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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 24, New Delhi, May 29, 2021

Understanding of rural society: migration and poverty from an anthropologist’s point of view | Radha Kanta Barik

Saturday 29 May 2021, by Radhakanta Barik


by Radha Kanta Barik

(This is a study of an island of twenty two villages of Cuttack District where endemic poverty and hunger were there before migration happened. Rural society has got transformed into a reasonable prosperous society because of migration to different places. We have applied the method of participant observation for finding the truth.)


The government of Odisha has treated the migrant workers in a somewhat reasonable way. (Barik 2020) The government knows they are the backbone of Odisha economy. They are the great consumers of clothes, scooters and motor cycles etc. These goods have turned into necessities today. In 1980s the majority of people used to buy two gamachas for the year. That was their investment in cloth besides their food. The cost of these two gamachas was Rs ten in 1980. During the 1990s they shifted to a lungi and a gamacha. The cost of these clothes around was Rs 60 (50plus 10). Post 1999 cyclone people started having an additional income because of the reconstruction works by the government of India. This brings the rise in demand for skilled labour specifically mason and helpers. This is a historic moment in the rise of income for common people. There has been steady rise in wage of the labour from 1999 to 2018. After the super cyclone the young started migrating in mass. From Puri and Ganjam there was mass migration to Gujarat specifically Surat. It is interesting to note here that they all left their family member behind. Because of migration, a labour surplus economy has turned into labour deficit economy. This may be the number one reason for increasing the wage of daily labour in rural Odisha. For last three years the wage remains constant and has not increased. There has been a large scale migration to other parts of India. Today they have pants and shirts which they buy because of the remittances they receive from their relatives working as the migrant labour. This brings the issue of demands in the economy as they had income. With the introduction of the NREGA in 2004 there has been rise of wage of labour in Odisha. This gave a boost to income rise of labour. Fourth the government’s buying of rice from the farmers by fixing the procurement price for rice helped the farmers to pay higher wage. Fifth the government has decided to pay some money under the KALIA project into rural people’s pocket like the pre election Rs 6000 into each pocket be rural labour or farmer. This becomes a success in improving the income of an average rural person. The rural labour are in a better position in Odisha. Their working day starts at 8AM to 3 PM. They used to work from 6 to 6 for twelve hours of the day. Seven hours work has given them rest and some of them work on kitchen garden. They go to the river nearby for collecting fish. They do eat rice dal fish and vegetables. All the above reasons have contributed to the rise in their income.

On Migration:

Some years back a train started moving from Puri to Okha without any reserved bogies to carry labour from Odisha specifically Puri and Ganjam to Gujarat. Once I was travelling from Puri which was empty till Berhampur and suddenly got full in that station. Some time back I was travelling in the same train where reserved bogies and AC bogies are there. The income level of people who migrated to Gujarat has improved and they are interested to come in the reserved bogies. This is where the migrant labour has improved the economy of Odisha by sending money to their homes. Today they are getting harassed by the central government and at one time when Modi was the chief minister workers from Odisha fled away at the time of 2002 riots. The Labour Minister of Gujarat came to welcome them by going to villages of Ganjam district. Today they are being disrespected by the government of Gujarat and Indian government. Prof Jan Breman has written on the role of migrant labour as footloose labour who have contributed to the growth of Gujarat by getting low wage as the local labour demands a higher wage. (Bremen2013) It is easy for the business people to keep a control over the long distance migrant labour. From our village four hundred migrant labour working outside of Odisha. They all send money to their families.Today they have pucca house and their children go to school and their parents take rest after launch.

Their grandparents wait for their home coming. Their money moves the village economy. Some years back only three houses of the village used to buy fish where they had monopoly price and today every family where a migrant labour is there they buy fish. Previously in the village we doing study, no chicken was available which was costly and today they eat chicken on every Sunday. Their wives and children wear beautiful dress walk to the temple or Yatra or bazar. They come home hiring some time taxi or scooters. They have improved their family income and those three families who used to enjoy all fruits of the village are feeling jealous of them. Most of them have married on their own and they have gone for love marriages crossing castes and communities.

