The coronavirus pandemic has unleashed a crisis of reverse migration in India from the urban industrial centres to small towns and villages. Over the weeks, we have seen desperate, impoverished workers make their way home on foot in absence of any other means of transport. We have seen the migrants being detained, chased, beaten, sprayed with chemicals and in the worst case be run over by trains or simply fall to exhausted death.

Long and desperate journeys undertaken by migrant families are reminders of migrations in Indian history in response to natural calamities like famines and floods, or man-made ones like the Partition and riots. The promise of progress over the last 73 years evoked the hope that such distressed journeys would only remain traumatic memories of the past in the new shining India. However, the events of the past weeks have made it clear that distress migrations remain the only possible response for India’s poor in the face of hardships spiraling as a result of the long lockdown.

In fact, migrants have become far more insecure in contemporary India, as they try to find their place in India’s uneven growth story. Over the years, the scale and span of migrations have increased manifold, while traditional networks of dependence that sustained migrants in past, as well as their ability to gauge risk, have declined significantly.

India moving

Migration has for long been a functional strategy in India, with migrants of various kinds like traders, artisans, soldiers, ascetics and service providers circulating in interconnected networks. Migrants were also often people supplementing cycles of agrarian and pastoral work with other forms of employments in near and distant regions.

Claude Markovits, Jacques Pouchchepadass and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, in their edited volume Society and Circulation Mobile People and Itinerant Cultures in South Asia 1750-1950, have argued for understanding social and economic transformations in India through the framework of circulation of people between resource-deficient and resource-surplus regions.

In India Moving, Chinmay Tumbe defines the “Great Indian migration wave” as being male-dominated, semi-permanent and remittance yielding, referring to men who moved to urban and industrial hubs for part of the year sending their earnings back home to their families.

Migrants in these waves used both risk-taking and risk-aversion to calculate the spatial and temporal spans of migration. However, with the decline in state- as well as community-based protections available to migrants, their ability evaluate risk and respond appropriately has also depreciated, as we see in the present crisis.

Migrant workers from Ludhaia in Punjab walk home to Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh. Credit: PTI

The first lockdown that was announced on March 24 with a four-hour notice gave no time to the migrants to foresee the distress that awaited them. Further extensions have also been announced with little notice before the end of a lockdown period, increasing the uncertainty of an unemployed pauperised migrant population, running low on resources in distant lands.

In contrast, in traditional agro-pastoral societies, there was constant evaluation of risk involved by watching out for signs of impending natural disasters like famines or floods. These disasters were so familiar and anticipated that people looked out for the signs of droughts in the behavior of birds, animals, plants, direction of winds, and the location of stars in the sky.

In the arid regions of Rajasthan, traditional wisdom expected three years of extreme drought, seven of drought, 63 average years and only 27 good years in a span of 100 years. The folk wisdom of the desert contains several warnings that indicate the arrival of a dry spell, and the consequences of these signs, which could range from selling cattle, agricultural implements, family members and finally migration.

The most common strategy to escape this distress was to collect moveables and simply migrate to areas where food and work was still available.

State strategies

Despite the calculations, when it came to it, distress migration was hard on villagers. As we see from the records of various eighteenth-century Rajput territories, the migration of peasants and pastoralists was also detrimental for states. In the event of prolonged distress, states exempted citizens from paying taxes, funded the construction of water bodies like wells and tanks, offered agricultural loans and instructed moneylenders to refrain from recovering loans.

These were strategies to retain peasants in villages and were viewed by villagers as the moral obligation of the state. In arzi after arzi, we find villagers petitioning the state, expressing their inability to pay taxes, complaining about zamindars or mahajans recovering dues.

In response, when droughts hit, states attempted to incentivise villagers not to desert the lands by offering tax exemptions and remissions. For example, the bahis of Jodhpur state suggest that in 1786, the baqayo (arrears) of some years had to be written off as the drought that began in 1783 continued into 1786. The state official was instructed to collect the taxes only when next crop could be grown.

In the same year, the collection of rekh (revenue) for village Dadmi had to be postponed as peasants expressed inability to pay due to the failure of the kharif crop. The pattayat (village chief) remonstrated with the state revenue officials that ‘while I do not get any hasil, you demand the entire rekh!’ The officials were instructed not to harass the pattadar (khechal karjo mati) and tax collection was postponed to next year.

