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The original migrants

By Anosh Malekar

The first migrations from Bihar date back to 1834. Every second family in the state today is sustained by migrant workers who form the backbone of the country's workforce. But in 2008, thousands of Biharis found themselves forced to return from Maharashtra following the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena's sons-of-the-soil campaign. After decades selling bhelpuri on Mumbai's Chowpatty or working as construction labour, Bihar's migrants were shocked to find themselves treated like outsiders in their own land

It was an irony of sorts that Patna was busy commemorating the success of Bihar's original migrants to the island nation of Mauritius while hundreds of stricken Bihari migrants were forced to flee the island city of Mumbai and other cities in Maharashtra in February 2008.

A nine-foot bronze statue of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, who originally hailed from Bihar and was prime minister of Mauritius from 1961 to 1982, was unveiled near Gandhi maidan in Patna on February 18. Ramgoolam's ancestors had left Bihar more than a century ago to work on sugar plantations in Mauritius.

For his son and present Mauritius Prime Minister Navin Chandra Ramgoolam, it was an emotional first visit back to his roots. "It feels great. Even though I have been away from Bihar, it is like coming home," he told the media after unveiling the statue.

But it was not exactly a happy homecoming for the hundreds arriving in Patna by train from Maharashtra. "Extreme poverty forced us to leave Bihar and go to Maharashtra. Now threats to leave Maharashtra have compelled us to return to Bihar," said Aadesh Kumar Paswan, 37, who hails from a village in Bihar's Samastipur district.

What Paswan failed to comprehend, as he stared blankly at the Ganga in Patna after a quick dip before getting ready to rush back to the railway station to catch the next train to his village, was how one can be treated like a foreigner in one's own land. "We were treated worse than Bangladeshi refugees," he said.

At Patna railway station, Biharis recalled the sordid tales of violence unleashed on the streets of Mumbai and other cities of Maharashtra against migrants from the northern Indian states. The violence followed a renewal of the Shiv Sena's sons-of-the-soil campaign by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.

One night, a group of local politicians arrived at Paswan's doorstep and demanded that he leave the place. He was lucky compared to the others. Srikrishna Singh, 37, who made a living selling bhajias on a handcart in Pune, landed up in hospital in his native Siwan, after his hands were reportedly chopped off by a mob targeting migrants.

There were other horror stories. Nagma Bano, who was fleeing Nashik, gave birth to her child in a toilet aboard a train to Patna. "Our only crime was that we spoke Hindi and came from Bihar," said an injured Omprakash, 52, who fled Mumbai for Patna. Curious onlookers seeking to know the latest situation in Maharashtra surrounded him on the platform.

According to one estimate, there are around 2.5 million Bihari migrants working in Mumbai, and nearly half that number in other cities of Maharashtra. These numbers will fast decrease if the present situation lasts much longer, say some in Patna.

"A majority of Biharis are seething with anger at the humiliation and violence they were subjected to in Maharashtra," said Professor Binoy Kumar, who ran a welfare camp for fleeing migrants at the Patna railway station.

But there was little good news for the migrants on the home front. The day's headlines said it all -- the mob lynching of a murder accused in police custody at Hajipur in Vaishali district; three dead in a gun battle between the police and Maoists in Khagaria district; tension in Bhagalpur district over a political murder...

"Given the situation in Bihar we will die of hunger, what else? That will be the end of the story," Paswan said, summing up his present situation after a decade of selling bhelpuri on Mumbai's famed Chowpatty beach. The middle-aged man, robbed of his livelihood in Mumbai, was contemplating a future as a rickshaw-puller in Patna rather than moving to the back of beyond in Samastipur.

Paswan said his village in Samastipur typifies the situation in the state, surrounded by poverty, filth and violence. "It has no road, no electricity, no education, no health facilities," he said. Like most young men of the village, Paswan migrated to Mumbai at the first opportunity, in 1998. He chose to become a migrant like hundreds of others in his village of a few thousands.

Migration from Bihar is not new. "We are the original migrants of the nation, with the first migration from Bihar dating back to 1834. The British used to describe the Bihari migrants as physically and mentally strong. It was the Bihari migrants who laid the first roads in Mauritius," said Srikant, a journalist with Hindustan studying migration from Bihar.

Large numbers of people migrated from Bihar as indentured labour to British colonies around the world as well as to other parts of the country, mainly West Bengal and Assam, during the 19th and 20th centuries. The origins of the current migration can be traced back to the '60s, which saw the ushering in of the Green Revolution in northwest India.

Present estimates of the number of migrants differ. While Srikant believes around 55 lakh Biharis live outside the state, the Bihar Industries Association puts the number at a staggering 2 crore -- almost a quarter of the state's population. Barring a handful of states, the entire country relies on them to build roads, till fields, run taxis and autorickshaws, and guard offices and homes. The hardworking Bihari migrant worker forms the backbone of the nation's workforce.

According to a study conducted by the New Delhi-based Institute of Human Development (IHD) in 18 villages of north Bihar, migration in search of work has recorded a substantive rise in the past two decades. The study reveals that in 2000 there was a migrant worker in 49% of the families surveyed compared with 28% in the early-1980s.

