In the last few days of the Covid-19 situation, we have been reading/watching/hearing stories of large scale migration of urban workers/laborers back to their homes, mostly in rural areas! Everyone has suddenly started talking and discussing about this as a new ‘problem’.. but, is what we see today, the real problem?
OR is their reason to migrate to the cities, the real problem? Most of them have homes, farmlands and families in their villages… then why did they come to the cities or urban areas? Should we try to understand the real ‘problem’?
Thats what I tried to do, about 20 years ago, when I first started looking at the social sector closely! When I was still working in the IT Sector in 2005-2006, I had started volunteering for some NGOs. That is when, I got to know some very interesting people working hands-on, to address this chronic problem of rural-to-urban migration. Totally inspired by them, I studied these and other economic, social and environmental issues in further detail, co-founded Aarohana EcoSocial Developments, and decided to make this i.e Rural-to-Urban Migration, as one of our core areas of work! Here are some of my thoughts, experiences and ideas on this topic!
That’s the first question I always like to ask? Once you know why, everything else follows! So, WHY do people migrate?
Migration happens broadly for two reasons: To look out for better Opportunities OR Forced/Distress migration.
Opportunity Migration: could happen due to various reasons, such as someone getting a well paying job opportunity in another city or country. Or someone migrates for further education. Opportunity Migration affects people mostly in a positive manner. Many a times, they are accompanied by their families and ofcourse the family that stays back is happy about the decision taken. If you can relate to it, a lot of us have also migrated from some other place into cities or to other countries for better opportunities.
Distress Migration: is also in search of opportunity, but this is because the living condition in their place of origin, is almost impossible to continue with. Hence, unlike Opportunity migration, this is a forced migration due to unfortunate circumstances. Distress migration happens when there is no source of livelihood left at their present location for them. Unfortunately, this has been happening a lot of rural people in our country and largely due to unequal development between rural and urban economies; ofcourse, with a stronger focus on the latter! Distress migration could also happen when people are forced to leave their place of living, due to political or environmental reasons. For example, political upheavals such as India-Pakistan Partition in 1947-48 OR Migration of Kashmiri Pandits to Jammu in the 1990’s OR environmental reasons such as construction of dams which displaces tens of thousands of villagers. In any of the situations above, people might not necessarily be ambitious or skilled to take on new jobs or careers, and could get totally lost in the outside world. Usually, there is immense suffering, for them and their families, which we cannot even imagine! Many-a-times, their roots might get uprooted, and they might not be left with a home to go back to!
Now, whatever the reason for migration is, the truth is that, you are uprooted from your base or home, either by yourself or by someone else!
An Interesting Analogy!
This makes me think of an interesting analogy! What happens when a plant or tree is uprooted?
If it is a young sapling and carefully taken and planted somewhere else (and ofcourse taken care of) then it survives. But again, it survives only if it is set in an ambient climatic condition such as soil, water quality, air quality, temperature and so on. However, chances of its survival are much lower than when it was in its home soil.
If you look at an older plant or a tree, it has its roots spread wide and deep into the soil. If uprooted, they will cause much more damage to the surrounding area, than if the roots were smaller and shallower! Or alternatively, to uproot this older tree, the roots will have to be snipped off! The plant would rarely grow in such cases, and even if it grows, it will not grow to its fullest potential.
That’s the difference between trees that grow in a forest and those in a garden. Trees in a forest are mostly native. They belong to that soil and that place. They are robust and last years and centuries together!
Same is with people! If we migrate away from our place of origin, it could mean a lot of struggle! If the migration happened in the previous generations or when we were kids, it could pass well.. but, as we grow older and our roots start widening and deepening, migrations aren’t pleasant, just like the tree! Not just are we physically pulled apart or snipped-off from our roots, it has a huge impact on our mind and emotions, as well. The mental impact is not always visible and not consciously understood, neither by others nor by us, but it could lead to not just psychological, but other ailments too! In addition, migration causes a big impact on the society and environment from where we have migrated away! Coming back to analogy of transplanting a tree, imagine the impact when a tree is uprooted. The soil bears the brunt, water holding capacity goes down, insects/birds/animals that used to live or eat from the tree are impacted, humans living around are impacted, the air around it is impacted and many countless other impacts, which we might not even know of!
Similarly, when people or families migrate, it definitely creates a significant impact and could be of a permanent nature!
Deeper into the Why: A historical perspective!
Now that the basics of migration and its impact is somewhat explained, lets go further deep into the WHY of Migration? So, what happens when unequal ‘development’ takes place, like in our country.. When I mean unequal, I mean the imbalance between Urban and Rural areas.
