Thursday, February 21, 2013

Logistics of Labour Migration: A Case Study of Bihar

This paper is based on a field trip undertaken in June 2011 in three districts of Bihar. The districts surveyed were Saharsa, Madhepura and Supaul in North Bihar. These three districts fall in what is known as the Kosi belt and were severely affected in the devastating floods of 2008 when the Kosi embankments were breached. They also are three of the most backward districts of Bihar in terms of development indicators.. Migration of labour is common in all these three districts. The study was a preliminary investigation of the causes, methods and patterns of labour migration. The gram panchayats covered in the study were Naharwar and Mahishi in Saharsa district, Mehasimar and Kishanpur (South) in Supaul and Patori in Madhepura. It involved extensive discussions with villagers, government officials, local leaders and NGOs. This study covered mostly the Mahadalits. A few information about the mahadalit communities and the difference between mahadalits and dalits before we proceed. Dalits constitute nearly 15 percent of Bihar'spopulation of 83 million. The poorest Dalits were declared Maha Dalits in Bihar. A state government commission identified 18 of the 22 Dalit sub castes. They constitute 31 percent of the dalit population in the state. The commission has not included four Dalit castes - Paswan, Pasi, Dhobi and Chamar - in the Mahadalit category. These four constitute 69 percent of the dalit population in the state. The Nitish Kumar government announced a special package of Rs.3 billion (around $76 million) for the socio-economic development of the poorest among Dalits. Bihar was the first state to constitute a commission to study the status of the neglected subcastes among dalits and suggest ways to uplift them. The commission in its first interim report to the government painted a bleak picture of the Dalit sub-castes. The report said there were no high school teachers or senior officials from these castes in the state despite reservations in government jobs for them. The 18 Mahadalit castes are -Bantar, Bauri, Bhogta, Bhuiyan, Chaupal, Dabgar, Dom, Ghasi, Halalkhor, Hadi, Kanjar, Kuraria, Lalbegi, Mushar, Nat, Pan, Rajwar and Turi. It is widely believed that this categorization by the Nitish Kumar government is an act of social engineering to secure a reliable vote bank. In fact, Ram Vilas Paswan , went on record saying that the commission was unconstitutional and that it should be disbanded. One of the ways to check the impact of the categorization is to study the recently conducted panchayat polls in Bihar, something that I will attempt to do in the next field trip. It must be said at the outset that the study of Kosi area has been undertaken by various scholars for quite some time now. The most relevant study for our purposes has been done on Purnia district by Gerry Rodgers and Janine Rodgers over a period of almost forty years (started in 1973). The Rodgers studied two villages namely Pokharia and Dubaili Biswaspur covering variables like wages, land relations and cropping patterns. Valuable as the study is, it is done within the parameters of ‘semi-feudalism’, started during the heydays of the ‘mode of production’ debate and it is apparent that the results obtained during the survey fits uneasy with the concept of semi-feudal mode of production. A serious lacuna in the study is that the results point to a mode of production that is other than semi-feudal. It is not the purpose here to enter into the debate surrounding the mode of production but some preliminary refutation of the notion of semi-feudal mode of production existing in the region is in order. The Rodgers identified (borrowing from Pradhan H Prasad) unequal land distribution, tenancy, a mix of attached and casual labour and indebtedness as the indicators of semi-feudalism. Except for the forms of labour, the other three indicators are not per se unique to the semi-feudal mode of production. Let us take indebtedness as an illustration. Usury has been claimed to be the most important indicator of the existence of semi-feudalism; in fact, it was used as the prime reason why India was semi-feudal. However, Marx saw things differently. In Volume 3 of Capital, Marx talks about usury thus:
On the whole, interest-bearing capital under the modern credit system is adapted to the conditions of the capitalist mode of production. Usury as such does not only continue to exist, but is even freed, among nations with a developed capitalist production, from the fetters imposed upon it by all previous legislation. Interest-bearing capital retains the form of usurer’s capital in relation to persons or classes, or in circumstances where borrowing does not, nor can, take place in the sense corresponding to the capitalist mode of production; where borrowing takes place as a result of individual need, as at the pawnshop; where money is borrowed by wealthy spendthrifts for the purpose of squandering; or where the producer is a non-capitalist producer, such as a small farmer or craftsman, who is thus still, as the immediate producer, the owner of his own means of production; finally where the capitalist producer himself operates on such a small scale that he resembles those self-employed producers. What distinguishes interest-bearing capital—in so far as it is an essential element of the capitalist mode of production—from usurer’s capital is by no means the nature or character of this capital itself. It is merely the altered conditions under which it operates, and consequently also the totally transformed character of the borrower who confronts the money-lender.
