Travels through the Hindi belt: For farm workers in Bihar's Darbhanga, seasonal migration to Punjab only hope of livelihood

Parth MN
Thousands of villagers from Bihar’s Darbhanga district migrate around March-end to work as labourers in Punjab’s wheat fields, where they toil away for over a month.

Editor's note: This is part of a multi-article series on the jobs crisis in the three states crucial to Lok Sabha election 2019: Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.  


If the railway station at Darbhanga is packed and a crowd is waiting for the Jananayak Express to pull up on one of the platforms, then the wheat crop is about to be harvested over 1,600 kilometres away.

Thousands of villagers from Bihar's Darbhanga district migrate around March-end to work as labourers in Punjab's wheat fields, where they toil away for over a month.

"We make around Rs 8,000-10,000 a month," says Ramchandra Sahni, 40, a resident of Pokhram village, in Biraul tehsil €" about 50 kilometres from Darbhanga town. "Just two days ago, we played Holi in the village with family and friends. Today, it is time to say goodbye to them."

The bustling railway platform, engaged in its conversations and goodbyes, determinedly shifts focus on the Jananayak Express €" bound for Amritsar €" as it makes a move into the station at around 4.30 pm. The whistle goes off, people pick up their bags and barge into different coaches as the train slows down. It is not supposed to leave for another 45 minutes. But Darbhanga to Amritsar is a long journey that lasts 28 hours, and people want to ensure a seat. All the coaches of this train are general compartments. It is informally called "Majdoor Express", for it transports labourers to Punjab.

Situated 200 kilometres north-east of Patna in the Mithilanchal region, Darbhanga, known as the heart of this region, used to be one of India's largest private landholding. The district was known for its fish, betel leaf and gorgon nut during the erstwhile Darbhanga Raj. Until as late as the 1960s, it was home to one of the most extraordinary collections of jewels. Today, though, the place looks desolate and depressing with no prospects of employment.

Mohammad Kamrul, 55, a resident of Gora village in Darbhanga, says the district is flood-prone, which means the labour work in farmlands is scarce. "Farmlands are often submerged in floods," he says. "So, farmers rarely need labourers on their farms. Besides, there are no industries or mills in Darbhanga that would provide employment opportunities."

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which promises to provide 100 days of employment in the unskilled sector in rural India has not proved to be an alternative either. In 2017-18, 82,768 households got employment under the scheme, and only 82 of them completed 100 days or more at work. The following year, 1,27,735 households were employed, while merely 216 managed to complete 100 days at work.

In stark contrast, Darbhanga once had sugar mills, jute mill and paper mill working in tandem. The glory days are all but gone now. The enterprises have slowly and steadily shut, leaving its workers in the lurch. The rate with which the district lost jobs has been inversely proportional to the rate with which it has created them. Residents of Pokhram say they have named a junction in the village "BA Pass Chowk" because educated but jobless youngsters keep hanging out over there, for they have nothing else to do.

The district even had the luxury of natural ponds and rivers, which could have led to fisheries and makhana production. But urbanisation gobbled up the natural resources. Karni Sahni, 60, who belongs to the Mallah community that has traditionally been boatmen and fishermen, says his village of Pokhram had over 100 ponds.

"They no longer exist," he says. "It was our traditional source of livelihood. Now we migrate twice a year to Punjab to harvest wheat around March-end, and then in June for the plantation of rice. We try and save up the money we make in Punjab so we can survive once we are back home. Work opportunities here are rare."

According to the Centre for Monitoring India Economy (CMIE)'s report of December 2018, Bihar's labour participation rate stood at 38 percent, almost five points below the national average, which reflects starkly considering Bihar is the third most populous state in India. The labour force's unemployment rate was 8.77 percent, more than two points above the national average. The CMIE data also indicate that between February 2018 and February 2019, rural Bihar saw the number of employed drop by 15 lakh.

The overwhelming majority of those migrating are men. Their family members with gulal (vermillion) still stuck in their hair and ears have come to see them off at the station. "We do not take our wives along for two reasons," says Ramchandra. "We stay in makeshift huts in Punjab around the farms where we work. It is virtually in the open. The sanitation facilities are inadequate. It can be unsafe as well. Plus, someone needs to be in the village to take care of home and kids."

DM Diwakar, a social scientist based in Patna, says Bihar still suffers from a "feudal mindset". The CMIE's report also provides a gender-wise breakup of labour force participation rate, which stands at 1.96 percent for women in Bihar, as opposed to over 11 percent in the country. For men, the labour force participation rate in Bihar is over 69 percent, two points below the national average.

Najo Khatu, 65, says it is particularly tough finding labour work in Bihar. Her husband was a cattle trader, who recently died of a heart attack after his truck was seized at Balliya. He was accused of slaughter and threatened with cases. He was the sole breadwinner of the family, and his death has meant Khatu has to find labour work to run her household. "The work opportunities are few and the labourers volunteering are too many," she says. "The contractors, therefore, prefer men over women. They look at me and then look away."

Also See: Travels through the Hindi belt: Cast out of cow trade, Bihar's Gora village plunges into despair, poverty; MGNREGA offers no relief

Travels through the Hindi belt: In Bihar's Gaya, parents forced to put kids to work in absence of solution from state

With labour participation rate at 38%, daily wage workers in Bihar blame demonetisation, Nitish Kumar's policies for struggle

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