It’s not 9 pm yet, when a fleet of buses carrying migrant workers to Mumbai, Pune and cities in Punjab and Rajasthan will leave from the bus stand in Baisi, a subdivision in Bihar’s Purnea district. Waiting to board a bus is Mohammad Obaid, 37. Like many of the workers at the bus stop who returned home when the coronavirus lockdown was enforced, Obaid says he can no longer wait for the pandemic to end or to vote in the upcoming polls.
“We have labour cards for MGNREGA employment but there’s no work here. The entire area is flooded,” says Obaid, who has been working at a construction site in Pune for 12 years, sending money to his family of nine.
Birenlal Yadav, 50, a labourer from Marwa village who is headed to Punjab, joins in, “Floods inundate the fields every year. Punjab’s harvest season guarantees us a livelihood.”
Such stories are echoed by many residents across the state’s Seemanchal region (Kishanganj, Purnea, Araria and Katihar), among Bihar’s most backward areas. Of the nearly 3 million Bihari migrant labourers who returned to the state since March, 2,45,000 stayed in quarantine centres in Seemanchal.
Over the years, frequent flooding of the Mahananda river and its tributaries has rendered agriculture unviable in the region. Behind his house in Bada Rehuwa, 7 km north of Baisi, Kamrul Haque, 50, owns four bighas of agricultural land, which is now covered with water hyacinth. Haque, who earlier grew three crops, including paddy, can now only grow maize, the one crop not affected by flooding. Four years ago, his two sons, of ages 18 and 21, moved to work at a garment factory in Jaipur.
Many of the young voters among Bada Rehuwa’s 1,200 voters work in the unorganised sector in cities outside Bihar. Mohammad Mohid’s two sons, both of whom never went to school, returned to Jaipur 15 days ago. “I had to borrow Rs 8,000 to buy their bus tickets… The government had promised 35 kg ration for those who returned during the pandemic but we didn’t get any,” complains Mohid.
Says Haji Abdus Subhan, the local RJD MLA, “Agriculture alone cannot generate enough employment. There are no factories here.”
Most farmers in the region have switched to maize farming from the traditional jute cultivation because the latter wasn’t economically viable, explains the MLA. “A proposed jute mill in Kishanganj never came up… Now, the farmers sell their maize produce to godown owners where they are not even getting the MSP. We need local processing units. The farm Bills will further harm farmers,” adds the MLA.
Advocate Firoz Ahmad who founded the NGO Surjapuri Development Organisation to work for Seemanchal’s Surjapuri Muslim community, says the government must come up with a framework to develop industries for employment. “Tea and pineapple plantations are an option, but people aren’t aware,” he says.
Back at the Baisi bus stop, perched on his brand-new bicycle, a 20-year-old says, “Had I not gone out, I couldn’t have afforded this.”