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'If We Have Work Here, Why Will We Migrate?': MP Labourers Return Home to Vote

'Have you ever seen an upper-caste family migrating for work and returning to their homes only on festivals?'

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“Vote to karenge hi, yahi to ek adhikar milta hai. Hum har chunav me laut kar aate hain, lekin humari pareshaniyon ka koi hal nahi nikalta (We will vote, it's the only right we have. We return every election, but our problems aren’t resolved)," 33-year-old Kunwarbai Adivasi, a Gond tribal in Sengru village of Madhya Pradesh's Chhatarpur district, tells The Quint.

Kunwarbai recently returned from Chandigarh after eight months as a migrant construction worker ahead of the Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections 2023.

'Have you ever seen an upper-caste family migrating for work and returning to their homes only on festivals?'

Kunwarbai recently returned from Chandigarh after eight months as a migrant construction worker ahead of Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections 2023.

(Photo: Vishnukant Tiwari/The Quint)

Kunwarbai's family is not alone in their dependency on labour work and job opportunities away from Chhatarpur and adjoining districts comprising Bundelkhand – an arid region in Madhya Pradesh plagued with poverty, casteism, and MIGRATION.

Chhatarpur, a district at the epicentre of the youth exodus, gained the spotlight during the initial COVID-19 lockdown as migrants returning home queued up in large numbers.

After the migration crisis became a focal point during the pandemic, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the state launched a portal for the registration of migrant workers. As per reports, around 7.3 lakh workers had registered. The tally spiked to over 13 lakh after the inclusion of family members of these workers.

'Have you ever seen an upper-caste family migrating for work and returning to their homes only on festivals?'

Chhatarpur, a district at the epicentre of the youth exodus, gained the spotlight during the initial COVID-19 lockdown as migrants returning home queued up in large numbers.

(Photo: Vishnukant Tiwari/The Quint)

“I had to accompany my husband merely a month after my marriage to work in Delhi in 2009-10. It's been almost 13 years since then – we travel for work and to earn money. I have been to Surat, Haryana, Hisar, Delhi, and Chandigarh. I like Chandigarh the most because I feel the most secure there,” says Kunwarbai.

It was not by choice, but out of necessity, she adds, which forces her to leave her home frequently, along with her three children and husband.

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While the district administration of migration-hit Chhatarpur has set up a call centre to convince people to return to their villages to vote on 17 November, the issue of migration remains out of the political discourse in the poll-bound state. 

As per district officials, nearly 31,690 voters reportedly relocated from Chhatarpur. However, a local journalist requesting anonymity tells this reporter that the district administration’s estimate is "wide of the point".

“This is a watered-down estimate. Almost two lakh voters returned during COVID-19, and now the government is saying that there are only around 32,000 migrant labourers. This is a big sham. We have seen scores of villages almost lying empty, but no government, no politician, and no party wants to talk about this.”
Local Journalist to The Quint

In the tribal-dominated village of Sengru, which houses around 800 voters, nearly 90 percent of the residents work as migrant labourers, returning to their homes solely during festivals such as Diwali and Holi, as well as mandatory visits during election periods.

'Have you ever seen an upper-caste family migrating for work and returning to their homes only on festivals?'

In the tribal-dominated village of Sengru which houses around 800 voters, nearly 90 per cent of the residents work as migrant labourers, returning to their homes solely during festive occasions such as Diwali and Holi, as well as mandatory visits during election periods.

(Photo: Vishnukant Tiwari/The Quint)

Even as the residents of Sengru village say that they ensure their return during the elections to vote, the political parties don't focus on resolving the migration issue.

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'Migration in Bundelkhand a Family Heritage'

In another corner of Chhatarpur, around 150 kilometers away from Sengru, lies Pahra village, living a similar fate of migration. 

51-year-old Ram Vishal Ahirwar of Pahra village is almost on the other end of the migration cycle as his 19-year-old son Rohit, pursuing the final year of his Bachelor's degree, started migrating for jobs a year ago.

'Have you ever seen an upper-caste family migrating for work and returning to their homes only on festivals?'