Migrant workers from Ludhaia in Punjab walk home to Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh. Credit: PTI

Between 1781 and 1786, the jama and other taxes from various villages could not be collected in Bikaner because of drought conditions. In Sitasar, dhuanbhach (a tax on the household) could not be collected at all for the years 1781-82. In village Khindasar, out of a jama of Rs 80 only Rs 22 could be paid. Similar figures can be found for several villages in both Bikaner and Jodhpur where only a fraction of the jama could be collected.

While usually, it was the raiyyat, bhomias and pattadars who appraised the state of their inability to pay taxes, in some instances it was the state officials who complained against the pattadars and jogpatis collecting taxes like bhacch despite the continuance of famine conditions. There are also instances of villagers complaining that the bohras and mahajans insist on demanding that they repay their loans even though the peasants were in no condition to pay them.

In response to threats of desertion or actual desertion, the state attempted to recall migrant peasants and resettle villages (dilasa de basavo). The states remitted taxes, allowed delayed payments and instructed officials to not harass the villagers. Villagers were given assurances of lower assessments and tax remissions in coming years if they agreed to stay in their villages or returned to their villages.

As a reminder of this process, as part of ritual to induce delayed rains, even today villagers in parts of Rajasthan abandon their homes for a day, and have a cook-out outside the boundaries of the villages, only to return when offered assurances by the elders in the village. This re-enactment of the migratory cycle also contains a re-enactment of a reminder to the zamindar that people could desert the village if they were not taken care of, and that the zamindars were morally obliged to mitigate their suffering.

However, despite the moral obligations and incentives, sometimes villagers were left with no option but to migrate. Records of various Rajput states in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Rajputana point towards a number of deserted villages, some temporarily, others permanently. Copiously collated nineteenth-century famine reports give numbers of people and cattle that migrated or perished in recurring famines, dying of hunger or disease.

Chappaniya kaal

Recurrent famines led to large-scale desertion of villages by farmers and cattle who fled to Sindh, Malwa, Gujarat and Punjab in large numbers, some perishing on the way. According to the Report on Relief Operations Undertaken in the Native States of Marwar, Jaisalmer, Bikaner and Kishengarh during the scarcity of 1891-’92, only 46% of the men and cattle that migrated made it back.

In the famine of 1899-1900, also called the chappaniya kaal, 12% population and 20% livestock migrated to neighbouring areas like Malwa, Gujarat, Central Provinces, Sindh and southern Punjab, with only half of them returning in the subsequent years.

The return of the migrants brought its own problems. They came back home to find their lands and implements having been usurped by the zamindars or mahajans. In a petition from eighteenth-century Jodhpur, a Jat peasant came back to find that his wife and three children had been sold into slavery. Another returned to find that his wife had been remarried as he had been presumed dead.

In yet another dispute a peasant accused a pastoralist who had been given a pair of oxen to take for pasturing during a drought, of having sold the oxen, while the pastoralist claimed that they had died on the route.

The misery associated with droughts and famines was an anticipated one, for which peasants and pastoralists were prepared all their lives, in comparison with the expectations with which modern migrants go to cities. In contemporary India, the precariousness of agriculture and pastoralism based rural life has forced villagers to migrate to distant lands in search of livelihood. While in good years the cities have offered better incomes, it has become clear in the present crisis that they offer no security in difficult times.

A migrant worker and his family shelter under a flyover in Delhi after they were stopped by the police from walking home to Unnao in Uttar Pradesh. Credit: PTI

Unlike the eighteenth-century Jodhpur state that ordered officials to not distress the peasants and the zamindars to settle peasants with dilasa (assurances), there appears no mechanism in the industrial or service sectors to assure the workers of basic security to bide the bad times. The tenuousness of migratory patterns, as well as the precariousness of the employer-employee relationships has also meant that even minimum moral obligation on the part of the state or the employer is missing. This has forced migrants to embark on difficult and dangerous return journeys to uncertain futures.

The present-day distress migration is neither the first exodus to occur in India, nor will it be the last. What is different about this wave of reverse distress migration is the complete abandonment of the moral imperative that ensured that various segments of state and society helped each other survive a difficult time, even if barely so.

The absence of access to traditional solidarities and dependence networks has left most industrial migrant workers in cities helpless. While the long march is difficult and heart-wrenching, what has not yet occupied our imagination is the fate that awaits the migrants back home. We have not begun to think of the long processes of rehabilitation, of restarting lives, and perhaps another move to the cities when the dangers associated with Covid-19 recede.

Tanuja Kothiyal teaches History at Ambedkar University Delhi and is the author of Nomadic Narratives: A History of Mobility and Identity in the Great Indian Desert.