The reason for providing this rather lengthy quotation was to demonstrate the complexities of functioning of usury. By itself, isolated from the existing relations of production, usury and indebtedness does not explain anything. We will have occasion to see the ‘transformed character of the borrower who confronts the money-lender’. In fact, and this will come as a surprise to the votaries of semi-feudalism, usury acts as a means to free labourers from bondage and sell its labor-power in the market to the highest bidder. The other important factor in the nature of the development and dynamics of capitalist mode of production in the countryside is the differentiation of the peasantry. Lenin in The Development of Capitalism in Russia has this to say about the function of usury and its role in the mode of production:
Consequently… the question to be answered is: Is merchant’s and usurer’s capital being linked up with industrial capital? Are commerce and usury, in disintegrating the old mode of production, leading to its replacement by the capitalist mode of production, or by some other system? Furthermore, that …the role of capital is not confined to bondage and usury, that capital is also invested in production, is apparent from the fact that the well-to-do peasant puts his money into the improvement of his farm, into the purchase and renting of land, the acquisition of improved implements, the hiring of workers, etc., and not only into trading establishments and undertakings. If capital in our countryside were incapable of creating anything but bondage and usury, we could not… establish the differentiation of the peasantry…the whole of the peasantry would represent a fairly even type of poverty-stricken cultivators, among whom only usurers would stand out, and they only to the extent of money owned and not to the extent and organisation of agricultural production…Finally…follows the important proposition that the independent development of merchant’s and usurer’s capital in our countryside retards the differentiation of the peasantry… Another important phenomenon in the economy of our countryside that retards the differentiation of the peasantry is the survivals of corvée economy, i.e., labour service. Labour-service is based on the payment of labour in kind, hence, on a poor development of commodity economy. Labour-service presupposes and requires the middle peasant, one who is not very affluent (otherwise he would not agree to the bondage of labour-service) but is also not a proletarian (to undertake labour-service one must have one’s own implements, one must be at least in some measure a “sound” peasant).
The conditions mentioned above by Lenin exist in the three districts which were surveyed. As for payment of labour in kind, it exists extensively in these districts but in a different form and content. The payment in kind is received not so much by the ‘sound peasant’ but by the agricultural proletariat. And, usury is not retarding the differentiation of the peasantry but actually increasing and accelerating it. However, as the agenda of this paper is not so much to enter into the debate surrounding Marxist theories of mode of production but to share the empirical findings we will restrain ourselves despite an overwhelming temptation on my part to enter the debate. Also, Lenin has a great deal to say about migration, something which is the primary concern of this paper, in this much ignored work but we will postpone it for a later occasion. We will begin our study by describing the types of land in terms of agricultural productivity and land relations that are found in this region. As we mentioned above that these districts belong to the Kosi region, the type of land depends on its distance from the embankments. In Saharsa, the gram panchayats that were covered mostly has waterlogged land and consequently is unfit for traditional food grain production. However, on the other side of the embankment nearer Darbhanga the land is more suitable for cultivation. The main crops grown on the waterlogged land are makhana, garma dhan, and pulses (moong). The production level is highly unpredictable and in the words of one of the respondents is like gambling. Land holdings are highly skewed in this region. There are landowners who own up to 400 bighas (1 bigha=1.2 acres) of land. Most of the big landowners in this region are Rajputs. Tenancy based upon a fixed amount paid in cash after harvest (known as manhunda) as well as sharecropping (known as batai) on 50:50 basis both in terms of cost and share of output were the dominant land relation in the gram panchayats visited. Alongside, agriculture the peasants also practiced fishing on the land they had taken up as tenant. It was also found that big landowners with suitable land for agriculture were farming themselves and hired workers and owned tractors and other mechanical equipments. They also rented the tractors and threshers both to smaller landowners as well as sharecroppers. Hiring of these equipments is not an exceptional incident even among the sharecroppers. The rate of hiring a tractor with a driver is Rs. 150 per hour and the diesel has to be provided by the person who was hiring. Here, it will be fruitful to describe the settlements that I visited in Saharsa. As mentioned previously, most of the respondents questioned belonged to the Mahadalit communities. The settlements that were visited were alongside the embankment nearer to the tenanted land. Interestingly, those settled here did not have a legal entitlement to the land which they were occupying but were those who did not receive the land that was promised to them when they were dislocated from their original place of inhabitation when the Kosi embankments were beginning to be built. Another significant finding was the form of ownership of cattle among these peasants. In one of