They all live with self-respect which gives them pride to share some memories of theirs. Let them enjoy their lives as they work hard in different places and send their money to their homes. I do not understand why they are not respected by urban elite and they are ready to pay for going back. Their contributions cannot be underplayed by the rulers of today. Surat as an old industrial area used to get labour from Odisha specifically the Western Odisha and Ganjam who work here. They are about 12 Lakhs who work here and live in bastis where one can find the red gamacha which symbolizes the Odiya labour they are in a desperate to go out and their family members live back in the villages. Recently I went to give a lecture in a college at the border town of Ganjam with Andhra found a large number students are studying in the College and came to know them as the daughters and sons of the labour working in Surat. Their children go to colleges for higher education including technical and management courses.

If Modi government can provide a social security package then the real pralaya is hitting Indian economy and society can be saved. Odisha government has decided to pay a package for a migrant labour despite he or she does not have the bank account no. This is being handled by the government of Odisha by allowing them to present themselves to collect the money. This can be paid in the physical presence of the labour himself. This is being cited by the leading economists in Indian Express. As the government’s concern for the poor is there where as the central government is shirking its duty to pay a package for the migrant labour despite the key to RBI is with the centre.
The state government has introduced the welfare measures including food for 90 percentages of people under the PDS. There are other measures such providing house to the poor and other welfare measures such as old age pension of Rs 600 and some welfare payment from childhood to the old.These are the measures have not directly benefited all but yes indirectly helped the poor and needy people of Odisha. This brings an average citizen of Odisha having a tolerable life because of direct income or indirect income generated by various sources. Taking the case study of small island of 22 villages where people used to struggle for their daily earnings in an uncertain manner as it is a flood prone area. Last twenty years they have lives with certain dignity.

The influence of money lender and landlord has reduced to the maximum. In this island the money lenders hail from two groups: One group of traditional landlord cum money lenders but another group come from the government employees such as primary school teachers. This area having four hundred teachers do money lending works in the area. Both have declined in their power and activities. They used to control the reins of power. Today the each social group has a leader for themselves who tries to speak for them. Some form of organic intellectuals has come up at the grass roots level.

Once they came out of poverty trap they have turned into an aspiring people. They started investing in horticulture and livestock economy. Horticulture is the profession of male workers but women help in plucking the fruits and selling in the local market.Milk producers are basically the women who sell to the milk cooperatives. During the Lockdown both these activities have got ruined as local market is closed and the milk cooperatives do not buy the milk from these women producers.

But today they do not have income because of Lockdown and without any income they can be provided some work under the NREGA if the wage gets upgraded from 210 to 300 which can be borne by the state government as the centre is hostile to the poor migrants. As I did a study on migrant labour from Bolangir to Andhra we found that the government of Odisha has increased the wage under the NREGA which helped many of the workers to stay back. The same thing can be repeated under the NREGA the whole state of Orissa wants to treat the migrant labour well with due respect.

Workers who are working outside of Odisha have a little land in their villages.Their parents take care of the small plots and they cannot work on that land as they are not required by their parents. They move out and work in various parts of India and abroad and send money to their homes. Workers who belonged to landless families used to work outside thirty years back have come back twenty years back and demanding a higher wage which they are getting Rs250 to 300. These workers are mostly from the Dalit community. This is an interesting finding that those landless workers from our locality used to work in Gurugaon in bear factory have gone back and working as agricultural labour. It is a reverse flow of workers to their own villages.

After Odisha government has decided to send vehicles to bring back migrant labour which keeps moral pressures on UP and other BJP ruled states that they want to do so. Odisha like Kerala has taken an initiative in handling the Covid 19 with a human face. It is the state government with limited resources under its control has gone for announcing the package for the labour in general and migrant labour in particular. That in package there is a financial component and it can be given without such identity card which is an innovative step by our government. This innovative measure has been appreciated by the eminent economists and social worker. (Indian Express, Jayati Ghosh, Prabhat Patnaik, Harsh Mander April 27, 2020)