Fifty one-year-old Ram Vishal Ahirwar of Pahra village is almost on the other end of the migration cycle as his 19-year-old son Rohit, pursuing the final year of his Bachelor's degree, started migrating for jobs a year ago.

(Photo: Vishnukant Tiwari/The Quint)

“Hum ispe aksar baat nahin karte lekin dil paseejh jata hai apne bachchon ko bhi wahi kaam karte hue dekh kar. Humne kya diya hai apne bachchon ko palayan ke alawa? We don't often do it, but it pains my heart when I see my children in the same old rut as us. What have we given to our children except migration?” asks Ram Vishal, sitting outside his three-room kuchcha house as his children repaint its walls.

His 19-year-old son Rohit Ahirwar, drenched in blue paint, says "migration has been passed onto him like a family heritage".

“I will be a graduate six months from now but I know I will remain a migrant worker. Most of my friends will also continue this work. We don't have any other option. Besides who cares for us?"
Rohit Ahirwar

In the nearby Sisolar village, Suresh Ahirwar, a father of three, who works as a mason in Uttar Pradesh's Noida, tells The Quint, that he earns Rs 700-800 per day – and is able to find work for at least 20-22 days a month. 

He further adds that if he works in his village or in the nearby areas, he is paid almost half and is able to find work only for a week or two.

'Have you ever seen an upper-caste family migrating for work and returning to their homes only on festivals?'

In the nearby Sisolar village, Suresh Ahirwar, a father of three, who works as a mason in Uttar Pradesh's Noida, tells The Quint, that he earns Rs 700-800 per day – and is able to find work for at least 20-22 days a month. 

(Photo: Vishnukant Tiwari/The Quint)

“I am able to save Rs 3,000-4,000 a month in Noida. But when I worked in my village, I was not able to save anything. In rural areas, many a time our payments get stuck... and the unpredictable nature of work opportunities is very risky. Sometimes we go without work for months... I can't take the risk with my family dependent on me.”
Suresh Ahirwar
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Sengru Comes to Life Ahead of Navratri-Diwali, Stares at Empty Homes Otherwise

Kunwarbai’s husband Indrapal Adivasi was ecstatic when he hosted Uttar Pradesh’s former chief minister and Samajwadi Party (SP) supremo Akhilesh Yadav just three days after he returned from Chandigarh on 28 September. Indrapal has been migrating for work since he was 15; he is 34 now.

'Have you ever seen an upper-caste family migrating for work and returning to their homes only on festivals?'

Kunwarbai’s husband Indrapal Adivasi was ecstatic when he hosted Uttar Pradesh’s former chief minister and Samajwadi party supremo Akhilesh Yadav just three days after he returned from Chandigarh on 28 September.

(Photo by special arrangement/The Quint)

“It has been 19 years since I have been going out to earn money. This time Akhilesh Yadav ji has promised to ensure that we get the opportunity to earn money in our hometown, so that there's some stability in our lives.”
Indrapal said.

As he waits for change, Indrapal says he's again leaving the morning after the voting on 17 November.

“We will again pack our bags, lock our homes, and return to Chandigarh. In the end, it's every man for himself. No political parties would come to help us,” he says as he picks his third and youngest child – a four-month-old newborn daughter – in his arms.

Sixty two-year-old Sudama Adivasi, who met us outside Indrapal's home sitting on the raised platform constructed around a neem tree, stopped migrating after he got stuck during the COVID-19 lockdown in Haryana. He says he barely made it home alive.

'Have you ever seen an upper-caste family migrating for work and returning to their homes only on festivals?'

Sixty two-year-old Sudama Adivasi tells The Quint that he barely made it home alive after he got stuck in Haryana in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

(Photo: Vishnukant Tiwari/The Quint)

“Why do you think people leave their homes year after year and go looking for jobs in far-off places, haggling along their children and wives? If we had got opportunities here, why would we migrate?”
Sudama Adivasi
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Kunwarbai, Indrapal, Sudama, and Ram Vishal – all constitute a part of India's around 140-million-strong domestic migrant labour workforce, facing challenges like lack of social security, irregular job opportunities, and a meagre income.

Chhatarpur district, boasting a population of 17.5 lakh, hosts over 14 lakh voters distributed among six Assembly constituencies. 

