Ever since a nationwide lockdown was implemented on March 25 to contain the spread of Covid-19 in India, lakhs of workers have left the cities where they worked to return to their villages and towns. This large-scale reverse migration has dominated headlines over the past two months as workers have walked thousands of kilometres or hitched rides on cramped goods lorries to get home.

The majority of these workers have gone back to rural areas, where agriculture is the mainstay. Can this sector absorb the returning migrants? And how do practicing farmers perceive this sudden change in demographic?

To understand this in the context of Karnataka, a state where several factors spur rural to urban migration, a team of researchers from the Indian Institute for Human Settlements interviewed 30 farmers from Tumkur, Chikkaballapur, Ramanagara and Bangalore Rural districts. They included farmers growing non-perishable produce such as ragi, paddy, toor, and maize, as well as perishable produce like fruits, vegetables and flowers.

Most of them said that the reverse migration would not have much effect on them. But some noted that the increased availability of labour would be useful during the sowing season in June and July and harvesting period in October and November. Others cautioned against migrants investing large sums in rejuvenating the dry lands they left behind.

A risky investment

As the nationwide lockdown hampered the transportation of goods, forced mandis to shut down and disrupted supply chains, farmers took a heavy hit. Those who cultivate perishable products have been the worst affected.

Upendra Kumar, a dryland farmer from Gauribidanur, said he did not harvest his guava farm this year because there was no demand for the fruit. He said that he planned to take a break from agriculture. In another instance, Shiva Rudraiah, a farmer in Bangalore Rural district, said he had to destroy three acres of his cauliflower plantation.

Migrant workers who own land should be aware of this situation before they begin operations, farmers warned.

Upendra Kumar, a dryland farmer from Gauribidanur. Credit: Pushkara SV/Shobha Anand Reddy

Chandra Shekhar K, a farmer from Tumkur, noted that while some migrant workers own tracts of dryland with limited water and other resources, this land would require substantial investment to turn it into productive fertile ground. Taking large loans from the informal sector for this is imprudent at a time when crop prices are fluctuating, said Chandra Shekhar.

It would be prudent to avoid investing in commercial crops until the pandemic is over, when access to markets and logistics become smoother, he added.

Chandra Shekhar K, a farmer from Tumkur. Credit: Pushkara SV/Shobha Anand Reddy

Another farmer, Sunil Muppala from Chikkaballapur, emphasised the need for migrants who begin farming to undertake rigorous financial planning exercise to forecast revenues and manage risks. This is true even for low-yield farming, which is cheaper than fertiliser-based farming and is more attractive option for returning migrants even though the produce is 25%-30% lower, he said.

Skill development

However, since many returning migrants do not own land or lack adequate savings to take up agriculture, they are likely to seek work as farmhands. Many like Ravi Ginni, a pomegranate farmer from Bijapur, worry that they may be “emotionally forced” to hire extra labour to help migrants. But this will increase the production cost, he said.

The agriculture sector, Ginni warned, cannot provide steady wages. “Farmers can offer work only when there is sowing, harvesting or packing work, which is irregular,” he said.

Other farmers interviewed raised questions about the migrants’ lack of skills.

Mahesh C, a fertiliser distributor from Doddaballapura. Credit: Pushkara SV/Shobha Anand Reddy

“Although availability of labour may increase, certain skilled works may take time to teach,” said Prashanth Panchakshariah, a coconut farmer from Arasikere. “Many migrants and daily-wage workers consider this a temporary phase and plan to get back to cities post lockdown as farming is difficult.”

This awareness about lack of skills and short-term availability of labour are key hiring considerations. Some farmers we interviewed even went as far as to say that migrants were a burde on the village economy. Sumangala, a farmer and member of a women’s self-help group, said that migrants who have come back to villages are using up food stocks. This was making farmers’ lives even more difficult, even as the migrants were not assisting in farming activities.

Looking ahead

Some farmers noted that even after the lockdown is lifted, migrant workers will struggle to find employment in cities. “Since staying in villages is less expensive, migrants may prefer to stay here for a year and wait till the economy is stable,” said Vishwanath Sompura, a farmer from Koratagere.

Ravi Gowda, a housekeeping staffer in Bengaluru, agreed. He said he would much rather stay in his village and engage in agriculture because his cost of living was a third of what it would be in the city.

Most farmers said that for their operations to be viable, state intervention is necessary to help them tide over the crisis. Ramesh Gowda a farmer from Ramanagara, suggested that the government should purchase produce, particularly perishable crops, and help with sales. This would support both, practicing farmers as well as migrants looking to re-enter the agrarian economy.

Minimum assured prices would also boost the sector, added Nagamma N from Magadi.

Ramesh Gowda a farmer from Ramanagara. Credit: Pushkara SV/Shobha Anand Reddy

As migrants find their way back to their villages, they will that find practicing farmers are preoccupied with their own concerns over the sale of produce and price fluctuations. Employment in opportunities in the rural sector and the capacity of workers to enter the agrarian sector will depend on several factors: state support, cropping cycles, their own skills and whether they have enough savings to invest in fertilisers, irrigation infrastructure, transportation and other components required to grow and sell produce.

To integrate the returning migrants into the rural economies, the government must support them with financial planning and skill development programmes. The state should build on existing training programmes under the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojna, Universities of Agricultural Sciences, National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture, Krishi Vigyan Kendras and the Agriculture Skill Council of India.

Key to achieving this objective are supporting handicrafts and other small and micro rural enterprises; and strengthening the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme that ensures 100 days of work a year for rural families. This must be done by simplifying the registration process, job card allocation, and introducing direct payments.

It is clear that agriculture can absorb only a small number of returning migrants, but the demographic shift can be an opportunity for governments to revamp rural infrastructure, the lack of which has hurt agriculture for decades. The returning workforce can be effectively utilised to promote critical yet underdeveloped labour-intensive activities, such as small-scale agro-based industries and other associated sectors such as livestock, food and fodder processing, water management systems, nurseries and seed banks.

Pushkara SV and Shobha Anand Reddy work at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Bengaluru.