Rural-Urban Migration and Agricultural Transformation in India: Observing the Impact on Childhood Migration From Bihar to New Delhi

By Daniel A. Rosenblum
2013, Vol. 5 No. 10 | pg. 2/4 |

Before the Streets: Livelihoods in Rural Bihar

The children of rural Bihar are connected with the rest of India unlike any other time in history. In the district town of Sitamarhi, a place that sits some twenty miles from the Nepal border, the skyline is littered with cell phone towers. On the streets below, walkways are filled with mud, trash, and cow dung. Passersby trough through the mess to buy flee-bitten mitahi (sweets) and the sweltering fruits at nearby stands. For the children of Sitamarhi, they live in this contrast—the severe juxtaposition of “modernity”3 and urbanization with the dilapidated infrastructure surrounding them. The villages within five miles of the district town scarcely receive electricity, prompting me to wonder how anyone with a cell phone was able to recharge their phones.4 The villages I spent the majority of my time in, Amritpur and Baksampur5, gave insight into the livelihoods of children in rural Bihar. In Amritpur, every corner and passageway of the village had more and more children. At times, it would seem the ratio of children to adults was ten to one. Many of these children had prominent signs of malnutrition: kwashiorkor, stunned growth, and slowly healing infections (Bhutta, Black, Cousens, & Ahmed, 2008; Som, Pal, & Bharati, 2007). One boy of about twelve, Deepak, had a nasty infection on his lower leg that continued to worsen over the week I visited. However, there was no formal doctor in the village, only someone trained in basic medical practices. He would have to go to Sitamarhi town to be given medicine, which would cost too much money for Deepak’s mother. This was a problem all too common for children of rural Bihar.

School quality and attendance throughout Sitamarhi district was quite mixed. A government school I visited in Amritpur was highly understaffed, lacking proper materials and facilities, and seemed more of a social gathering point for youth. Children would sit along the walls with other classmates drawing, talking, and laughing while the teachers and administrators sat near the entrance splitting their time between socializing and supervising. When we arrived, the teachers began to complain of uneven wage scales and low salaries, providing this as a link for chaos at the school. However, another school we visited in Baksampur, which was run entirely by women, had sufficient materials, was properly staffed, and seemed to be extremely beneficial for the students. In both cases, there were noticeably tensions between attending school and working at home. Especially for older children, many would work in the mornings, helping to transplant rice, and then check into school for the second half of the day. In some cases, children would stop attending school entirely in order to help at home, such as with the case of a lower caste girl in Baksampur, Hoja.6 Pressure to earn began to outweigh the importance of schooling as the children grew older, leading to the abandonment of education in order to help the family. The livelihoods of Bihari youth were rapidly transforming, surrounded by new “modern” pursuits and desires within a rural structure and community.

Lunch at an Amritpur government school


Photo Credit: Khushboo Jain

Tracking Agricultural Transformations

Bihar’s agricultural history is extremely complex, wrapped among transforming government policy, development, and increasing mechanization of the agrarian system. Prior to the Green Revolution taking hold in Bihari agriculture, there was a structure of landholding: the Zamindar system, established under the British Raj. The system’s abolishment, however, is what I wish to focus on, in terms of the uneven effects it had on rural villages, landholdings, and landlessness. The zamindari was a system of landholding that consolidated fields in the hands of powerful village elites. For Bihar, this meant most of the land fell in the hands of upper caste Hindus (Chaudhry, 1988). Peasants were then typically tied to the land, working for the grain they produced, while remaining landless themselves. In the late 19th century, however, Bihar began to feel the effects of commercialism, beginning a process of out-migration from both the zamindar and lower class populations. In the Chapra region at the beginning of this century, upper castes had to resort to occupations other than agriculture. Rajputs, an upper caste group, went out for ‘service’ along with lower class individuals, becoming “peons and durwans in estates of larger zamindars” (de Haan 2002:120). Out-migration existed in high numbers during the zamindari system for both landowners and lower caste laborers, yet the economic gaps between landowners and lower class, as well as the frequency of migration seemed to increase after the foundation of India and the subsequent abolishment of the colonial landholding system.

