Patna: The coronavirus outbreak may have brought untold miseries to people across every walk of life, but it is also slowly turning into a blessing in disguise for the Indian state of Bihar.
Village after village, once deserted when the poor residents migrated outside the state in search of livelihood, are suddenly coming back to life with hordes of migrant workers returning home after being left jobless in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak and the ensuing nationwide lockdown. Returning migrants are piecing things together and trying to make new beginnings by starting humble businesses.
Villagers who have returned from various Indian cities, braving all odds, can now be seen sitting at the village squares or on platforms erected near places of worship meant for the community or under the shades of trees, chatting, playing cards or rubbing tobacco on their palms. Many feel that after a long time, the deserted villages have started to come alive. Previously, it was either the elderly, women or children who could be seen in these villages. The male members of these families, who were mostly migrant labourers, would return to their homes only during the annual festivals.
The lockdown has indeed dealt a blow to the futures of many, but all is not lost yet. As these returning labourers are trying to rebuild their lives around new business initiatives, they are being fully supported by their neighbours and co-villagers. This has boosted the morale of many of those who suddenly find themselves at a crossroads.
Take the case of Vivek Kumar, 35, a resident of Raghopur block in Bihar’s Supaul district. Vivek, who worked as a manager at a prominent hotel group in Dubai, returned to his village during Holi this March to be with his family and friends. He was scheduled to leave for Dubai on March 29, but before that, the nationwide lockdown came into force in India. Since then, he is stuck at home.
Initially, he wished to return to Dubai, but with the lockdown getting extended in India and the pandemic ravaging business activities across the globe, Vivek has now decided to stay back for good. A couple of days ago, he bought three cows and started his own dairy. “Never thought such a situation will ever occur in my life. I used to earn good money after doing business management, but the coronavirus disaster has taught us a huge lesson,” Vivek said. He added he would stay at the village in the company of his family and friends and continue with his dairy business. “Such initiatives by returning migrant workers will create job opportunities for others. So, whatever happens, it happens for the good. I am happy,” an optimistic Vivek said.
The case of Jitendra Kumar Yadav, 50, a resident of Saraigarh-Bhaptiyahi block in the same Supaul district, is also very interesting. Jitendra was a contractor, earning a handsome amount from his business in Gurugram, Haryana, and other Indian cities for the past 18 years. However, the pandemic forced him to return to his family at his native village. Now, he doesn’t want to leave his village anymore.
“The disaster has made me understand the meaning of life. For the first time in my life, I have come to know the importance of one’s own villagers. My village is everything for me,” Jitendra said. He added he had given his land to some local villagers for sharecropping, but “from now on, I myself will indulge in farming”. He has also planned to open a roadside eatery near the highway where he aims to generate employment for ten people.
Another migrant worker Ganga Ram, 36, a resident of Birpur Gandak Colony in Supaul district, has opened a motor garage at his village. He was employed with a cotton mill in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Now, he doesn’t intend to quit his native place. “My wife is happy and I have no grievances at all,” he said.
Ranjan Kumar, 26, another migrant worker who returned home from Mumbai, has opened a stationery shop in his home block of Runniaidpur in Sitamarhi district. “I will invest more once the situation gets normal. I also plan to buy a photocopier machine to add to my daily income. A life among friends and family members, even with a small income, is better than a bigger income away from home,” Ranjan reasoned.
More than 300,000 migrant workers have returned home since the nationwide lockdown was imposed in India from the midnight of March 24. According to a report released by the state government, the total number of migrant labourers from Bihar is around three million. These are migrants who got themselves registered with the state government for availing monetary benefits of Rs1,000 each, as announced by the Bihar government for those who remained stranded due to the lockdown. However, unofficial reports claim that their actual numbers could be more than five million since many of these labourers do not have access to smart phones and are not technology savvy and therefore, their numbers could not be taken into account.
The Census data for 2001 and the 64th round of NSSO estimations say that more than 5.26 million people from Bihar were residing in other states, which was nearly 6.3 per cent of the state’s total population as shown in the census for the same year. This figure of 6.3 per cent of migrant labourers, when compared against the state’s total population of 104,099,452 — according to the 2011 census — comes to 6,558,265, which is a much higher figure than what the 2001 census had revealed. These numbers amply indicate how the exodus of migrants had left Bihar’s villages deserted for decades.