Will agriculture help twice-returned Saurashtra migrants tide over COVID-19 crisis?

Several Saurashtra migrants who had returned to work in Surat in May-end said they have fallen back on land resources for agriculture 

By Rajeev Khanna
Published: Thursday 09 July 2020
Migrant workers involved in the diamond sector in Surat have returned to their villages in Saurashtra. Photo: Rajeev Khanna

The Saurashtra region in western Gujarat has been witnessing a second wave of reverse migration amid the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Labourers employed in the diamond industry in Surat had first migrated back to their villages in Saurashtra when the Union government had first announced nationwide lockdown in March.

They, however, came back to Surat when the lockdown was lifted in May-end. Now, they are once again headed to their villages in the face of spiralling COVID-19 cases in Surat that has led to the closure of several industrial units.

Several migrants said they have fallen back on land resources for agriculture and are “determined not to go back till at least Diwali”. The good monsoon rainfall has been the silver lining, and most of them are expecting a good groundnut and cotton crop.

Sources on the ground said thousands of workers employed in the diamond sector went back home, again, after units started closing down fearing a surge in COVID-19 cases. Those who own land along with their other family members have taken to tilling while the others have taken to working as agriculture labour since a good rainfall has led to an increase in demand for agriculture this season.

“The diamond units closed again and we were left with no choice. They only operated for a week or two after the lockdown was lifted? Why should we pay rents then? It is better to come back to our village and work on the family land,” Rajeshbhai Thummar, a labourer from Amreli district, told DTE.

Another labourer Kamleshbhai Patel, who returned to Abrahmpura village in Savarkundla from Surat’s Varaccha, said, “We will go back only after Diwali if things look promising. There are thousands like me who have come back home. We would rather spend time with our families than sitting in expensive hotels.”

He added that good rains have assured them of subsistence.

Econmist Hemant Shah, who has been keeping an eye on reverse migration since the first lockdown, explained, “The diamond industry is down by at least 60 per cent in terms of demand. It has been witnessing a slowdown for the last two years and does not hold much promise for its workforce.”

He added that about 20 per cent of the workforce employed in polishing and finishing had come back to work when the unlockdown was announced, but were compelled to return during the “second wave”.

He expressed optimism over agricultural returns following a good rainfall.

 “Even if the groundnut crop is good, will it translate into farmers getting good money? The recent amendments in the Agricultural Produce Market Committee Act, with claims that it is farmer-oriented and a tool for development, will not yield results. This is because we all know how companies operate in a cartel with a monopolistic outlook.”

Pointing to the cotton produce, he said farmers had to deal with pricing issues last year as well.  

He said the government needs to come out with positive interventions and move towards establishing good storage facilities in co-operative sector so that the farmers can hold back their produce till they get proper remuneration.

“The government made a budgetary provision of Rs 300 crore for setting up storage facilities, which is just Rs 10,000 for 30,000 farmers. It amounts to nothing. Does it serve the purpose for the over five million farmers in the state,” he added.

Suresh Samani, an expert on agricultural economics in Saurashtra, had a different take on the issue. “We need to understand the socio-economic dynamics with regards to people from rural Saurashtra who go to work in the diamond industry in Surat. They cannot be equated with migrants from other states who come in search of livelihood to Gujarat.”

He added that a majority of workers from Saurashtra belong to the Patel community, which is into farming and owns a large chunk of land. It is often one or two members from a joint family who move to the diamond industry since the remuneration from farming is not ideal and the jobs in the diamond cutting, polishing and finishing sectors pay well.

“Then there is also the attraction of a better standard of living in an urban centre,” Samani said.

He explained that it is primary the fear of the virus that has driven labourers back to their homes: “Since they own land and their roots are strong, they are confident of subsistence. The government interventions have also led to getting reasonable returns for both cotton and groundnut in the last few years, although the cotton prices are nowhere near the Rs 1,600 per bale mark that was there a few years ago.”

A good rainfall in these areas may point to an increase in demand for agricultural labour that normally comes from Panchmahals and the adjoining state of Madhya Pradesh. But since the labour is not expected from these places this season, the vacuum will be filled by the returnees from the diamond sector, experts said.   

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