There are several sections of rural society, mostly the landless, who have very little food stock in their homes and meet their food needs on the basis of their daily earnings. One such community is the Kuchbandia community living in small pockets of Bundelkhand region in Central India. They earn their livelihood by small artisan skills and small scale selling of various goods while moving from village to village. Their work came to a standstill with the declaration of lockdown, and even when they managed to reach their village somehow, sudden declaration of lockdown brought them face to face with the prospect of facing hunger for a long time.
In such conditions they sent messages seeking urgent help from Vidyadham Samiti (VDS), a voluntary organization which had been working with them with a lot of commitment for some time and in which they placed a lot of trust.
VDS had already swung into action, looking at conditions around them and anticipating the emerging serious problem of hunger. So it was able to promptly send foodgrain to them followed by food packets of wheat, pulses, edible oil and spices. When this writer visited one such hamlet recently, the people here said that some of them would have perished from hunger if this timely help had not reached them at that critical time.
VDS now tapped all its contacts as much as possible to obtain food supplies or funds for from diverse sources. At the same time it continued to make efforts to find out areas of biggest need. VDS activists loaded their supplies on motorcycles to rush grain and food packets to such areas.
Around this time the VDS realized that the returning migrant workers were in particularly great need of food as these migrant workers had walked for hundreds of miles to reach their villages where they also had to face about a fortnight of quarantine in very different conditions. They were often without any savings as they had been forced to leave their place of work suddenly. They lacked essential food supplies and there were hardly any work opportunities. Several of them had swollen feet and were extremely tired or even ill. This made them very depressed. One after the other there were several reports of suicides of migrant workers.
This led to the realization that migrant workers must be a special priority. Hence VDS made special efforts to reach out to those villages where there was more distress of returning migrant workers. While food packets and grain were provided to several workers, in several villages they were also encouraged and helped to create kitchen gardens so that the supply of fresh vegetables would also be available. There was a continuing dialogue with migrant workers so that they would not feel lonely and left out. There were discussions about the alternative of pursuing livelihood in village. As VDS has been involved in helping weaker section households to get back and improve their land which has been encroached upon by others, it could be of help to returning migrant workers in this context too. In the course of these conversations an idea about rejuvenation of a river also emerged and it was implemented with a lot of commitment and success by 52 returning migrant workers of Bhanwarpur village, helping to increase the productivity of the farmland of many villagers, including returning migrant workers, thereby improving the prospects of their sustainable livelihoods within their village.
This work has continuity with the earlier work of VDS in villages which experience high rates of distress migration, with its emphasis on justice for weaker sections and sustainable livelihoods leading to conditions in which there would be less reasons and compulsion for distress-based migration.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Man over Machine and When the Two Streams Met.