In the 2018 elections, the Congress secured victory in three constituencies, while the BJP clinched triumph in two predominantly rural areas.

The remaining seat initially went to an SP candidate, who subsequently joined the BJP.

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Migration Leaves Tribals, SCs Severely Affected

With 14.7 percent of India's total tribal population, Madhya Pradesh holds the highest concentration of tribal communities, according to the 2011 census. Furthermore, tribal residents make up around 21.1% of the state's entire population.

As per a report by Deccan Herald quoting the Economic Survey of 2013, routes from Madhya Pradesh to Delhi, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh are some of the busiest routes of migration in India.

'Have you ever seen an upper-caste family migrating for work and returning to their homes only on festivals?'

An elderly migrant labourer applies cowdung paint as part of diwali decorations on the steps of her mudhouse in Chhatarpur.

(Photo: Vishnukant Tiwari/The Quint)

Talking to The Quint, a senior journalist requesting anonymity said:

“In Bundelkhand, which has a sizeable population of Dalits and tribals, migration has been prevalent for generations. The marginalised communities bear the brunt because they don’t find suitable employment in the region. The lack of a strong industrial set-up, hierarchical poverty, and lack of agricultural activities are the main reasons why people, especially those belonging to the SC-ST communities, are dependent on the non-farming daily-wage work”.
Chhatarpur-based journalist

Seventeen-year-old Gangadeen, who works as a painter in Delhi along with his father, idles with his friends, who too have returned in the last few days. He points out that the Adivasis and Dalits are the worst affected communities due to migration.

'Have you ever seen an upper-caste family migrating for work and returning to their homes only on festivals?'

Seventeen-year-old Gangadeen, who works as a painter in Delhi along with his father, idles with his friends, who too have returned in the last few days. He points out that the Adivasis and Dalits are the worst affected communities due to migration.

(Photo: Vishnukant Tiwari/The Quint)

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“Have you ever seen an upper-caste family migrating for work and returning to their homes only on festivals? Since our forefathers were poor and had no land in their name, they started going out. My father then followed their footsteps, and then I am doing the same by finding work in Delhi and Surat. It’s only the poor who have to leave behind their homes and search for jobs.”
Gangadeen
'Have you ever seen an upper-caste family migrating for work and returning to their homes only on festivals?'

A migrant labourer paints his home ahead of Diwali.

(Photo: Vishnukant Tiwari/The Quint)

Sengru village sarpanch Rajendra Singh Bundela tells The Quint that around 70-80 per cent of the tribals and Dalits migrate to find work in other cities. 

“Sengru is mostly tribal dominated and almost every family migrates to find work. Similarly, other villages where tribals and Dalits are in the majority see these families migrate to other places.”
Rajendra Singh Bundela

Bundela claims that since there are no jobs in the region and because no political parties focus on this, the issue persists as it is.

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Pradumn Singh Lodhi, the BJP's candidate for the Bada Malhara seat in Chhatarpur district, has been actively campaigning on around Laadli Behna Yojana, pensions, and infrastructure, but neglects migration. The Congress, on the other hand, has fielded Ram Sia Bharti, a saffron-clad sadhvi, in Bada Malhara to defeat Lodhi. However, her campaign also fails to address the rampant youth exodus from the district.

Even the Congress MLA from Rajnagar Kunwar, Vikram Singh, popularly known as Nati Raja, has sidestepped the migration issue in his electoral pursuits.

'Have you ever seen an upper-caste family migrating for work and returning to their homes only on festivals?'

Migrant labourers in MP's Bundelkhand suffer due to political sadness in addressing the issue of migration and providing indigenous employment opportunities. 

(Photo: Vishnukant Tiwari/The Quint)

While Indrapal, Kunwarbai and Ram Vishal are already in touch with their employers in the metro cities, Gangadeen is reluctant.

“I want to live here in my village. I want to have a livelihood here. I don't want to breathe the polluted air of metro cities or live in shanties. We have a home in our village. We have each other. We just want an opportunity to work here. Is it too much to ask for?”
Gangadeen

"Is it too much to ask for a livelihood in Bundelkhand?" he repeats.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Congress   Migration   Bundelkhand 

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