Rural options for Odisha’s returnee migrants

The state’s track record in engaging people under MGNREGA has been mixed so far. Hence, this huge returnee workforce must be gainfully engaged in the rural economy

By Arabinda Acharya, Anup Kr Das
Published: Thursday 18 June 2020

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the subsequent lockdown and the stopping of economic activity, thousands of migrant workers from India’s major cities started returning to their native places. Odisha, one of the largest contributors of the migrant workforce, also received a huge influx of workers, who reached the state in the days following the declaration of the lockdown on March 24, 2020.

During the last decade, Odisha has faced a number of natural disasters including floods, cyclones, tornadoes and droughts year after year. This year, COVID-19 has dealt another devastating blow to the state.

The Odisha government has taken various measures to tackle natural disasters and to minimise loss of life and property due to them. Before the pandemic struck, the economic growth of the state had been higher than the national average.

The state’s economy is expected to grow at 6.16 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) compared to the national economy at 5.0 per cent in 2019-20.

The state’s per capita income is growing at 6.75 per cent, compared to the national average of 6.84 per cent during 2018-19. According to India’s Periodic Labour Force Survey data, the labour force participation rate in the state was 51.7 per cent, as compared to the national average of 53.0 per cent.

The proportion of workers under the informal sector, combining self-employment and casual labour, is more than 80 per cent. The agriculture, forestry and fishing sectors were the highest sources of employment across the states. These account for 48.76 per cent in Odisha. 

According to Census 2011, around 1.3 million people from Odisha migrated to different parts of the country for various reasons. Of them, the majority are in Andhra Pradesh (14.6 per cent), followed by Gujarat (13.6 per cent), West Bengal (11 per cent) and Maharashtra (nine per cent).

The state of Gujarat has the second highest number of Odia migrants. The majority (45 per cent) of them have migrated for work, employment or business purposes. Around 30 per cent of the migrants to Gujarat are short duration ones. This means they are there for less than four years.

Migration is a livelihood strategy adopted by millions of people in India. Migrant workers constitute the backbone of Indian economy. Most migration happens in India for work and employment and is directed towards urban areas.

Most migrants are inter-state ones. The higher-income and developed states such as Delhi, Goa, Haryana, Punjab, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka, have a high in-migration rate. Low-income states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Odisha pose relatively higher rates of out-migration. 

Rural options

The huge influx of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers into Odisha has occurred even as the state fights COVID-19 that is projected to continue for many more months.

In this scenario, the possibility of an upward trend in the unemployment rate as well as loss of livelihoods is huge. The government is planning to engage a sizeable quantum of this workforce in works under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employement Guarantee Act.

However, Odisha’s track record in engaging people under this mega scheme is only 1,69,000 so far. Hence, this huge returnee workforce must be gainfully engaged in the local economy, especially in rural areas.

With effective leveraging of the vibrant Self Help Groups platform (SHGs) and using the locally available raw material, supply chain disruption can be addressed and demand creation can be planned for rural areas. The government should facilitate the credit linkage to these SHGs and agencies, including farmer producer organisations.

Panchayats can be engaged in procuring these products with a minimum assured price and facilitating an appropriate market. The returnee migrant can be engaged in self employment and or in the small and medium industries using the rural economy like food processing, mushroom cultivation, chicken rearing, backyard poultry, goatery, dairy promotion, both inland and saline water fish cultivation, agri-kiosk and value chain of the agriculture sector. 

The big challenge for the Odisha government will be to provide livelihood and employment opportunities to the huge number of returnees coming to rural areas amid an economic recession and despair. Recently, the Prime Minister outlined a Rs 20 trillion stimulus package, along with a quantum leap in reforms.

He gave a call for being vocal about local and about the need to be self-sufficient. The World Bank has already cautioned the world that there will be a sharp decline in growth, that may go down to three per cent, while GDP growth could be less than one per cent.

The bank also estimated that around 40-60 million people will slip into extreme poverty and the modest number will be 49 million and major share of the poor people would be from South Asian nations.

Arabinda Acharya and Anup Kumar Das work with CARE India in Bhubaneswar. Views expressed are the authors’ own and don't necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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