I travelled miles, for many a year,
Spent riches, in lands afar,
I’ve gone to see the mountains, the oceans I’ve been to view.
But I haven’t seen with these eyes
What two steps from my home lies
On a sheaf of paddy grain, a glistening drop of dew.
Words gifted by a great poet to a child who would grow up to be another great cultural ambassador of India (The original words are in Bengali. These are the work of an unknown translator, sourced from the Internet). While it might seem to be a short poem on travelling, lore has it that when Tagore wrote this for Satyajit Ray, he added a disclaimer that Ray, then six years old, would understand its true meaning when he grew up.
As I write on migrant workers, whose plight during the lockdown has put them in the limelight, those golden words throw a new perspective before me.
While in a large country like India migration may be triggered by various social, economic, or political factors, the movement of population in different parts of the country helps in understanding the dynamics of society better. With some states developing faster than others, migration has become more frequent. The number of migrants also increases, owing to a disparity between living standards, between the rural and urban parts.
If we stick to definitions, when a person is enumerated in a census at a different place than his/her place of birth, he/she is considered a migrant. Factoring out marriage, which is the most common reason of migration among women, Professor Amitabh Kundu of the Research & Information System for Developing Countries estimates that 30 per cent of interstate migrants are casual workers and another 30 per cent work on a regular basis, but in the informal sector.
This, however, does not represent the numbers of those who do not get captured by normal worker data surveys. A study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and the Azim Premji University in 2019 estimates that 29 per cent of the population of India’s big cities consists of daily wagers. Given their economic condition, most of these migrant workers have to cut down on their standard of living, hygiene, and sanitation as they have to maintain multiple establishments.
When we add them up, we get a considerable section of the population that migrates for work but still lives in a state of vulnerability—a vulnerability that got glaringly exposed during the nationwide lockdown that was imposed in end-March to check the spread of the coronavirus. Then why would such huge numbers move from the security of their immediate social environments to distant cities or states?
The answer to this is as complex as any other aspect of human behavior and livelihood. However, if we restrict ourselves to a single dimension, it might be rooted in our psychology of taking decisions by association. A majority of the migrant workers moved bases on the advice of a close friend or a family member who had already migrated for work. A reference to an easy earning opportunity stops us from exploring the newer options that have become available to us since the time that the person who makes the reference had migrated.
On a side note, luring the vulnerable through stories of such income opportunities is also one of the prime methods employed by those who are into heinous crimes such as women and child trafficking.
Microfinance to offset migration
Over the years, the role and penetration of the microfinance industry have ensured that micro-enterprises grow in the financially deprived sections of our society. Collectively, we have been trying to create an environment of income generation through direct and indirect employment.
With the constant support of the government, MFI organizations steadily grow not only ensuring income generation but also spreading financial literacy. Add to that, the constant thrust on using digital tools that brings the micro-enterprises closer to their potential buyers.
The economically vulnerable sections, especially the rural people, now have opportunities that are equal to, if not better than, the earning capabilities of migrants—with the added advantage of not having to leave a familiar environment. We need to build awareness to change the perception that the grass is always greener in a distant land.
While migration may still happen, let it be a choice and not a compulsion. Let there be no regret, like “But I haven’t seen with these eyes, What two steps from my home lies.”