COVID-19: Uttarakhand wants to retain returning citizens

Uttarakhand is dealing with a migration problem for a long time.

By Megha Prakash
Published: Tuesday 28 April 2020
Migrant workers who returned to Uttarakhand show the land they are cultivating Photo: Harsh Bahuguna__

The government of Uttarakhand is taking several steps to retain migrants who returned to the Himalayan state after a nationwide lockdown was imposed to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

A total of 59,360 migrants returned to 10 districts — excluding Dehradun, Haridwar and Udham Singh Nagar — according to an interim report released by the state’s Rural Development and Migration Commission on April 23, 2020.

Uttarakhand has been dealing with a migration problem for a long time: People have left the state’s hilly, rural areas in search of employment in urban areas across the country.

The migrants, however, were forced to return to their villages and home towns after they faced a long-term loss of their livelihood when the lockdown was imposed.

The government then decided to conduct an online survey to understand their socio-economic status.

This may be a short-term reverse migration, Sharad Singh Negi, the vice-chairman of the migration commission, told Down To Earth. The government looks at this as an opportunity to retain its youth by apprising them of schemes and gainfully employing them.

Seventy per cent of those who have returned, however, were unwilling to work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Act, according to the report, that said only 30 per cent can be categorised under the minimum income group.

Thirty-three per cent of the migrants visited their families living in villages at least twice a year, the report said.

Most of the migrants were employed in the hospitality sector and as drivers or electricians.

The others, however, were blue-collared migrants — highly skilled with several years of experience in different sectors. Most of the migrants — with an average age of 30 to 40 years — ventured to other districts within Uttarakhand, across the country and in some cases, abroad, in the search for employment and higher education.

Migrants who returned to Tharali block in Chamoli district, for example — most of them information technology professionals — worked in China.

The state government has drawn up an action plan to better engage with these blue-collared migrants and revive the state’s rural economy. “One of the many suggestions proposed by the commission is to focus on key sectors like horticulture, dairy, animal husbandry, goat rearing, eco-tourism, homestays and other micro-enterprises,” said Negi.

A socio-economic survey is being conducted to know the profiles of the migrants, their expectations from the government and what they were willing to do once the lockdown was lifted.

The findings of the survey will be compiled shortly.

The government is focusing on laying emphasis on commercialising cultivation of local crops like black soybean, horse gram, kidney beans, amaranthus and finger millets.

Subsidies to promote agriculture — with 90 per cent subsidy on farm machines, 80 per cent to build poly houses, 80 per cent for honey production and 50 per cent for mushroom cultivation — were also announced by the government.

The agro-produce from the state is well-received in international markets, with a scope to commercialise traditional crops as well.

The acreage under cultivation for finger millets in Pithoragarh, for example, has increased. It may not be enough to sustain the migrants, but it could generate supplementary income for the migrants, according to Negi.

There is, however, a constraint in expanding the area under cultivation for small individual land holdings — about 0.6 hectares in the state, below the national average.

Land pooling is one way to expand cultivation, but it can be a challenge to have several people become land holders.

The government is also planning to fix a minimum support price (MSP) to commercialise the state’s traditional crops and encourage traditional farming.

Only kharif crops like wheat and paddy currently have MSPs in the state.

Jaidev Lal, 25, has returned to his village in Dhaneti in Dunda block of district Uttarkashi after two and a half years from Punjab’s Chandigarh where he worked as a help in a hotel.

Lal joined an initiative to grow vegetables in his village started by Harsh Bahuguna, the village head and two other friends. “We will expand to having dairies, goat rearing and animal husbandry to generate income for the village,” said Bahuguna.

Stakeholders in the area, however, said there needs to be a market and an efficient supply chain for the scheme to be successful.

Anil Goyal, a Dehradun-based wholesale grain dealer said farmers do not get the MSP for wheat and paddy — despite the rules — and are forced to sell their produce for less.

Middlemen in the state benefit from this, in the absence of an organised market. This factor was a major limitation across the state, said Negi.

Farmers in Almora’s Lamgada block grow vegetables that are taken by middlemen to the nearest mandi in Haldwani, where the produce is supplied back.

A similar case was reported from Pauri district.

A block-level strategy is being strategised by the government to curb this. Government functionaries will be engaged — similar to the process of monitoring and tracking migrants returning to the villages.

If the state is successful in creating a supply chain and organising the market, the rural economy can be revived through rigorous promotions. A suggestion to open exclusive hill produce outlets at international airports to increase visibility was also put forward.

The state government plans to implement the proposed strategies in phases and assess the impact of the lockdown on the rural economy in real-time.

Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat — in his budget speech on March 4 — allotted Rs 18 crore to set up a migration cell and announced ways to mitigate migration/

The proposed schemes and suggestions are apt in the current situation, according to Negi.

These initiatives are being planned with the hope that short-term migrants — who are unclear on what they will do in the post-lockdown period — will stay back in the state.

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