With the federal government’s abolishment of the system in 1948, followed by the Bihar Land Reform Act of 1950, the system was slated for reformation. However, the redistribution of land was extremely gradual, and in 1964, the India Planning Commission acknowledged that peasants were still being heavily employed as sharecroppers, and that “supervision over the staff needs to be tightened and vigorously enforced” (Council 1966: 47-8). Many powerful local leaders in Bihar resisted redistribution, affecting the progress of implementation that the Planning Commission hoped to see (Chaudhry, 1988). This resistance was also seen in Uttar Pradesh, where thakurs (landowners) “continued to dominate villages politics,” despite tenants being sold new property for cultivation after the zamindari abolition (Gupta 1998: 112-13).

While the abolition of zamindari signaled a dynamic change in landholding practices, major landowners continued to wield power in the village. In Amritpur, the son of a former zamindar, named Sharma, expressed how they were forced to divide up their 60 bighas7 worth of land, “yet if we see overall we are in a good state. None of our kids also need to buy land as such, we are pretty well off.”8 Sharma went on to tell how one of his sons now lives and works in Delhi, while another is in the army. However, poorer villagers we spoke with in Amritpur expressed concerns with the power of landowners. One man, in a conversation at a tea shop poignantly stated, “zamindari is not practiced anymore but money is still with him.” 9 And for Sharma, his land is still cultivated by lower caste individuals, who typically have marginal or no landholdings of their own. In Baksampur as well, landownership by the lower class was still very insignificant. A Chamar10 caste family we spoke with expressed how land had been rented to them by the powerful landowners.11 The land was big enough to establish a permanent residence for their kacha home, yet the land they cultivated was still all owned by the former zamindar. One of their sons, Monu, who was only ten, had recently been running away for days at a time to Sitamarhi district town, where he would beg for food and then return home a day or two later. His parents expressed concern that he may continue to runaway to farther locations, likely for longer periods of time. The uneven abolition of the zamindari system has had lasting effects on the landscape of Bihar, contributing to current power relations in rural villages. The wealth gap between many lower class villagers and landowners had widened in many cases, leaving a legacy of produced instability in rural villages as well as bringing a new stream of Biharis into Delhi, many of them being the youth.

With the advent of the Green Revolution in Bihar, there was a large increase in the mechanization of agriculture. Much like in Punjab twenty years prior, farming practices and techniques began to shift, leading to a larger dependence on HYV seeds. In turn, more inputs, such as pesticides, herbicides, and water were needed to maintain these modified seeds. At Sharma’s farm, they had recently switched to a new seed, called shree vidhi, which was supported by a government plan. The new seed had to be purchased and replaced every year, as its modification did not allow it to regenerate (colloquially referred to as terminator seeds). With the seed, more water and pesticides were needed, which “when it is sprayed, some portion of it falls on the vegetable also and if that is eaten in 3-4 days, it has harmful effects, like it can destroy kidney, liver, etc.”12 Sharma also made the distinction between crops he sells versus the ones he eats. Rice sold to the market is the hybrid variety that uses shree vidhi seeds, while “for our consumption we cultivate a different variety” that smells and tastes much better.13 In the Amritpur tea shop, many villagers expressed concerns over increased inputs, yet maintained that yields were higher:

Khushboo: since when did you start using hybrid seeds here
Villager: since a long time 10-12 years
Khushboo: but hybrid is more expensive, needs more pesticides and water?
Villager: yes but the results are also good, it gives more yields
Khushboo: but it is more expensive right?
Villager: it needs more fertilizers and water, water is a problem here.
Khushboo: tubewells are used for irrigation?
Villager: yes. In Punjab there are better facilities. They have independence of electricity, irrigation so there are better yields.
Khushboo: here there are not many facilities?
Villager: no its not here in Bihar. 14

