The morning rush hour is well past but traffic at the 200-feet Bypass in Jaipur is chaotic.
Hundreds of men and women, holding shovels and pickaxes, hoard the footpath, restricting vehicular movement at one of the city’s busiest traffic junctions. Sitting on a slab covering a drain along the road, 21-yearold Bunty Baherwa is distressed. It’s been two hours since the dailywage labourer, like most people in the crowd, has been waiting to be hired for the day.
Baherwa’s face lights up as he looks at a motorcycle snaking through the pack. He pounces upon the rider, a labour contractor. But before he can ask for a job, 20 more workers block his approach.
“Rs 350 for the day,” one of the labourers tries to bargain. “I can’t pay more than Rs 200,” insists the contractor. In no time, three men leap on to the motorcycle and the contractor rides them away.Baherwa is set for another day without pay. "The situation is very bad. There are too many labourers and too little work. Ideally, no one should get less than Rs 350 as wages for a day. But the workers are desperate," he says. His own desperation is no less. He has to pay a monthly rent of Rs 700 for a room he shares with five people and Rs 1,500 to a moneylender to whom he mortgaged his cellphone to get the loan.
As workers find it difficult to make a living in urban areas, more of them are now going back to villages and fewer rural people are migrating to cities. If the situation remains unchanged, 12 million more will join the agricultural workforce in rural areas by 2018-19 than those in 2012, a study by credit rating firm CRISIL estimated last year.
Baherwa has no money. The last three days passed without any work. “I, too, would have taken the job for anything the contractor paid.” He moved to Jaipur from Madhya Pradesh’s Ramwadi village, with older brother Baburam for better opportunities five years ago. Things went well initially. “We would get work for 20-25 days in a month. The wages were much higher than what we got in the village or earned from our four-bigha land,” he says.
Baherwa’s migration coincided with the construction boom riding on the high GDP growth of the late 2000s. As per CRISIL data, employment in the construction sector more than doubled to 50 million three years ago from 23 million in 2005. In this period, 37 million people migrated from agriculture to the non-farm sector on better or equal wages. “Seeing us taking money back home, other men from our village came here for work,” says Baherwa.
However, an economic slump since has sharply brought down employment generation in the non-agricultural sector. “Take, for example, real estate. Very few new projects have come up in the past year while several old ones are lying incomplete,” says Harkesh Bugaliya of Rajasthan Construction and General Labourers’ Union.
While the exodus continued from rural to urban areas, the dearth of work contained the growth of wages.
Prem Prajapati, who migrated from MP to Jaipur, says: “The passenger train that comes from Sheopur (MP) to Jaipur always had more workers than the one that goes back to Sheopur. Now the returning train, everyday, has more or equal number of workers. People from our villages contact us and ask for work. We stop them from coming here.”
The situation is similar in other states. Shankar Lakshman Rao Rakhonde, a labour contractor from Maharashtra’s Amravati district who is working at a pipelaying site in Bhopal, says only projects announced by the Centre are generating labour demand.
In Punjab, most of the rural workers in southern districts, who go to nearby towns to find work every day, are now returning empty-handed to their villages.
“Wages have stagnated in urban areas and there has been a rise in cost of living, so it is not a very attractive option to move to urban centres,” says Sachin Jain of Vikas Samvad, a voluntary agency that works in central India’s Bundelkhand region, notorious for workers’ migration.
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