By Prabhu Pingali & Arabinda K Padhee
Covid-19 and the response to it in India has forced daily wagers and low-wage gig workers in urban slums to return to their villages, orchestrating an unprecedented U-turn in migration trends. Given the yawning gap between urban and rural wages and limited employment opportunities in rural India, we should expect the migrants to return to cities grad. Can this desperate escape from rural areas in search of elusive urban opportunities be reversed or reduced?
Rural-urban migration can be limited if better income-earning opportunities are created in rural areas. Two avenues can make it happen: Increase in returns from small-farm agriculture; and more employment opportunities in the rural non-farm sector.
Rising urban demand for diverse foods can be tapped by smallholders to fuel rural employment growth. Demand for high-quality food is rising, and a small farm’s income growth potential in producing diverse crops is higher than that of primary staples. Also, bringing post-harvest processing and value addition operations closer to food production centres can enhance employment opportunities.
What are the mechanisms for connecting small farms to urban food value chains? First, the promotion of FPOs to scale-up and reduce transaction costs for small farms in accessing input and output markets. Next, investments in rural market infrastructure, temperature-controlled storage and transport systems, power and communication infrastructure will attract urban food value chains to establish long term links with small-farm communities. ICT and e-markets can further enhance farmer participation in high-value markets, where educated rural youth can manage smart technologies and management practices. Agri-tech start-ups may be incentivised to strengthen e-commerce and delivery linkages in rural landscapes.
Shifting the focus from staple grains to the explicit promotion of food diversity would be highly desirable post the pandemic when a growing health-conscious segment of the population demands nutritious and safe foods to boost immunity. The pandemic offers a unique opportunity to make food systems resilient and nutritious, and therefore, agricultural policies can be reoriented in that direction.
“One nation, one market” policies, could pave the way for enhancing the market size and ensuring more stable food prices. The recently promulgated ordinance by the Indian government to promote “efficient, transparent and barrier-free inter-state and intra-state trade” may be helpful in getting to a “One market” for the country. Standards and processes for assessing product quality and safety have to be established to benefit both the farmers and the traders. Private sector participation in linking small farms to value chains through transparent contractual arrangements has to be promoted. To facilitate contract farming, another ordinance has been promulgated by the government on a national framework on farming agreements. The Union government has recently launched a Rs 1 lakh crore ‘Agriculture Infrastructure Fund’ to promote post-harvest technologies and agri-logistics infrastructure.
All these steps are indeed in the right direction, if implemented properly.
MGNREGA has often been considered in policy circles as a panacea for absorbing rural wage seekers. The Union government has raised the outlay for the employment guarantee scheme to a record level of more than Rs 1 lakh crore this fiscal, the highest ever provisioning of funds under the scheme. Returnee migrants are expected to benefit from this government stimulus if a pro-active Panchayat Raj machinery and the district administrations engage and sustain the rising demand for the scheme in a few states—Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh—which are home to a bulk of India’s migrant workforce.
However, it also needs to be stated that the extent to which returnee migrants can be engaged vis-à-vis the local wage earners is yet to be seen. MGNREGA is a demand-driven scheme that guarantees wage employment to volunteers prepared to do unskilled manual work. That notwithstanding, there is a provision for “unemployment allowance” in case employment cannot be provided. Awareness campaigns and civil society engagements may prove helpful in informing migrants. Besides the creation of durable community assets, if productive assets like improved land, water harvesting structures, etc, are created in mission mode, it would, directly and indirectly, help rebuild the rural economy.
Many returnee migrants are from either the landless or marginal (or smallholders) farm households. Those choosing to stay back in villages after the ongoing crisis would prefer to work in their farms, irrespective of the landholding size. It is, therefore, advisable for states to facilitate these returnee migrants/landless workers (and small and marginal farmers already existing) to lease-in lands from willing landowner-lessors. A transparent land-lease market, backed by an institutional framework, would boost investments in the rural economy and increase the access of lessees to government entitlements like PM-KISAN, insurance/credit, etc.
Critical data on the migrant workforce would definitely facilitate effective policymaking. The state of Madhya Pradesh has shown the way ahead by surveying returnee migrants and mapping their skillsets. We suggest the creation of such databases across the country while linking to the Aadhaar stack to facilitate inclusive and affirmative government actions.
The stimulus package under the Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative and allocations under other programmes for infrastructure development is expected to absorb a good part of regular and surplus (including returnee migrants) workforce in the rural market. The MSME sector, with a high capacity to accommodate labour, and having received a special government package, should take care of the skilled and semi-skilled workforce. There is also a continued need for social safety net programmes, such as the PDS to focus on the vulnerable sections of rural society. In this context, the “One Nation, One Ration card” policy can particularly be effective in enhancing food security of the most vulnerable migrants.
Unlike many other sectors, agriculture has already shown its potential to revive the pandemic-hit economy. Spurring the rural economic growth can become the saviour for the situation and taking care of the most vulnerable.