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?”
In July, a survey conducted by the Alliance for Dalit Rights—an umbrella group of Dalit organisations—found that even at the start of the pandemic, the economic situation of rural Bihari households, particularly those from marginalised communities, was dire. Their survey covered 1,400 Dalit and Adivasi households in 112 villages from 14 districts. Twenty-seven percent of surveyed households did not have any money with them when the lockdown was announced, while 36 percent had only a few hundred rupees left with them. The survey found that only five percent of households had sufficient savings to survive an emergency situation such as the lockdown. Eighty-five percent of families survived on daily wages alone, while a majority of the rest depended on remittances from migrant workers. The pandemic ended all income from both sources, leaving the poor of Bihar without a stable income, food, or any means to survive without government aid.
The single largest source of employment in rural Bihar is under the MGNREGA, which guarantees 100 days of wage employment to every rural household. Following the announcement of the nationwide lockdown, all MGNREGA work was unofficially halted. However, as more than 32.6 lakh migrant workers returned to cash-strapped villages in the state, work under MGNREGA was restarted on 27 May, for returning migrants who had completed their mandated two-week quarantine. The scheme, if implemented well, could have been a life-line for millions of struggling families. But both migrants and activists note that that the implementation of the scheme has been patchy and corrupt.