In Gobardhanpur, one of the last villages in West Bengal to fall into the Sundarban Delta region, locals fear a coronavirus epidemic. In just two days, on March 19 and 20, and before interstate train services were suspended on March 21, hundreds of migrant workers arrived in the region, mostly from southern states, residents say.
“Two days before the lockdown, almost 100 people came here to two villages. The villagers immediately informed the local administration, which ordered the migrant workers to stay at home. Today, the villagers strictly monitor their movements, ”explains Biswadip Sahu, a fisherman in Gobardhanpur.
Hiron Raut, along with nine other people, arrived at his Buraburir Tat, a village adjacent to Gobardhapur, about 10 days from Kerala, where he earned 600 to 900 rupees a day as a construction worker. His savings will soon run out and he looks to an uncertain future. The government of West Bengal has announced aid of 1,000 rupees per month to daily workers in the state.
“All the money we had will be used up in the next 15 to 20 days. I don’t know how I’m going to survive after this. I don’t know how long the government will support us, “said Raut.
The thousands of workers who return home to West Bengal in the midst of the pandemic are seen as a responsibility and unwanted guests in their own homes. Meanwhile, the plight of the rural economy is already visible.
“Many small grocery stores in rural areas have closed permanently because they cannot buy essential food items at high prices from large merchants. This rural distress could take on gigantic proportions. As for these migrant workers, they are very prone to exploitation as there will be an oversupply of labor in rural areas, “said Dilip Benerjee, an Ashoka fellow who studied migration patterns in West Bengal.
“Migrant workers who are now back home are seen as a huge burden on the local economy. They don’t have the skills to be employed in agriculture, “said Aniruddha Dey, executive director, Professional Institute for Development & Socio Environmental Management (PRISM), an environmental consulting company.
Indrajit Das, a textile worker in Tamil Nadu, fears he will be forced to start farming, the only source of livelihood in Chimta in the Sundarbans, a village that does not yet have an electrical connection.
“It will be a great challenge for me to get into farming, as I have never done before. But I will have to do it now, if things stay that way for a long time, ”says Das.
However, Das considers himself fortunate to have returned home. His colleagues informed him of Chennai one day ago that they were having trouble getting meals twice a day.
“Many of my friends couldn’t come back and said they were having trouble getting full meals. Bengal workers will not be helped in Tamil Nadu, “he said.
“This pandemic is mainly an urban phenomenon and people have rushed into rural areas when they see shelters there. But due to the sudden increase in the supply of labor, market wages, including those in agriculture, will fall. These people would now depend on the MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) to work, but the worrying fact is that on average in the past four years, employment under the MNREGA has only been provided for 40 to 45 days a year. In addition, daily wages are much lower than agricultural wages, ”says KR Shyam Sundar, professor of human resources management at the Xavier Institute of Management, Jamshedpur.
According to 2011 census data, West Bengal ranked fourth among states in terms of outbound migration. The numbers have only increased since then.
Over the past two decades, West Bengal has experienced a massive wave of outward migration, particularly to Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Delhi and Maharashtra. With the closure of factories and tea gardens, the fall in farm income and the Aila storm that ravaged much of the West Bengal Delta in 2010, migration has gradually become the norm
“In 2001, West Bengal was net positive in terms of migration, but in 2011 it became net negative. A long-term political failure, a demographic transition that added a large young population and agrarian stagnation led to this wave of outward migration, and it has increased, “explains Rabiul Ansary, assistant professor, department of geography, University of Utkal.
The migration enterprise is itself an industry in some rural parts of Bengal.
“Wherever people got easily absorbed, they went. There are agents who act as mediators to provide jobs for young people, especially school dropouts in their early teens. Those who leave as migrant workers become agents themselves after a few years, ”says Dey.
While a construction worker in the southern states can earn up to 500 to 900 rupees a day, in West Bengal, agriculture earns no more than 200 to 300 rupees a day.
“These people came in a jiffy and many did not even have time to collect contributions from their employers. They can barely survive for 20 to 25 days, ”says Pranabesh, a social worker with the Sundarban Green Environment Association.
In North Bengal, another hot spot of emigration, many women have left their homes to work as domestic workers in the northern states of India. Unlike men, few were able to return home in the middle of the pandemic.
“Many workers wanted to return, but could not. Several people came in trucks and the police took them to local hospitals for a checkup. Now tea workers are also concerned that once the gardens are open they will not be paid for days. There are also concerns that many migrant workers may not get jobs for long, as they may be sidelined due to social distancing, “said Nita Dhar, senior program coordinator, PRISM.
As the world waits for the end of the global pandemic, rural Bengal is gradually witnessing a recession.