant’s dilemma

There was a time when Loharu would promptly answer Ludhiana if asked about which place he considered home.

The migrant’s dilemma

There are no exact figures on the dip in labour migration from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to Punjab and Haryana, but the numbers have certainly gone down across all sectors. Tribune file photos

Sarbjit Dhaliwal

There was a time when Loharu would promptly answer Ludhiana if asked about which place he considered home. Now, he evades the question. His village in Bihar’s Purnia has not changed much over the years he’s lived and worked as a labourer in Punjab, but the economics of migration and development now offers him choices he never had. The rural job scheme option in his village apart, Loharu can earn as much in Patna if he so desires. 

Now that, he says in Punjabi, has been a reason for many of his acquaintances deciding to leave and stay put in Bihar, but he’s still having doubts. “That’s because Biharis, certainly I for one, are similar to Punjabis in one aspect,” he says, his style of delivery very much a reflection of his adopted home. “They feel ashamed to work as labourers in their own state. Send them outside, and they don’t mind trying their hand at anything for money.”

Loharu speaks for himself certainly, not the majority. Though there is no study that highlights the exact fall in the flow of migrant labour to Punjab from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and other states, experts say the decline could be as high as 40-50 per cent. In 2013, a study conducted by economist Prof Sucha Singh Gill found the flow of internal as well as inter-state migrant labour having come down. Fellow economist Prof Ranjit Singh Ghuman put the number of migrant labour at 23 per cent of the total agriculture workforce in Punjab. His study gave a figure of 7 lakh casual migrant labour, and the ratio of casual to regular labour at 80:20. 

Ten years back, the Punjab Human Development report listed the inter-state migration figures of the late 1990s. Though outdated, these give a sense of the migration trends. The number of migrants working in the agriculture sector was 7 lakh, in brick-kilns 2 lakh, in the manufacturing sector such as textile and hosiery 4 lakh, sport industry 2 lakh, grain markets 1.5 lakh, the number of those pulling rickshaws was 1 lakh, those in the construction sector totalled 1.5 lakh and those working on roads 50,000. It put the total figure at 21.65 lakh. This, of course, was much before the construction boom of 2002.

Upkar Singh, general secretary of the Chamber of Industry and Commercial Undertakings (CICUs), Ludhiana, says the figures are irrelevant in the face of hard facts. “You may call it an effect of the rural job guarantee scheme or the improved economy of states like Bihar and UP, but one thing is for sure that over the past some years, the arrival of workers from these states has gone down substantially,” he stresses. Consequently, labour rates have almost doubled in the past five years.

Because of the general slowdown in the economy, he points out, the demand for casual labour has also gone down to some extent. “All types of industries have been affected due to the shrinking labour flow. Our strategy to cope with labour shortage is to increase 20 per cent productivity, 20 per cent automation and to employ 20 per cent local women by giving them training,” he says.

In his field report this year, Dr Krishan Chand of the Central for Research in Rural and Industrial Development claimed that “some industries in Punjab, especially in Ludhiana and Amritsar, are closing down due to shortage of labour”.

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act scheme has, since its inception, impacted the flow of workers from labour surplus states. In Punjab itself, migrant labour that worked in rural areas has been moving to urban areas to supplement income and improve their living conditions. Its character too has changed from unskilled to skilled to some extent over a period of time.

The major reason for migration is survival, and the next is to supplement income. By and large, migrant labour has been coming to Punjab for basic economic necessities of life. The temporary or casual workers in the farm sector come during the peak season for harvesting of crops and transplantation of paddy. Since the labour work is seasonal and need-based, making comparisons of figures does not really sum up the shifting migration story. Prolonged seasonal journeys to native places has been a common practice among all sections of labourers, and that’s largely to do with working in their own fields there. 

