Sustainable agriculture reduces distress migration in Orissa

By Pradeep Baisakh

Thanks to intervention from MASS, migration from Orissa’s Bargarh district has reduced considerably as villagers have been encouraged to start their own kitchen gardens, keep goats and chickens, and set up seed and grain banks, thereby adding to their income from agriculture and reducing their dependence on unscrupulous moneylenders

Seed and grain banks

Tularam Amari and his wife Padma Amari, who live in a remote village in Orissa, want their youngest daughter Meena to become a teacher. Meena is currently studying in Class XIII. “We want to make her a teacher,” the couple say confidently.

Just two years ago, when husband and wife used to migrate to Hyderabad and other places to make bricks and eke out a livelihood, they had decided to put an end to educating their two girl-children, Dileswari and Meena.

Tularam and Padma believed they were destined for a life without dreams, until, one day, they decided firmly to change things. It was at this critical juncture that volunteers from the NGO, MASS (Manav Adhikar Seva Samiti) persuaded them to take up vegetable farming. Today, the couple earns about Rs 1 lakh per annum from agro-based farming and poultry. They live in Temriamal village, Jharbandh gram panchayat, Paikmal block, Bargarh district, Orissa.

Migration woes

The experience of working in the brick kilns of Hyderabad is still alive in the couple’s memory. Padma says: “When we had to come back from Hyderabad after finishing work, towards the end of the season, neither the owner nor the sardar (middleman) squared our payment. And they did not arrange our return tickets. With no money in hand, we started for home. I was not sure how I would manage my two children en route. It took nine days to get to our village in Orissa. We travelled by train some of the way; the rest by foot. I had some broken rice with me to feed ourselves on the journey. My younger daughter kept asking for better food; the elder one would tell her that as their parents had not got their wages there was no money in hand to buy good food.” Padma wiped her tears away as she recalled those dark days.

People from Adibasi Padia, a hamlet in Kechodadar gram panchayat in the same block, also used to migrate to Ayodhya, Hyderabad and Kali Nagar (Andhra Pradesh) to make bricks. There are some pockets in Paikmal block where people have always migrated out of the state to meet their livelihood needs. Mostly, they migrate to the brick kilns of Hyderabad, Chennai and other such places.

This kind of migration is called debt migration, where labourers are given an advance to commit labour for seven to eight months in the brick kilns. Generally, the unit of labour in brick-making constitutes one male, one female, and a child. This unit is called ‘pathuria’. Advance money to the tune of Rs 15,000-Rs 25,000 is given to a pathuria. Because of the advance money, labourers work in semi-bonded conditions in the workplace. They face a lot of exploitation due to weak inter-state labour laws and their vulnerability in the destination states. Indeed, physical and mental harassment in all possible forms is characteristic of such migration. Despite this, people are forced to migrate due to lack of sustainable employment opportunities in their home district.

Revival of agriculture

MASS volunteers showed Tularam Amari how to cultivate the two acres of land they own to make it a viable unit. With a little support from the village self-help group, the couple dug a well on their land for water. They built a new house which is a little away from the village. Because they lived on the land they were able to pay full attention to cultivation. From a mere half-acre of vegetable cultivation, the family made a sustainable earning. Now, they harvest ladies fingers, cauliflower and cucumber and make a good living selling them.

“In fact, we have taken a holistic approach towards reviving various sources of livelihood for people, using local resources,” says Adikand Biswal of MASS. In the beginning, women were asked to form self-help groups (SHGs) at the village level. They were persuaded to save some of their income on a monthly basis. A collective saving by members supplemented by external support from the NGO created a small pool of money to meet people’s immediate cash requirements. People borrowed money at a low rate of interest from the SHG and bought paddy seed for farming. They also invested in goat-keeping, chicken farming and other forms of animal husbandry.

Investment in agriculture gave good returns, while returns from animal husbandry added to people’s incomes, enhancing their sustainability. With MASS’s help, people began to explore various government schemes for agriculture. With seed support from the government, they started kitchen gardens and experimented with vegetable farming. This served to enrich their daily diet. There was a time, recalls an old lady in Adivasi Padia hamlet, “when male members of the family would go out of the village to do daily labour, and the wives waited with the children for them to return with rice so they could prepare food for the day. On most occasions, the women of the family would starve to feed their children and male members”.

Premsila Bhoi was the first to experiment with the kitchen garden model. Today, it yields her a rich harvest and is financially remunerative. Last year, in 2010, she sold vegetables worth Rs 7,000 (with an almost negligible investment) grown on a small patch of land alongside the house. Many people in the area have since developed kitchen gardens.

Goat-keeping too has proved remunerative. Kain Bhoi has six goats, each of which she sold for Rs 6,000. Similarly, Prabha Bariha sold six goats within the last two to three years and made Rs 36,000. Most of the money was spent on food and on other consumption requirements.

Apart from a revival in agriculture, the villagers have also set up grain and seed banks to reduce their dependence on moneylenders, locally called sahukars.

Grain and seed banks

Some villages in the area have started grain banks with the purpose of storing foodgrain to use in the lean season. Earlier, during the monsoon, people would have no foodgrain stocks resulting in dependence on moneylenders who would charge a monthly interest rate of 10%. This dependence on borrowing led to a vicious cycle, as, after the harvest, almost all the villagers’ income would go to the moneylender to repay debts. Effectively, therefore, people were unable to enjoy their own harvest and were forced to seek work nearby or migrate out of the state. After the introduction of grain banks, where people contributed a portion of their harvest to the community-managed bank, stocks were available during the three rainy months of June, July and August. On one occasion, says a villager, the rain continued for eight long days forcing people to remain in the village. The sahukar (moneylenders) came to the village with rice, available at a high rate of interest. But the village had accumulated enough grain to sustain itself. No one took rice from the sahukar.

Likewise, seed banks were set up where a portion of the harvest was kept as seed for the next farming season. Earlier, it was the sahukar who would provide seeds; now people take it from the seed bank. The concept of grain and seed banks has helped restore people’s dignity and self-respect by dispensing with the need to borrow from unscrupulous moneylenders.

Reduced migration

Interventions like these have improved the distress migration scenario in the block, although migration has not been wiped out entirely. According to the available figures from two panchayats -- Jharbandh and Bartunda -- the quantum of distress migration has dropped. Of the total of 1,877 families in these two panchayats, 277 families migrated out of the district to work in 2009-10. In 2010-11, the number came down to 220 families. These are based on data collected by the NGO from the migration registers maintained in villages in these two panchayats.  

Children’s education

Inter-state migration takes a heavy toll on children’s education. Tularam says: “Continuity of children’s education was almost impossible owing to a seven to eight month stay out of the state when we were migrating. We decided to discontinue the children’s education. But now things have improved. Our older daughter appeared for the Class X exam, but did not pass. She is planning to appear again. And our younger daughter is in Class VIII.”

The additional income has not only helped further the education of migrant children, it has also impacted on the education of children from non-migrant families. Now almost all the children of Adibasi Padia hamlet attend school. “The improved self-sufficiency has particularly impinged on the education of the girl-child, which was neglected earlier,” says Lata Sahu, a grassroots activist from MASS. In fact, this comprehensive model of development has brought about a visible change in people’s economic and, consequently, socio-cultural lives.

(Pradeep Baisakh is a freelance journalist based in Bhubaneswar, Orissa)

Infochange News & Features, November 2011