Since early July, a crossroad that used to be called Kanta Chowk, in the flood-hit town of Sitamarhi in northern Bihar, has been busy. Each day, about twenty-five busses packed with Bihari workers leaves the curb, heading to Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra or Punjab, any place that promises employment. This gave the crossroad its new name, Dilli Modh. More than one thousand migrants have left from Dilli Modh every day for the past four months, after the COVID-19 lockdown, floods and government incompetence left Biharis with few avenues for employment in the state. In May, Nitish Kumar, the state’s chief minister and supremo of the Janata Dal (United), had promised to provide employment to every single migrant returning to Bihar, assuring them that they would not need to migrate out of the state again. The ground realities belie the colossal failure of his promise.
The first phase of polling in Bihar’s assembly election occurred on 28 October, with the state’s widespread unemployment being the most widely discussed issue. Over 32.6 lakh migrant workers returned to the state after the central government had announced a hurried lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic. To fulfil his promise, Kumar’s plans, which he described in various interactions with the media, included strengthening the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, announcing new jobs under the Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyan, an employment generation scheme targeting returning migrants, starting skill-training programmes in the state and setting up new small-scale production units to employ skilled and semi-skilled migrants who returned to the state.
Nearly every one of these plans have been unsuccessful. A vast majority of workers have not gotten the work they are entitled to under MGNREGA, partly due to widespread corruption in the system. Meanwhile, the GKRA has barely reached 50 percent of its targeted spending and it is unclear how many jobs it has created. In my reporting I found that skill-training programmes as well as small scale units exist more on paper than in reality and have not produced any credible results. Many in the state have also been affected by disastrous flooding in July and August, which destroyed agricultural fields, homes and the meagre savings that they had. All of this has meant that many workers have left and continue to leave the state to search for employment. Many have left before they could vote in the Bihar polls. “Even this remigration has come with a cost for many who took debts from moneylenders to start afresh on returning to big cities,” Siddharth Kumar, a workers’ rights activist based in West Champaran district, told me. “Another cost for many was to be their dignity. After the humiliation and ill-treatment they suffered during the lockdown, most of them who did not intend to return to big cities were compelled to do so. How long could one survive even at home with no source of livelihood?”