Migration, Marginalization, and Missed Opportunities: The Untold Saga of Banda's Displaced

Lok Sabha Elections 2024: Bundelkhand is home to the most backward villages, primarily populated by the scheduled caste group, where the developmental projects of Modi and Yogi governments have not yet reached.
Migration, Marginalization, and Missed Opportunities: The Untold Saga of Banda's Displaced

Banda/Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh): Deserted homes, locked doors, and empty streets characterize Jhandupurva in Uttar Pradesh’s Banda district. Almost every house in this hamlet of Atarra Rural revenue village in Naraini block hangs with locks. The few houses showing signs of life mostly harbor elderly residents.

Is there an outbreak of a contagious disease or possible administrative action forcing people to flee? The answer is no. It's due to large-scale migration from several villages in the Bundelkhand region. Banda district, bordering Madhya Pradesh, is part of the Chitrakoot division.

The widespread displacement of residents, largely belonging to scheduled castes, stems from economic reasons. Notably, the purpose of this migration is to earn a basic living, not a life of luxury.

A severe lack of labor prospects and low earnings in the water-starved region compel people to travel to other states where they work on construction sites, in agricultural fields, and brick kilns with their entire families.

They are hired by kiln owners through contractors in poverty-stricken villages. Impoverished residents receive advance payments ranging from Rs 10,000 to Rs 50,000 and are loaded onto trucks like grain sacks, transported to various states.

With their womenfolk and children, they are forced to work in inhumane conditions without compensation because they have already received an advance payment. While working, they receive meager compensation for meeting their daily necessities.

They are not permitted to return until the advance payment received at the time of hiring is settled according to the agreed-upon rate. They return to their villages in June or July and stay for two to three months before going back to their employers in October or November after exhausting their earnings.

Sadly, this migration does not grab headlines like the purported Kairana exodus, perhaps because it could potentially weaken the support base of incumbents rather than strengthen it.

The kutcha houses constructed with clay, unburnt bricks, bamboo, thatch, straw, or reeds in the village and its neighborhood are sufficient to explain the economic status of its inhabitants.

Government initiatives and plans for the development of the marginalized have not reached these villages or been successful. Forget much-discussed smart villages; these areas lack basic infrastructure like roads, safe and clean drinking water, well-equipped healthcare facilities, and good schools.

Although a majority of villagers have job cards to access employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) 2005, they allegedly don’t get any work for months.

A Saga of Poverty, Helplessness, Neglect, Discrimination

"We would not have migrated if the government had given us work here. When we fail to get work and fair wages locally, many of us go to states like Haryana, Punjab, and Allahabad to work in brick kilns," said Suresh Kumar, who received just 21 days of work under MGNREGA in the previous five years.

He earns Rs 250-300 a day as a laborer on construction sites and in agricultural fields, but he said he doesn't get work for more than 10 days in a month. Since he owns three bighas of land (roughly 1,875 square meters or 2,314.8 square yards) to grow food grains, he somehow manages his family’s needs with his meager income.

Many village residents claim that the lack of job opportunities forces their neighbors to migrate. The failure of successive governments, both state and central, in creating employment opportunities in the region has led residents to seek work elsewhere.

"Elections are scheduled, and tickets have been distributed, but not a single candidate from any political party has visited our villages to at least listen to our issues," alleged Suresh.

Banda will go to polls on May 20 in the fifth phase of the ongoing Lok Sabha elections. The incumbent MP, RK Singh Patel of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is taking on Shivshankar Singh Patel of the Opposition Samajwadi Party (SP).

Securing 4,77,926 votes, Singh had defeated SP’s Shyama Charan Gupta with a margin of 58,938 votes in 2019.

While the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and the SP have each won the seat twice, the Congress and the BJP have each registered victories here four times.

Both sons of 59-year-old Bai, along with their wives and children, work at a brick kiln in Allahabad.

"I live here alone to look after the house. My only means of subsistence was the free ration supplied by the government (under the public distribution system or PDS). But my fingerprints have faded over the years, and the biometric scanner at the ration shop no longer recognizes them. As a result, I haven't even been getting the ration," she said.

Rani, 52, has two sons — Manoj and Atul. They are both married and have four and three kids respectively. Her dilapidated thatched house remains locked.

The family moved out of the village to work in brick kilns in Haryana, according to her neighbor Vinod. "They will come here in June-July next year and go back again in October. The family is quite poor," he said.

According to Jai Ram Ambedkar, his neighbor Rajendra moved to Punjab with his wife and three young daughters to work as brickmakers.