The study notes that during the early-1980s, the most important destinations were rural areas of Punjab and Haryana. By the 1990s, Bihari migrants began opting for urban destinations like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Guwahati, Hyderabad and Surat.

The IHD study adds that migrants contributed significantly to Bihar's economy in the form of newly acquired knowledge and technical know-how, and small savings by way of remittances. "Increasing trends in non-farm activities in the villages of Bihar provide evidence of this phenomenon," the study points out.

The migrants' remittances were crucial to the Bihar economy though there are no official figures to quote. Annual remittances were pegged at anything between Rs 10,000 and Rs 15,000 crore.

The overall impact of migration on the village economy was wide-ranging and substantial. The large-scale migration of rural workers from the state also resulted in a shortage of labour in the villages of Bihar, particularly during the peak agricultural season, says the IHD study.

The status report on the Economic Survey of Bihar 2006-2007, recently tabled in the state legislative assembly, notes that foodgrain output fell by a record 26.04% in just one year. According to the survey: "While rice production has fallen by 24.4% in comparison to the previous year, production of wheat has fallen by about 19%. It is maize which has suffered the most significant fall, with its production falling by almost 47% over the previous year. The sugarcane production has also fallen by over 7%."

The report indicates that Bihar lags behind other states on all the development indices. It was ranked at the bottom in the Human Development Indicator (HDI), which was about 20% lower than the national HDI.

With an estimated population of 90.2 million (83 million, according to the 2001 census), 536.91 lakh people live below the poverty line in Bihar. No wonder the Bihar government's claim of economic achievement, with the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate stated to be 16%, drew flak from many economists in the state who questioned the very rationale of the economic survey.

The economists point out that the state's claims cannot be true when Bihar, an agrarian state, recorded a drastic fall in foodgrain output, power generation was almost negligible, and industrial growth barely touched 5.5% compared with the national rate of 20.1%.

"Low wages combined with employment uncertainty, lack of educational institutions combined with lack of industry, and absence of market and investment opportunities means the Bihari migrants, whether educated or not, and their progeny, cannot come back, even if they want to," said Srikant, who believes that the well-established internal migration chain that pushes millions of people from Bihar to all parts of India in search of a livelihood is unlikely to halt due to the recent events in Maharashtra.

Dr Meera Datta, a social activist with Vikas Anusandhan Sanstha in Madhubani, also believes that a few thousand people may have returned to their homes following the violence in Maharashtra, but it was unlikely to change the migration pattern from Bihar.

However the government seems to have woken up, with Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi announcing plans to conduct a survey to assess the extent of migration. "It is estimated that nearly 5 million from Bihar migrate each year in search of livelihoods to all parts of India. It is a big chunk of our human resources, whether looking for petty jobs or small businesses," he said.

Both the census and National Sample Survey (NSS) reports suggest that Bihar has the highest rate of gross inter-state out-migration in the country, with barely a household without a member who has migrated outside the state.

"Bihar sasta shram bechta hai (Bihar provides cheap labour). But we do not have a choice. The welfare state is non-existent in the state," said Srikant.

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar feels there is nothing wrong with the migration of people from Bihar or elsewhere: "Biharis have contributed immensely to the economic growth of Mumbai and Maharashtra. How can you turn them into hate figures?"

Economists believe that the backwardness of Bihar and the eastern region may be the key factor leading to migration, but it is not the whole truth. There are social factors too and the need of the hour is to end regional imbalances.

Dr Datta believes that Bihar has historically suffered from a development deficit due to the lopsided economic policies of the British and subsequent Indian governments at the Centre, and needs special attention to catch up with the rest of the country. "Today's urban-centric economic policies ensure that agriculture-based economies like Bihar suffer badly," she said.

Bihar's relative position has worsened considerably since the process of economic liberalisation was hastened in the 1990s. "When the Indian economy was growing at the rate of about 6%, Bihar's economy was left to falter at half the national rate. While population growth rates slowed down in the rest of the country between 1991 and 2001, in Bihar it continued to increase. This ensured that the income levels of the average Bihari worsened compared with average Indians elsewhere," Dr Datta explained.

A senior bureaucrat in Patna, while supporting Dr Datta's contention, added that income inequalities are high, with no land reforms taking place. "About 87% of all landholdings are marginal landholdings in Bihar. Denied any hope for decades, the landless and hungry millions of Bihar have done the only thing they possibly could in the face of death -- migrate," he said.

Srikant believes that what Bihar needs is true economic empowerment. "A metro for Patna will not make any difference. We will judge the present government on a single indicator -- how many people are pulled out of living below the poverty line," he said.

The other important step will be improving human capital. "We need good education and healthcare, which would lead to improved living conditions and reflect in skill-formation and increased productivity in all sectors. This will lay the basis for industrialisation and employment-generation in Bihar," Srikant added.

Otherwise, the Biharis themselves admit, the desperate plight of the Bihari in Mumbai, Assam or Punjab will remain a recurring theme in India.

InfoChange News & Features, July 2008