Around three million migrant workers who returned to their homes after losing jobs in the aftermath of corona-induced lockdown could be the “game-changers” in the ongoing assembly in Bihar. Image Credit: Supplied

Patna: Around three million migrant workers who returned to their homes after losing jobs in the aftermath of corona-induced lockdown could be the “game-changers” in the ongoing assembly in Bihar with a fairly large percentage of them still to get jobs at home. The three-phase state elections begin from October 28.

According to information received from the office of the Election Commission, 6.7 million people have been enrolled as new voters in Bihar this year. Of them, the number of migrants enrolled as voters is 1.62 million which, experts say, could play a decisive role in the determining the fate of the government.

Past records showed the migrant workers would merrily return to their homes along with their families with the twin purposes to celebrate festivals at home and also cast the votes at the assembly elections which coincided with festival time since 2005.

But this time, the situation is entirely different. The migrants have been staying at homes out of sheer compulsions of losing their jobs as a result of COVID-19 outbreak and they have no option to get employed at homes. While there are no big factories in the state, agriculture sector could be employ only the unskilled labourers. This has left the workers fuming and frustrated.

“Hundreds of migrants who returned home after lockdown have been lying idle at home. They have no jobs. They are awaiting calls from their employers to go back to work while there is no job in Bihar,” said Shiv Prasad Ram, an activist from Dalit Vikas Sangathan (Organisation for Dalit Development), an NGO, active in Samastipur district.

No opportunities

Similar story was told by a village council official In Sitamarhi district Hulas Shah. “Hordes of migrant workers are roaming around in the areas for jobs but there are no employment opportunities available at this time,” Shah said. According to them, while some have returned to work, others are waiting for calls from employers and let the situation get normal.

Migrants are also angry at the way they were treated by the state government as well as Indian government. TV footage shows how streams of workers continued travelling by roads and railway tracks on foot carrying petty goods on heads and babies in arms to reach home, covering thousands of kilometers. Experts say the migrants who come from all caste groups could be a major factor in the state elections where the elections are decided generally by a margin of 5000 to 10,000 votes.

“Just divide three million migrants with 243 (the number of assembly seats in Bihar) and you will understand the importance of migrants in this election. They have not come on their own but by compulsion and their votes could be the deciding factor,” commented political expert DM Diwakar, former director at Patna-based AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies.

In the last 2015 assembly polls, there were as many as 60 seats out of total 243 where the margin of victory was as low as 8,000. This amply indicates what role the migrants are going to play in the elections, experts said.

According to an official report, there are around 25 districts in Bihar out of its total 38, where migrants have impressive numbers—ranging from 40,000 to over 100,000. Of them, two districts, such as Madhubani and East Champaran have more than 100,000 migrant workers while in four districts, their population is more than 80,000.

According to a latest study conducted by a group of Non-Profit Organisations, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) has failed to serve purposes to the returnee migrants so far. The study was conducted last month in twin states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Major factors

As per the study, although the government has increased MNREGA allocation, this is not reaching those most in need. The major factors coming on the way, according to the study, are corruption, delay in non-payment of remuneration, low job allocation, and loans that the community has taken from non-institutional sources. The study said despite the government’s good intention and budgetary allocations, migrants are getting into debt bondage and children are at high risk of child labour.

The study said only 20-50% job card holders have been able to access MGNREGA work which is leading to distress migration. “In Bihar, in most locations only 50% of families have job cards and those who don’t have them, are not interested in getting them issued because of their previous experience of non-payment/delay in payment. In UP, even in areas where job card holders are significantly high, job allocation is very low. In both states, communities are dependent on verbal requests for job demand which cause a lacuna for corruption,” the study said.

The study added that the migrants are at high risk of debt bondage and trafficking because in all locations, significant number of families has taken loans from non-institutional credit sources. It is foreseen that if they are unable to pay loans, then they would fall into debt bondage and their children would be forced into child labour.

In Bihar, the study was conducted in various districts, such as Sitamarhi, Gaya, Rohtas, East Cahmparan, West Champaran, Muzaffarpur, Purnia, Katihar, Kishanganj, Araria, Saharsa, Khagaria, Begusarai, Nawada and Nalanda where huge number of migrant workers have returned after lockdown.

“The payment rates under MNREGA are substantially less than the market rates. Secondly, contrary to the market, payments are not prompt and faultless,” said the study conducted in Sitamarhi district by Adithi, an NGO.

According to the research, due to poor financial conditions, almost all families have taken loans from Self-Help Groups or local money lenders, relatives or others often on high interest rate and this has put additional burden on them due to no earnings.

“The reasons why the job under the MNREGA scheme has failed to attract job seekers are low wages as compared to market rates and also delayed/irregular payment to the beneficiaries. The per day wage under the MNREGA is only Rs 194 whereas labourers in the same locations get daily wage jobs with payments up to Rs 250 per day,” said Suresh Kumar, Executive Director of Centre DIRECT.