"They are landless and impoverished people. They work as daily wagers and have no other source of income. Rajendra is mentally ill. His spouse and children work with him in the kiln to make ends meet. Everyone here has a humble financial background," he added.

The 40-year-old man, who had some knowledge of the government's welfare programs, expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that people are unable to find employment under MGNREGA, which was implemented primarily to ensure employment in rural areas and prevent migration.

"MGNREGA did not live up to its moniker. We are not getting work for even 30 days in a year, forget about the 100 days promised by the program. Until 2008, it was successful. Later, it fell prey to widespread corruption," he said.

He cultivates food grains, including wheat, mustard, and paddy, on three bighas of land. He works as an agricultural laborer to make money.

"I owe the Bank of Baroda Rs 2.5 lakh, which I borrowed for agricultural farming to spend on my wife's medical care. I don’t have money to repay the loan. There is a dearth of work in the market. I also have pending electricity payments," he narrated, saying, "life has become a horrible hell, and no one is there to extend a helping hand".

His three small children are too young to help with the family’s financial demands.

"With the exception of free ration, we don’t benefit from any welfare scheme. Since we are Dalits and untouchables, we are ignored. Despite applying several times, none of us has received a pucca house under the housing schemes of the Centre or the state," he said.

Amid tall claims of infrastructural development and social justice, he claimed they don’t have access to concrete roads, good schools, and healthcare services.

"No government representative ever comes here. We have to transport sick people to Atarra, which is about 15 kilometers from the village if they are serious. There are instances when paying for transportation costs becomes challenging. There are no facilities at the local PHC (public health center). The primary school in this village serves only mid-day meals," he bemoaned.

Sukanya, 58, is the mother of two sons. Her elder son has four little daughters, while the younger one has two daughters and one son. Their mud-built shared dwelling is crumbling. They are landless.

"They are in Punjab, working in a brick kiln," she added, perched on the verdant grass outside her house.

"They stay here for two or three months and then leave when they run out of funds. I am the only occupant of this house. I survive on the free ration provided by the government. Nobody hires me for work because I am now physically weak. I always miss my kids and feel so alone."

Dadu Ram has six daughters. The family is faced with abject poverty. Babu Ram, his brother, passed away, leaving behind his widow and five little girls. Due to the lack of employment opportunities locally, both families have moved.

Ram Dhani moved to Rai Bareli from the adjoining village of Kathailapurva to make a living. They are all landless. Despite having MGNREGA job cards, none of them allegedly ever got work.

Naresh, 32, received the MGNREGA job card two years ago but got work for only 15 days so far. Six months later, he received his wage (Rs 6,500). He serves as a daily wager but fails to get a job every day.

"I along with others gather at a point in the market from where we are hired for various tasks. Those who are lucky enough get hired; those who don’t have to return empty-handed. You cannot imagine our pain when we return without work. Our children wait for us to come back from work so that they can get some good food. When we return without work empty-handed, it becomes difficult to face them. Sometimes, I feel like committing suicide," said Naresh, with tears in his eyes.

He was sold in Agartala by a labor supplier to work as a bonded worker but got freedom following court intervention.

There are 58,906 gram panchayats spread across 75 districts in Uttar Pradesh’s 826 blocks. MGNREGA employment cards are held by around 189.65 lakh households in these panchayats. Of these, 91.66 lakh are active (working families). The remaining 97.99 lakh — more than half of the cardholders — are inactive.

There could be a number of reasons for this, including the fact that MGNREGA is not profitable, the wage is too low compared to market rates, a dearth of work, laborers are unable to demand work in the way that MGNREGA specifies, or the oral requests for work made by illiterate laborers are not properly acknowledged and recorded by the panchayat officials.

After visiting the twin villages, it became clear that all government programs eventually run out of money before reaching their intended beneficiaries, just like wells, ponds, and hand pumps run dry.

Local politics also contributes to the denial of jobs under MGNREGA. People close to the village pradhan get jobs, while others are denied. An analysis of job cards or the MGNREGA master roll solidifies this conclusion. According to the data, a common pattern emerges that many people have stopped getting employment after gram panchayat elections.

Naresh proposed connecting MGNREGA to cottage and agricultural businesses if the government wants to give the program a real purpose. Small and marginal farmers’ crops should be linked to MGNREGA as well.

"This would help laborers and farmers alike. Additionally, this will not reduce the action plan. The government should come up with a project for laborers who return from big cities so that they get employment locally. The material components of the project should be provided to the workers under MGNREGA," he suggested.

Government officials concerned avoided commenting on the sorry state of affairs, citing the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) in place and their involvement in election duties.

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