Short term, the HYV seeds were paying dividends despite increased costs in fertilizers, pesticides, water, and machinery. However, if we take lessons from Punjab’s Green Revolution, one can see the grave environmental and social impacts that came with higher yielding crops. Vandana Shiva’s Violence of the Green Revolution raised concerns about the intensification of inputs in farmland as well as the marginalization of small farmers and landowners due to increased industrialization. In Punjab, the primary beneficiaries of the “revolution” were large agrochemical companies and the large farmers that could afford the inputs, while the majority of the population was exploited (Shiva, 1991). Lower class farmers and laborers were not able to access these new technologies, widening the wealth gap, while larger farmers inflicted extreme harm on the local environment. In Bihar, almost twenty years later, similar issues were being revisited. Distribution of these new industrial technologies was not equal, instead falling in line with the zamindar system of the past. Large landowners were only ones able to afford shree vidhi seeds, new inputs, and more machinery. One of my primary informants, Indu Prakash15 of the Indo Global Social Service Society (IGSSS), felt “a new business model of agriculture” had come in, “destroying the traditional base of agriculture” in rural Bihar. Profit models and scientific data, which are unfamiliar to rural villagers involved in agriculture, have become the key for success in agriculture. Small farmers have been forced into this commercial system with the rising price of cultivation, “compelled to adopt high- yielding crops and technologies in order to pay rents and service debts” (Wilson 2002:1237). Access to high-yield technologies and inputs typically lies in the hands of large landowners, meaning marginal farmers must remain dependent on the services of a minority of powerful landowners, contributing to a dominant power structure that inhibits the livelihoods of small farmers (Wilson 2002:1237). With the prices of crops decreasing, despite production and yield increasing, farmers must work more over the course of the year to sustain their livelihoods. Through the usage of HYV seeds, alongside newer, more expensive technologies and inputs, small farmers suffer at the hands of large landowners and are forced to make sacrifices. While yields and monetary gains are initially higher, in the long term the system will actually inflict more damage on the small farmer, as part of what Indu Prakash termed, “a flawed developmental priority for the country.”16 This development system has and will continue to marginalize small farmers and lower class individuals, while inducing an unsustainable dependency model that reaps fertility from the land. As a result, many are forced to migrate to urban centers, searching for better economic opportunities and alternative livelihoods from those destroyed in rural villages.

Drawing alarm in recent years to all areas of India’s north and northeast plains are issues of climate change. The areas around the Ganges River continue to endure more pollution, contributing to the severe climate transformations occurring in the Ganges Delta region, which empties into the Bay of Bengal (Acharyya et al., 1999; Harvey, 2002). Bangladesh and West Bengal continue to experience extreme climate variations, including large-scale flooding, extreme heat, and natural disasters (Ali, 1999; Karim & Mimura, 2008; Mirza, Warrick, & Ericksen, 2003). In Bihar as well, climate is very much a concern. As we drove from Patna to Sitamarhi district, the flooding was striking. High walls of water reached the admixture road of dirt and gravel, coming dangerously close to a vulnerable gas station, while rice fields sat submerged many feet below alongside the owners’ saturated kacca homes. In Bihar, agriculture depends heavily on monsoon rainfall, which in recent years has become more erratic, unpredictable, and uneven in its distribution (FMIS, 2011). As a result, flooding has become a much more frequent event, sometimes making areas of Bihar inaccessible for months at a time. With the unpredictable, yet increasing rate of flooding, crop productivity will inevitably take a hit. In a study of the 2004 flooding in Bihar, 22% of agricultural land was recorded to be ruined (Chandran, Ramakrishnan, Chowdary, Jeyaram, & Jha, 2006). This trend has been predicted to increase over time, with a decrease in wheat yield of 5-6% percent by 2080 due to sporadic monsoons and an overall increasing maximum temperature (A. Kumar, Tripathi, Singh, & Mishra, 2011). These predictions were consistent with Sharma’s recollections of flooding in Amritpur. With the construction of a dam in Nepal, water flowing into Bihar from the Baghmati River has become increasingly unpredictable, exacerbating flooding concerns. “After the dam was built and when the dam bursts, all the water goes in one direction with full force.” The dam’s presence had exacerbated monsoon flooding, which has become increasingly harder to predict. This has inundated countless fields, destroying crops, while crippling the livelihoods of rural Bihari farmers. With these increasingly unpredictable and erratic monsoons and droughts, coinciding with elevated pollution levels, families who rely on agriculture must make crucial decisions to maintain their livelihoods. Sometimes this means suffering losses and taking loans. Other times, it means uprooting yourself from rural homelands and heading to new opportunities in cities.

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