the settlements in Naharwar gram panchayat, cattle were owned collectively bought in partnership. Further North in Supaul and Madhepura known to be dominated by the Yadav community the quality of land improves and the crop pattern follows the traditional Rabi and Kharif seasons. Apart from that maize is the most important crop. An interesting fact was mentioned by one of the respondents in Supaul. Jute, at one point of time, was a major crop in the region. The farmers supplied the raw material to the few jute factories that were present in Purnea. However, as the jute factories closed down there the production of jute was no longer profitable for the farmers. The little amount of jute that is grown now is for personal use. Rodgers in their study mention the falling production of jute but do not provide the reason for its decline or the existence of a link between agriculture and industry in the region. Land holdings in Supaul and Madhepura are more equitably distributed in the sense that the majority of landowners have holdings ranging from 2-5 bighas. Most of these landowners in the areas visited belonged to the Yadav community. Presence of big landowners is more of an exception. For example, in Patori gram panchayat the biggest landowner was the de facto mukhiya (the wife is the elected mukhiya) whose holding, according to his workers was around 200 bighas. The manager of the mukhiya refused to give the exact figure. The Mahadalit communities, with a very few individual exceptions, were all landless and migration among them is maximum. This is not to say that migration among the Yadav community is any less. However, there are important differences in the pattern of migration between these communities which we will discuss later. An interesting development among the Mahadalit communities is the rise of a section of class that has benefitted from government schemes. For example, in Madhura village under Mehasimar gram panchayat the person who has been allotted a PDS shop also acts as a labour contractor. The nascent political leadership that is emerging from the Mahadalit communities belongs to this particular class as also those who do have some ownership over land. Finally, another kind of landownership has to do directly with the geographical character of the region as a flood prone area and the governmental response to it. When the Kosi embankments started to be constructed in the 1950s there was a large scale displacement of people as large tracts of land were submerged under water. Those displaced were allotted homestead land measuring not more than 2 decimals. These resettled settlements are known as punarwas gram. Needless to say, this allotment did not take care of livelihood issues and most of the people settled in these resettlements belonged to the Mahadalit communities. Also, not all displaced were allotted land and numerous litigations are still pending in the lower courts for the allotment of land. Labour migration is most evident in this category of people. The forms of wages in these three districts are quite varied although payment of wages in cash is rare. The most common form of wage is payment in food grains. The wages in this form that prevailed over the region was 3 kg of grains for a day’s work and breakfast provided by the land owner who hires the worker. Another form of wage is seen during the harvest of moong. For every 8 kitta harvested by a worker he received the produce of 1 kitta. Despite my attempts, I was not able to find the metric equivalent of kitta. As migrant agricultural workers in Punjab and Haryana, a typical worker in a sowing season gets Rs. 2, 500 for every 1 killa (local unit) land sown. Each worker saves around Rs. 20, 000 in a sowing season after spending on food and clothing. Shelter is provided by the person who hires the agricultural worker. We can now, after the discussion of land and wages at the source, look at the entire process and pattern of migration in these three districts. Labour migration in these districts is predominantly short-term and cyclical in nature and depends on the agricultural season both at the source and the destination. At the time this survey was conducted it was the peak season of migration to Punjab as the sowing season begins there. These workers will then come back during the chatth puja. However, not all workers stay there for the whole period and those with skills only in sowing come back after completing their work. The next wave of migration will be studied in a future field survey. The workers migrate through either labour contractors or form a batch of 20-30 people for better bargaining power with the employers at the destination. The Rodgers have showed that migration through labour contractors has declined over their period of study. It might just well be the case but there is no denying their significant presence. The labour contractors themselves hire differently. There are separate labour contractors for providing agricultural and non-agricultural work. In case of hiring by the labour contractors the workers do not have an access to their employers. The latter are also unaware of the cut that the labour contractor receives by hiring them. The labour contractor negotiates the terms of hiring workers both with the employers as well as the workers. A typical labour contractor goes around his neighbouring villages, rounding people and paying for their train journey to the destination. In some cases, though few, the labour contractor also advances some money for the family of the worker that is left behind. In case of workers going in batches, they have to produce themselves at labour chowks which are located, quite strategically, near the railway stations. One of the labour contractors interviewed informed that there are at least 10 labour chowks in Ludhiana. Since we are studying logistics an