Patna: The issue of unemployment in Bihar is haunting the Nitish Kumar government in the election year, with the return of nearly 17 lakh migrant workers only adding to its woes in the absence of adequate capacity in the state’s business and industries to absorb them.
A survey by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) pegged the unemployment rate in Bihar for April at 46.6 per cent, almost double the national rate, and it’s only going to be worse with lakhs of workers returning home.
“The return of the large number of migrant labourers is undeniably a challenge for the government. We will see how the workforce can be utilised,” Bihar’s Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi told ThePrint.
“We have already created 3.5 crore man days through various government schemes. Hopefully, states will begin to recover after six months and many of the migrant labourers will return with a better bargaining power to the place they work in,” he added.
Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had earlier asked his officials to do “skill profiling” of these migrant workers who should “work for the development of the state” but not many people in the government or outside are convinced.
‘How will we create jobs in 1 year?’
In 2005, when Nitish Kumar first came to power, he had promised that people would not have to go outside the state for their livelihood. However, little changed as migrant labourers from Bihar spread out in the country in states that offered substantially attractive daily wages, like Kerala (Rs 1,500 per day) or Telangana (Rs 1,200 per day).
“Bihar’s daily wage figures are just Rs 300 per day. If we could not stop migration in 15 years and offer them jobs to stay home, how can one expect us to do it within one year?” asked a senior minister, who didn’t wish to be identified.
According to government sources, the number of returning migrant labourers has exceeded early expectations. When the Shramik trains started it was estimated that less than 10 lakh would return. As trains were increased, the estimates were revised to 15 lakh. Until 25 May, around 15.36 lakh migrants had already returned in 1,036 trains.
On 26 May, another 122 trains brought back around 2 lakh passengers.
“The number of trains has been increased from just two to over 100 in a single day. Bringing back migrant labourers back home is our top priority. The process will continue,” said Bihar’s Transport Commissioner Sanjay Agarwal. He said 800 buses have also been deputed to bring back the migrants returning home on foot.
However, the government is ostensibly more worried about the impact of returning workers on economy and politics than the stress they could lay on the state’s poor health infrastructure.
As of Friday, Bihar recorded 3,296 Covid cases, out of which at least 2,041 are migrant labourers who returned from Maharashtra, Delhi, Gujarat and other states.
“We just do not know where this number will end when all the migrant labourers will return home,” said a health department official, who didn’t wish to be named.
What experts and trade say
As migrant labourers from across the country pour into their home state, economists say the huge influx is not a temporary phenomenon and is here to stay, adding it will hit the state hard.
P.P. Ghose, director of the Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI) that prepares the yearly economic survey report for the Bihar government, said most of these labourers are likely to stay back because they are angry over shoddy treatment by the states where they worked.
“It is going to hit Bihar’s rural economy badly as migrant labourers have contributed significantly to rural economy — almost 30 per cent — through the remittance they send back home,” said Ghose.
“It will also lead to over availability of labour in Bihar and daily wages will plunge. A weak rural economy makes Bihar vulnerable to basic factors such as malnutrition, healthcare, literacy etc,” he said.
Ghose said the impact is already being felt as prices of vegetables have plunged. To avoid a rural economy crisis, the Bihar government should ensure cash transfers either directly or through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), he said. “The faster this happens, the better it will be for the government.”
Other experts see the crisis as a challenge as well as an opportunity. N.K. Choudhary, former economics professor at Patna University, said the workforce could become a great demographic advantage for Bihar if used correctly.
“Most of these labourers are semi-skilled and they can impact the social and economic change in Bihar, especially the rural areas. They had gone out from the feudal mindset of rural Bihar. They have seen a better life style, social change and prosperity. They are more open to new ideas,” he said.
“The state government should tap them and transform labour into capital. It should use their skills in MNREGA. They should promote micro and medium industry to adjust the skilled labour. But all this will require a committed government and bureaucracy,” he added.
But there seems to be hesitation in trade and industry to address the issue. Satyajit Singh, president of the state unit of PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the total capacity of trade and industry in Bihar is “around 1.25 lakh which is already filled up”.
“The government has not been very proactive in building up industry in the state for the last one decade. Even if they do now, it will take more than a year for the industry to start production. The entire responsibility of adjusting the migrant labourers is on the state,” he said.
“The reasons why such a huge population migrated (outside) for livelihood still prevail in Bihar. The only positive aspect I see is availability of labour in agriculture,” added Singh.
Health concerns amid Covid-19
The unexpected flow of migrant labourers has seemingly caught the government by surprise. On Monday, a government statement claimed the number of quarantine centres for Covid-19 has been raised to 14,472 and over 11 lakh people are in them. Barely a week ago, the number of centres was 7,880.
CM Nitish Kumar, who has been under heavy fire by the opposition for poorly managing these centres, has been holding interactions with the people inside quarantine centres.
On Monday, he held a high-level meeting with officials and instructed them to increase the number of isolation wards in every district in view of the fact that the number of Covid-19 cases in Bihar has risen sharply with the inflow of migrant labourers.
Impact on politics
The Covid-19 migrant crisis has also significantly impacted Bihar politics as returning labourers are angry at the government for leaving them stranded.
Lalu Prasad’s RJD, which looked like a beaten team before the crisis hit, suddenly sees an opportunity ahead of the 2020 assembly elections.
“Even BJP leaders are now privately talking about changing the CM face for the Bihar assembly elections. Nitish Kumar is being abused by returning migrant labourers,” said RJD national vice president Shivanand Tiwari.
However, the BJP is quick to refuse such a move. “Shivanand ji should avoid becoming an astrologer. Nitish Kumar will lead us. Shivananad ji is only being a Raag Darbari of Lalu Prasad and his family,” BJP spokesperson Rajni Ranjan Patel told ThePrint.
However, the huge influx has left NDA leaders worried, who privately agree that Nitish Kumar should have allowed the return of migrants in March itself instead of opposing it. They are keeping fingers crossed that voting will take place on caste lines, where the NDA enjoys a huge advantage.