Workers have reached the city of Bhubaneswar and while going to their homes three workers faced accident and died. The government may take precaution that these workers are earning livelihoods for their families and bring prosperity to Odisha. Otherwise Odisha cannot sustain in paying the wage to these workers. Becuse they are working and here their family members and their brother and sisters work here at the wage of Rs 250 to three hundred. This has helped the poor workers to lead life with dignity. Today they have come back and they need to be respected and given a safe return to their homes. Those who died need to be given proper compensation by the government of Odisha. In marriage market those workers who work outside of Odisha get a priority over the workers working here. This brings the respectability to migrant workers all over Odisha. Recently, we went to study a village of fishermen nearer the sea shore of Puri district where we found their children working in Kerala as fishermen and send back money to their homes. They maintain a better standard of life in the village
The starting work by Odisha government under NREGA which draws a large number of workers. This indicates that rural Odisha is in distress. The livestock economy has been badly affected and these people have started working in NREGA and small farmers who used to do work related to horticulture are without the supply chain has joined the NREGA work. Furthermore the wage is lower than the state wage which is fixed Rs250. Rural distress has deepened during the national Lockdown. This could have been avoided if Odisha government could have allowed the works in agriculture and allied activities and allowed the Sweet stalls keep opening. These affected people need to be compensated by the Government of Odisha

Hunger in Odisha before the migration started:

How people perceive the problem of hunger although they remain busy in working in agriculture and involved in food production. In rural Odisha food shortage starts in the month of July when agricultural works start for Kharif crop and the farming community exhausts their food by this month. July and August are critical months for managing their kitchens. Whether food is being cooked or not the best time is to go to their homes around 8PM when their families start eating the early dinner after day’s hard work. But those families because of shortage of food the cooking starts in late. They go to the village shop where they buy rice or wheat and come back and then food gets cooked. It is always a late affair. Eight to nine in those houses no food gets cooked become a clearer. Their children know the pains of their mothers and they go to the kitchen and put their legs into the chula and find there is no fire and then they do not go to their mothers for demanding food. They drink a glass of water and sleep. The silence in courtyard of the house indicates that there is shortage of food or no cooking has happened. There is an eerie silence in the village. If one moves in the village lane and can find out in the houses where food has not been cooked tonight. In the center of village some people after their dinners they meet and they discuss the issue of the houses without food. Those having dinner and in post dinner discussion they find the pleasure to discuss by finding their neighbours are without food including their own brothers. Although here the women feel the pinch and those houses having food here their women very often generous to share some food with their neigh ours although not free of cost and it is a verbal calculation. They give food to their needy families. The male members do not do so. This they discuss in the centre of the village and get a sadistic pleasure. This is the story of people and their perception of hunger in the village specifically non irrigated zone of Odisha.

What is the sociology of Hunger? It was widely prevailing in Odisha till 1999 super cyclone. Powerful novel on hunger has been written by Kanhu Mohanty in his Haa Anna, Reading of this novel creates a melancholic feeling in readers. Hunger is the basis of slavery in Odisha as till 1990 servants were available for Rs ten for the whole year plus two gamachas. The families used to send their sons as servants to landed households. It has no caste root but any caste person can work as a servant. Hunger creates parasitic political elite in rural Odisha. The Sarapanchas for twenty five years in three panchayats of 22 villages used to cook extra five meals to offer the leaders of these villages that was the basis of his political power. Politics and sociology are both critical in society of Odisha. It creates parasitic elite including the trader who offers the rice at the end of the day to small farmer who offers his land to the trader and in the process he owns his land. The primitive accumulation of the rural Odishs was a crude and inhuman in approach. Today the power elite do not have that power neither they can appropriate land of the others or can keep their sons as servants and cannot win the election of the Panchayat by feeding five extra meals. The way deurbanisation is going on under the COVID 19 the Hindutva wants to get back the support of the old elite who used to live on a form of slavery.

Human Capability in the time of Corona:

According to the leading economists of the world that India has wealth of which a portion can be shared for the workers. This is an unusual crisis created by COVID 19. Workers are feeling the crisis in its intensity as they have lost the jobs which have created them without any income and without basic necessities. This brings to the question of a small farmer who sells his landed property while facing the children’s education or health of some body. While my father was educating us he used to sell his land and his cousins came to him questioned him that he answered that he had no saving in the bank which he could spend it. There was no alternative but to sell land. He understood the language of Prof Amartya Sen who speaks of human capability although he had no education. It is robust commonsense which made him to educate us. Nation is confronting the COVID 19 which has resulted in the unemployment of such a huge labour force. If they remain healthy and fit then they can come and work after this bad phase passes away. Modi surely understand the logic of Indian economic development as India is a middle order economy which can spend around 5% of its GDP for its people.
The former Governor of RBI Raghuram Rajan has made a calculation of Rs 65000 crores for making a package for the migrant workers and poor in India. This is a small amount of our GDP. If the government of India cancels the central vista project which can save Rs 200 crores. It can be cancelled for making money for a social package for the workers. Free ration for all the poor makes 20000 tons which is one third of total food is kept in the FCI. What is the problem for Modi government to spend this amount for the poorer people of India. Either the central government is not ready to listen to sane voice or they are knowingly ignoring the poor. There is an odiya proverb that ’Mote jete mathibu math, Mu sei dorpodha katha" The half burnt wooden piece is not going to be burnt easily as much efforts one puts. Present government at the centre is behaving like half burnt wooden piece.

