Dhubri: Eight months ago, 50 residents from a char village in Assam’s Dhubri district had travelled a distance of 3,000 km to work in a textile mill at Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, with the hope that they could help their families out of crippling poverty.
Settlements on deposits of alluvial soil made by water, known as char villages, are among the most backward areas of Assam. According to official figures, 80 per cent of the 24.9 lakh people living in these areas live below the poverty line and a significant number of them are forced to migrate.
The 50 residents from Nayer Alga II, one of the 480 char villages in Dhubri, reached Chagolia gate on the Assam-West Bengal border last week as they returned from Tamil Nadu. The Covid-19 crisis had claimed their jobs, and thrust them back into a life of sparse employment, debt and constant migration.
“I can’t earn anything here. The floods have also come now. Whatever my parents can scrounge, we will have to manage with that,” 19-year-old Ismail Sheikh said, waiting for his turn at a swab collection facility close to the interstate border.
“There are no jobs here. That’s why we had gone out. I’ll stay for a few days here and when the lockdown opens I’ll go again. Our families can only eat from the money we send,” he said.
The Assam government’s panchayat and rural development (P&RD) department is preparing a database of migrant workers who have returned, and also categorising them based on their skills. This is being done to help workers become eligible for facilities including job cards under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme (MGNREGA).
The database, however, has only 18,003 registered migrant workers as of 28 June, according to figures shared with ThePrint. This is low considering that a total of 184 Shramik Special trains have come to Assam, including 114 that were headed for other states, the Northeast Frontier Railway’s chief public relations officer told ThePrint. These trains carried nearly 1.3 lakh passengers.
Since interstate movement was allowed back in May, over 77,000 people entered Assam through the two West Bengal-Assam border gates in Dhubri at Chagolia and Srirampur.
“They came by trucks, buses, cycles, bikes and some by walking. Those who had gone for medical reasons and to study were lesser in comparison to the labourers. Maximum labourers are people who worked for brick kilns in Bihar and West Bengal,” said Dhubri Assistant Commissioner Santa Karki Chhetri, who has been supervising the screening facility at Chagolia for the last two months.
According to the district administration data, Dhubri had the second highest number of Covid cases in the state at 386, as of last week.
As was the case with most of these migrants, the Covid lockdown for the 50 textile mill workers had been marked by negligible income and hand-to-mouth survival. “My owner would beat us because we asked for money for working and they didn’t give us. They owe me about Rs 1 lakh,” Sheikh said.
He had travelled to Tamil Nadu with his two brothers, Sohnjab Ali and Azav Ali. A few days after the unlock phase was announced last month, the three brothers decided to return.
Back to the ‘chars‘
From Dhubri town, the administrative headquarters of the district, the road to Nayer Alga Part II goes through the interiors of Bilasipara, located about 50 km away.
Where the road ends, the flood waters begin. For most part of the year, residents of these char areas have to travel in boats to access their homes.
When ThePrint arrived at Ismail Sheikh’s house, after a 40-minute boat ride, his 55-year-old father Havez Ali had just returned from cutting paddy — the floods had come early this year and time was of essence. “We had 1 bigha land here, but because of the river it all got eroded. I’ve been here for 12-13 years and if this breaks then we won’t have a place to live,” he said, pointing to the water outside the house.
All 15 members of the family live in a makeshift tin house, similar to other ones around them. There’s one double bed haphazardly placed in the corner and a single light bulb hangs on top. “I took Rs 2 lakh in debt and made this house. To pay back our loans, we sent them (our sons) outside because there’s no work here,” Ali said.
Before the lockdown, the family of 15 was managing to stay afloat on a household income of Rs 40,000 a month.
“We went through a lot of trouble (because of the lockdown). We struggled to get food. We only got some rice and 900 grams of dal from the government,” Sheikh’s mother Nadia Khatun said.
Ali is bracing for tough days ahead. “Now that our sons are coming back, we can’t manage. We’ll have to sell the house.”
There is no official figure of the number of people who migrate out of char areas. According to Abdul Manan, a former professor of statistics at Gauhati University, however, they comprise a large section of the state’s labour force that has migrated out.
“It is a scattered population that is spread across Dhubri to Sadiya, because the rural economy is not good. There is no source of income or other parts of livelihood, so they are migrating to other parts in search of livelihood,” Manan told ThePrint over the telephone.
“MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) is the only answer (for them now),” he added.
The way forward
For now the Assam government is looking to address unemployment among migrant returnees by ramping up construction work in the rural areas, provide more with job cards under the MGNREGA and helping them “update their skills”.
The SAMPARKA (Software Application for Migrated Persons to Assam for Rejuvenating Karma Abhiyan) launched by the P&RD department has so far registered 18,003 migrant workers across the state — 8,556 among these are job card holders. The MGNREGA job cards allow individuals to apply for paid work with gram panchayats.
“We had instructed the chief executive officers and the block development officers (BDOs) to provide job cards under the MGNREGA scheme to those who are willing to work under this. Also, the BDOs and chief executive officers have been advised to engage skilled persons who have skills like masonry and other construction related work in rural construction,” P&RD Commissioner Hemen Das told ThePrint.
According to him, the state government has released a sum of Rs 1.3 lakh for the construction of 3 lakh houses and Rs 2,500 crore for other construction work. “The construction workers, masons and other skilled people may also engage with this,” Das said.
Experts, however, say the figure of 18,003 is too low and would impede more of these workers from accessing jobs.
According to P&RD’s data, only 540 migrant workers were registered in Dhubri, even though officials here said over 60,000 people returned here from other parts of Assam and the country. “No, the government hasn’t given us anything so far,” Ismail Sheikh said.
Asked about the numbers, Das said the figures will be much higher. “We are still in the process of capturing and verifying the data. I’ve asked our district officials to also coordinate with the deputy commissioners and collect the actual,” he said.