As money flows and conditions improve, the reasons for coming back to the second home have also changed. Like with Vishwanath Rai, who works near Sirhind, and is from Sitamarhi in Bihar. A regular seasonal worker in Punjab for the past 25 years, he and his son had started a small dairy farm in their village by taking a loan. “But my two cows died and I fell under debt. Now I am back to earn money to pay off the debt,” he says, adding that most of the labourers coming to Punjab from his state and UP are those who have to pay back loans of moneylenders, who can even charge interest rates up to 50-60 per cent.

Shambu Nath, also from Sitamarhi, and co-farm worker Salim agree that their wages are up here, but not their savings. “People say we survive on nothing and send everything we earn back home. Have you noticed how costly even potatoes and onions are? In the end, the more things change, the more they remain the same,” says Nath. “Why I keep coming back and not find work in Bihar, I don’t know. But I do, Maybe it’s something to do with familiarity. Seniority, that’s the word,” he chuckles, as Salim lets his laughter show.

 It’s no laughing matter for farmer Sukhbir Singh of Hindupur village in Sirhind. He’s managed to hold on to eight labourers from Bihar for several years, but the expenses have been rising steadily. “They will come in March to harvest wheat now, they’ve gone back after transplanting paddy. I now have to ensure not only their stay and food, but also interest-free loans of reasonable amounts,” he says. “But that’s okay, as long as they come back,” he reasons.

It’s the hugely migrant labour dependent industrial cities like Ludhiana that have really had to adjust. “I would say that our dependency on migrant labour is to the extent of 98 per cent, if not 100 per cent,” says Vinod Thapar, Chairman, Knitwear Club, Ludhiana. 

To retain the labour has itself become a big task. “We have got trained managers whose job it is to keep the labour and their families happy. We provide rent-free quarters, make arrangements for their entertainment and also provide help in the education of their wards,” adds Thapar. The shift is all too visible, for better or for worse.

Rural job guarantee and its ripple effects

A fierce debate was witnessed between Rural Development Minister in the UPA-II government Jairam Ramesh and his Cabinet colleagues P Chidambaram and Sharad Pawar on the issue of migrant labour last year.

Ramesh wrote to the then Prime Mahatma Manmohan Singh challenging Chidambaram and Pawar’s assertion that the rural job scheme was having a negative impact on the farm sector, since it had reduced the availability of labour from key supplier states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh for the agricultural operations in Punjab, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Haryana. In 2013-14, the total budget outlay for MNREGA scheme was Rs 33,000 crore, of which Rs 29,886 crore was released for payment. In Bihar, 14,32,576 households were provided employment in 2013-14 (till December 2013) and in Uttar Pradesh 44,74,138. A direct effect on migration could be deduced. MNREGA was implemented in all districts in April 2008. It has provided jobs to 5 crore households on an average every year. The average wage earned per beneficiary has been gone up from Rs 65 in 2006 to Rs 124 per day in 2013. 

However, since the scheme guarantees work for only 100 days, migration is a necessity — where to becomes the next question. In the state itself or out to Punjab or Haryana? Also, only a minuscule section of labourers gets employment for all 100 days. Official MNREGA data reveals that the percentage of workers getting work for 100 days guaranteed under the scheme is just about 4 per cent in Bihar and less than 1 per cent in Uttar Pradesh.

Displacement for new economic placement

  • Till 1960, the farm sector was a family affair in Punjab. Only a few big farmers used to engage local labour on contract and crop-share basis 
  • As the state ushered in the Green Revolution in late 1960s, intensive agriculture began and the demand for labour started growing up
  • Labour started migrating from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and other states such as Madhya Pradesh and Odisha
  • With Punjab moving to paddy in a big way in the late 1970s and 1980s, this labour-intensive crop jacked up the demand for workers
  • With the rise in income, farmers started engaging cheap migrant labour
  • With farming becoming capital intensive because of mechanisation, the farmers came under fiscal stress 
  • Though the process of automation is underway in all sectors, it will take some time to achieve it for potato growers. Five more years, according to Sukhjit Singh Bhatti, a potato grower from Jalandhar

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