Aurobindo Subramanium in his lecture in Indian Express Adda (The Indian Express, May3,2020)uses the word ’pralaya’ in economic sense. Pralaya has been used in Hindu scriptures which have not gone to the heads of Hindutva leaders. Modern imagination and rationality can work out so well that the country can be saved from Pralaya. As the texts say that human beings will be turning into cows carrying masks over their mouths which is being interpreted by some that is what pralaya. Here the pralaya has been used in economic sense that he questioned the IMF ’s prediction of economic growth in terms of 1.5 which is a figment of imagination. Indian economy was on down slide that this pralaya hits the economy which would result in negative rate of growth. This is understandable as he worked with the present government has provided some sane economic advice that there is way to save from the pralaya by giving an economic package of 5% of GDP for the labour specifically as they will return back as workers in a healthy and fit mood.

Some Lessons for the Government of Odisha:

The way Odisha government has gone for improving the supply of extra rice and dal has been appreciated by the leading economists of India in their article today in Indian Express. This brings out the truth that the chief minister’s concern for poor people of Odisha. He is ready to send the vehicles to bring back the migrant labour from Bombay and Surat. It is the duty of central government who controls the railways and rich ministry of Road and Transport to arrange vehicles for transporting the migrant labour to their home states.But the central government is a mute observer to the plight of labour. The state government of Maharashtra has written to central government for arranging the trains for sending the workers to their home states but no avail. The central government is silently passing time as the Lockdown has completed already more than one month. The workers have lost their work and income and desperate to have food and work but no authority is ready to listen to them.


It seems that the central government is a heart less government. William Jennings Bryan, speech " Cross of Gold’ is the most popular speech in the history of recorded speeches in the world. He was American Presidential candidate for Democratic party who spoke in the favour of rural society and its economy." Burn down your cities and leave our farms and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city." The substance of the speech is there in Gandhi’s "India lives in villages’ which explains the logic of human development that villages have grown by collective efforts of various communities and castes by recognizing the shared space for everybody. This is a structure of rural economy which sustains the half of Indian people although it contributes to GDP less percentages. That is the strength of the rural economy which can sustain more people than the cities. That is the charm of rural India which attracted the millions of migrant labour who want to go back to the lap of their villages where there is a feeling of security that is there which is a great asset. When I visit our village where we suffered worst by the hands of landlords cum money lenders as my father was looking after us and educating us. The era of landlordism in rural Odisha has disappeared where small peasant economy thrives which sustains around 12 hundred people with its limited resources and which sustains the labour of daily wage of Rs300 and various communities such as service communities like potter, barbers etc without discrimination today which they used to suffer in our childhood. But today central government’s anti agriculture policy such as no remunerative price of our products and low wage for the labour in NREGA and no food under PDS for all going to ruin the harmony of the rural society. Yes we are urbanised but our roots lie there and we spend some time in every year with sharing love and security with others. Are we going to ruin our society? In our childhood two thirds of people did not have proper food to eat and proper cloth to wear, many children could not go to school because of lack of food in their homes but today all go to school and have a mid-day meal of rice with eggs and learn every day and whenever I go to the village I test their knowledge which is profound because of their sense of observation capacity around their house and village and their participation in the rural economy by sharing the burden of their parents which teach them a sharing culture and after their schooling they want to go to the colleges and study which make them fit into the urban economy but they want to come back to the village because of love of nature and shared culture. The lockdown is going to have a disastrous impact on all of us.


  • Barik, R K (2020) Managing the Lockdown with a human face: the case study of Odisha in Mainstream, 18 April.
  • Breman, Jan (2013) At Work in the Informal Economy of India: A Perspective from the Bottom Up, Delhi: Oxford University Press.
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