interesting fact can be mentioned here. Most workers do not carry personal possessions such as clothes with them while travelling to the destination. Once they reach their earmarked destination they go to a small market which is near the railway station where used clothing is sold. In Ludhiana, a respondent told that the business for theses hawkers were brisk during the season of migration of labour. Also, this kind of market is not a unique feature of Ludhiana only but all major railway stations where migrant workers take up work. There is an absolute absence of travel logistics for the migrant workers of these three districts. There is only one railway station at Saharsa that caters to the need of Saharsa, Madhepura and Supaul. There are only two trains that the workers generally take. Poorabiya Express that goes to Delhi and Jan Seva Express that goes till Amritsar. None of these trains have catering facilities and state’s apathy towards migrant is self evident. Both these trains are known as trains that transport the migrant workers and no facility for provision of subsidized food has ever been contemplated. Ironically enough, Garib Rath from Saharsa to Amritsar which is completely air conditioned started by Lalu Prasad Yadav is used by the traders, businessman and bureaucrats of the region. It is small wonder that the train is a target for colourful abuses among the workers both for its name as well as the people it carries. In the peak season when this survey was conducted the train journey is a nightmare. Workers arrive at Saharsa station and have to wait for several days for the opportunity to board the trains. In one instance, a batch of workers from Patori village came back after 3 days of wait and went again after a day’s rest. Although labour migration occurs across caste divide in the region there are important differences. An overwhelming majority of the landless Mahadalit workers take up agricultural or unskilled work. The network in which they operate is not very lucrative either. On the contrary, workers from Yadav community have greater chances of diversifying their occupation as it is relatively easier for them owing to their landholdings to attain a skilled worker status. A typical example is of the respondent from Patori. His father owned 4 bighas of land and after passing his matriculation exams he went to Delhi to his relative who owned a small furniture workshop. After working for 4 years he came back to his village, started his education and works as a carpenter. After the devastation caused by 2008 floods and the subsequent relief provided by the government to the affected through the Indira Awas Yojana, he is making relatively substantial amount of money fitting windows and doors in the houses. Similarly, it is much easier for this community to find work in factories in the surrounding areas of Delhi. Finally, we now come to the logistics of managing labour migration from Bihar. The current state government led by Nitish Kumar has claimed that recent developmental policies have checked migration. Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi went on record saying that a reverse trend has begun owing to the various development programmes and increase in annual plan size. He also said that the MGNREGS has not contributed much to stem the flow of migration. It is a fact that MGNREGS has not checked labour migration but the reason is not the increase in spending by the state government but local level corruption. There is no tangible asset that has been created through the MGNREGS. The scheme is mired in corruption as the mukhiya keeps the passbook and the job card of the workers to himself. He then gives a certain amount of money to the workers who has been allotted the wages and pockets the rest. Similarly, in projects under Indira Awas Yojana it is a given that the mukhiya will receive Rs. 5, 000 as his cut. Workers are so fed up with the situation around government projects that the majority of them want them scrapped altogether. Empirically, there is no suggestion that governmental responses have checked labour migration. Also, there is no policy in place for providing social security to migrant labour although it has found a mention in the 20-point programme of the Government of Bihar. There is a talk about registering each migrant labour at the source. The logistics, however, has still to be worked out. An officer in the Department of Labour told that they were thinking of making a provision in the railway reservation forms to identify the migrant labour conveniently oblivious of the fact that the workers travel on general tickets and hardly ever take the reserved coaches. The only law that exists is for the provision of up to Rs. 1 lakh as compensation if a migrant labour is injured during work in the state he has migrated. The study finds out that labour migration in Saharsa, Madhepura and Supaul has an important caste dimension which is closely associated with the more important category of class. It is not a surprise that labour migration is most conspicuous among the Mahadalits as they, in almost all cases, are landless and work as agricultural labourer at both source and destination. The choice of occupation as a migrant labour is also incumbent upon the economic status of the migrant worker. The choice for worker who owns some land is more diverse than those who are landless. Finally, the ‘semi-feudal mode of production’ argument seems to be weak as the labour is not only free but the main source of exploitation is economic and appropriation of surplus value is hardly ever through extra economic coercion. As a caveat, I will like to add that the paper lacks a statistical analysis based on sampling. However, despite this lacuna the major trends in both labour migration and land and wage relations and their correlation is quite clear. Mithilesh