It was during August 2020 when the first wave of the COVID 19 pandemic was slightly fading away and restrictions on mobility were relaxed, I was carrying out my fieldwork for a research project to study migration from rural West Bengal, I observed that buses fit with microphones were giving a call to the migrants to board and grab the opportunities for work in other states. It was a matter of surprise that these buses were scheduled to ply to states of Karnataka and Kerala where the distances are always more than 2000 km. It was a very hot and humid monsoon month in the major part of India and the destinations were waiting to welcome the migrant labourer from West Bengal. I was feeling pity about their long arduous journey and the destiny they are left with.
According to an estimate based on the 2011 census, every 28th rural person is a migrant. There is a long-standing discourse that job creation was not enough in accordance with the economic liberalisation to boost the economy. Even then the labour migration from rural to urban areas remained unabated.
Labour migration from rural to urban areas is not a new phenomenon. Even then, the rural to urban migration for the state of West Bengal bears very different connotations. West Bengal’s contribution to the country’s GDP observed a sharp fall since the 80s. The politics of aggressive trade unionism leads to a lack of economic opportunity creation in West Bengal. There was a subsequent increase in opportunities in the western and southern states during 90s. A strong flow of labour migration initiated from the state. In the 2011 census, for the first time since Independence, the state has recorded more out-migration and less in-migration implying a net loss of population through migration.
Though there was a prolonged land reform programme under the communist government, the socio-economic caste census (2011) reveals that only about 30% of the rural population has access to land in the state. The income profile of the state is also pathetic in comparison to India as well as in comparison to the average of the eastern zone. More than 82 % of the rural households earn less than ₹5000 per month. The 2011 population census reveals that about 14 percent of rural households live in dilapidated houses which is more than double the national average (6.5 %) and 93% of households use unclean fuel for cooking.
The male working-age population prefers to travel to the southern and western states. Interstate migration has replaced their once most favoured destination place to reach Kolkata urban agglomeration for a job. The flow of labour towards Middle Eastern countries has also become very strong. Maldah and Murshidabad has emerged recently among the top 50 districts that are sending labourers internationally. The change of government did not really change the approach of governance much and political belligerence continued. The state has failed to attract any major investment to create income opportunities in the state since the Trinamool Congress came in power in 2011. Under these circumstances, the working-age group population embraces migration which enhances their income to mitigate joblessness and abject poverty. There is an urgent need to look into local income generation possibilities to check distress migration from the state. A development plan to make each district unique for its local produce could be a sustainable source of income.
West Bengal used to cater the job requirement of the eastern and north eastern states. To address the long distance distressed migration and to promote regional balance in growth, state must revisit its opportunity creation possibilities.
The author is Associate Professor, Centre for the study of regional Development, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
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