Historically, urban centers came up as political centers and/or market centers. These were a common location, mostly equidistant from surrounding villages, where villagers came in for various reasons, and they went back after their work; so their base was always in the rural areas. Some traders, retailers and people related to governance activities lived in urban areas, and rest of the janta (public) lived in surrounding rural areas. Thus, the distribution was balanced! Villagers living in rural areas mainly performed agriculture-related activities, and provided food for rest of the population. There were other related service providers like blacksmith, carpenter or others, who supported the farmer in their production activities. They got food in return (in barter or in currency). Then, there were other service providers like the tailor, cobbler, teacher, priest and so on, who took care of people’s basic needs. All these people, along with farmers, typically lived in the villages and took care of the surrounding forests and natural ecosystem, as they knew that their lives were dependent on the environment. They drew their fruits, vegetables, timber and other non-forest produce from these forests. They very well knew that they were dependent on the forests for their fresh air, soil, water and other basic necessities. They worshiped the nature and its forces. All our Gods are elements of nature, remember? Thus, festivals and celebration happened in these scattered communities, which were not densely populated. The natural resources were sufficient for them, and special rules were laid out for villagers to take care of the environment and a social structure was established, and people followed them!Thus, overall, the ecosystem and economic development was quite balanced!
Coming to the present!
However, the present generation of villagers have started seeing a changed scene. The forest is slowly getting depleted, and Non-Timber Forest Produce livelihoods (NTFP) are losing their importance. Also, farming and related activities are less attractive to the newer generation and their perception is that urban/semi-urban jobs are better; a perfect example of the quote that “Grass always seems greener on the other side of the fence”. However, the education system in many villages is still not up to the mark, for them to get good opportunities. Hence, some of them, who do get attracted to urban jobs and migrate, only find themselves stuck with petty jobs, which can barely earn them a living in the city slums. The expensive city life takes a toll on them and many of them get crushed under the pressure. Then they wish that they had stayed back in their home land, where natural and social resource base is abundant to live a healthy life. But now they worry! What if they are not accepted back in their society, their community? What if they cant sustain the village environment? What will they do back in the villages? The game has changed for them!
Since 2006 to present, I have been researching, reading, listening, thinking and discussing this topic! I’ve met several interesting people working in this sector, some people for whom migration was a positive move and several more who have been victims of migration (young and old). This was not only in India, but also in the US (where I spent 4 years during this period) So, what more can a person like me do? Start working on reversing it or not letting it happen in the first place!
Aarohana’s concept of EcoSocial Livelihoods
During Aarohana’s inception itself, we had these two problems in mind; i.e Environment Degradation and Migration of Rural dwellers to Urban centers! We knew that the solution for this had to go hand-in-hand!Upcycling of waste is definitely what we do for Environment conservation, and we plan to do a lot more in this sector, in the near and distant future. However, the other and MOST IMPORTANT aspect was to combat migration by enabling Rural and Tribal Livelihoods!This “cause” was specifically taken-up by Aarohana EcoSocial Developments, when we started our work in 2013, even before we launched our present work of upcycling waste plastic! Through our research projects, we traveled through the length and breadth of India, and came across so many stories of migration and issues related to it. We realized that we had to start somewhere, and in 2015, we decided to end our research period and dive into addressing the cause hands-on!The project we zeroed down was our Waste-to-Craft Plastic Upcycling project, and the location we identified was a village in Dadra Nagar Haveli, a Union Territory, on the border of Gujarat and Maharashtra. This is where I spent a large part of my childhood, and hence we selected a nearby village to primarily test the idea!
Our tribal village and our UPCYCLING work there: Our village is a 100% tribal village. It is nestled in a forest area, with undulating hills all around. Traditionally, this tribal community has been dependent on their surrounding forest for their vegetables, fruits, herbal medicine and wood for housing, furniture, equipment and cooking. The tribals grow paddy and millets in monsoons and rest of the year depend on this produce and the forest resources to fill their stomach. They are definitely quite content! However, like other rural areas, there is a migration trend seen here too and hence, we are trying to work on it!So, we have set up a Waste-to-Craft center and have employed the local youth and women to work with us. We have trained them in the art of Handloom Weaving, and they do the magic! They weave waste plastic using handlooms, to make a beautiful fabric. This fabric is used to make handcrafted fashion accessories which are sold worldwide to retail and wholesale customers. We pay them a decent income which helps them earn a livelihood for themselves and their family. We wish to expand this same model to other areas also and are actively working on it!
Thus, the IMPACT of EcoSocial Livelihoods can be far reaching! The idea is to take up environmental problems which need to be resolved, enabling rural livelihoods around them; and ofcourse urban areas remain the market centers, like they were in our traditional societies!We are working on this model and have seen a good amount of success. At present, we have only 14 fulltime employees working with us from our tribal village unit. But when the COVID-19 situation has frozen our city workshop and office completely, we see how comfortable it is for the tribals in our village. As they are all living in their own homes and farmland, they are so comfortable! They have no shortage of food as their farms, gardens and the forest are there to support them! We have provided them additional grain, oil and other necessities, so that they do not need to travel to the city market, and stay content and safe in their homes, at their grassroots! I feel sorry for the thousands of villagers who had to face the difficult situation of leaving their city jobs and migrate back to the villages; and felt so helpless when their society refused to take them back! Thats the plight we discussed in the prior paragraphs of this article, right? This is a LIVE DEMO! However, this gives us an assurance, that we have been thinking in the right direction! We need to start working on expanding our concept of EcoSocial Livelihoods, to create EcoSocial Villages and drive this MOVEMENT towards an EcoSocial Planet!
Are you with us? Do you wish to join this EcoSocial Movement?