In the migration-hit Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region, the administration has set up a special control room to call and convince people who have moved to the metros to eke out a living, to return to their home villages just for polling day on November 17.
A team of officials has started a tour to personally visit migrants in the cities, many of whom left due to unending agrarian distress, asking them to come exercise their franchise; postcards are being sent with the same appeal.
When Pramod Chaurasiya, native of Panagar village, received a call from the district control room, he had had no plans to come to his home town this Diwali; but now, he has changed his mind. “We must vote to bring the right person to power who can work for the poor farmers of Chhatarpur so that people like me don’t have to leave our homes and families in search of employment,” he said.
Epicentre of migration
In Chhatarpur, a district which has been an epicentre of exodus for a young population, the long queues of migrants who came back home during the first COVID-19 lockdown made headlines. With a population of 17.5 lakh, the district has more than 14 lakh voters spread across six Assembly constituencies, of which three were won by the Congress in 2018. Two others, mostly rural, were won by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), while the remaining seat went to a Samajwadi Party candidate, who later joined BJP.
According to the district administration, 31,690 voters have migrated from Chhatarpur.
“This number is a joke. During COVID, around two lakh people have come back in several villages here. Those who migrate for short durations are even more than two lakh,” said J.P. Mishra, an economics professor at Chhatarpur’s Maharaja Chhatrasal Bundelkhand University.
Farm incomes not enough
The scale of migration can be gauged from the common estimation that at least one man from each rural household goes to the metros every year in search of a better life than the cruel vagaries of rain-fed farming. After crop failure, debts and unemployment are the major reasons for migration from Chhatarpur.
“A farmer who has a big farm of 15 to 20 acres is earning ₹5 lakh to ₹6 lakh a year from one or two crops. He has to put ₹3 lakhs in sowing. What is left for a family to survive on for 12 months?” asks 21-year old Sunil Singh of Ranipur village who migrated in July this year to work for an online grocery delivery company in Gurugram.
His brother migrated from the village five years ago, while his father also used to go to the cities for work until 2015, when he became too old and ill. Most homes in the village are occupied only by elderly people or women. Mr. Singh expects to come home for Diwali, but is not sure if his employers will allow him to stay till voting day or not.
District Magistrate Sandeep G.R. says he has personally spoken to many employers who have refused to give their workers leave to go home and exercise their franchise. The district recorded a voting percentage of 67.45% in 2018.
Missing from campaigns
Migration may be the biggest issue for residents, but it is largely missing from the campaign rhetoric of political parties.
Pradumn Singh Lodhi, chairman of the MP Civil Supplies Corporation Limited, is the BJP’s candidate from the Malhara, the seat which Uma Bharti contested and won when she became the Chief Minister of the State in 2003; in fact, her picture is the biggest one in his campaign posters. He talks about ladli Behna, pensions for the elderly, roads, water and electricity, but not migration.
To counter the Uma Bharti effect, the Congress has given a ticket to Ram Sia Bharti, another saffron-clad Sadhvi who dons a tilak and narrates Bhagwat and Ramcharitramanas. She is trying hard to counter the former CM’s influence in the region with her soft Hindutva, but she has nothing on how to control the mass exodus of the district’s youth either.
Kunwar Vikram Singh alias Nati Raja, a member of the erstwhile royal family of Chhatarpur and a Congress MLA from Rajnagar constituency, also skips the issue of migration in his campaign.
Cost of a vote
Manoj Ahirwar from Ragauli village is working as a construction labourer in Delhi, and requested the administration if it could arrange for a bus ticket for him to travel back home to cast his vote.
“Ghar jane aane ke 15 hajar rupaye chaiye. Ya to wo aane-jane me kharcha karu ya Diwali ki kharidari ke liye ghar bhej du (I need at least ₹15,000 to visit home. I can either spend this money in travelling or send it home so that they can buy something for Diwali),” he says, alleging that despite the tall promises made by politicians seeking votes before elections, no one shows their faces after the results are declared.
Professor Mishra says that the failure of the UPA government’s much-hyped Bundelkhand package, announced in 2009 to solve the water crisis and ensure job opportunities, is the biggest reason that migration still continues. “Chattarpur, spread across 10,863 sq km, is full of granite. There can be a great employment opportunity here if the government opens granite mining properly so that these migrants, who mostly work as labourers in metros, can get work in their home towns,” says Prof. Mishra.
Lakhan Kumar from Sarkana village of Chattarpur, now working at a construction site in Delhi’s Rohini, complains that no politician is sending money this time for him to get a train ticket, go home, and vote. During the last election, he had got some money from his village’s headman, who told him that the cash came from a politician, to bring migrants back home for polling day.
“Is bar to wo bhi nai mila raha kahe sab soch k baithe hain ki pravasi deepawali pe ghar to aayenge hi to ruka lenge unko (We aren’t even getting any money for a ticket this time, as politicians are thinking that migrants will visit home on Diwali and they will ask them to stay till the polls,” says Mr. Kumar. “I will vote for person who will give me money for a ticket,” he adds.