Migration, water and the trajectory of rural change in South Asia

In large parts of South Asia, a majority of families pursue a dual livelihood strategy, depending on both farming and migrant wage work.

Fraser Sugden

Migration: Past and present

Across South Asia today, male out-migration is a fact of life, particularly in the poorer Eastern states of India such as Bihar, not to mention Nepal and Bangladesh. The mass movement of small farmers from the land to emerging urban centres has been an integral part of the human story across the world for centuries. However, contemporary migration today in South Asia and many other parts of the majority world is qualitatively vastly different from the migration experience which transformed Europe in the age of industrialisation, and even diverges from the contemporary transformation underway in rapidly urbanising societies such as China. In historical Europe, emerging urban centres have drawn in labour from the countryside, where families, either displaced from the land or driven by economic aspirations, would settle in cities and establish new lives, while agriculture, spurred on by demand from industry and urban consumers, would be left in the hands of larger, commercialised and profit oriented cultivators. In large parts of South Asia however, a majority of families pursue a dual livelihood strategy, depending on both farming (often under highly unfavourable conditions) and migrant wage work, with neither able to fulfill their minimum needs alone, let alone provide opportunities for economic upliftment.

 

Rural change, water scarcity and the shift towards a cash economy

To comprehend this it is necessary to first observe contemporary changes in the rural political economy. Around 30 years ago, migration levels from regions such as Bihar and Nepal were low. Agriculture provided many households with their minimum needs, with the remainder being covered by local wage work. For the poorest households, subsistence was often pushed down to the physiological minimum. In Kimalung, a remote upper valley settlement of Bhojpur district in in Nepal’s Koshi hills, villagers noted how portering was an important source of income to meet limited cash demand in the 1980s and 90s. Locally produced millet, maize and buckwheat met households’ dietary needs. Far to the south, in Bihar’s Bhagwatipur village, farmers from the Dalit community noted how a generation ago, the circulation of cash was itself limited. Basic commodities were acquired via the jajmani ritual exchange system between castes. Land poor farmers were dependent entirely upon landlords, and migration was rarely considered as an ‘option’ to escape the cycle of poverty.

However, rural lives have transformed from the late 1980s and 1990s. With economic liberalization and the expansion of roads and markets, the demand for cash has risen exponentially, yet old social inequalities remain entrenched. The price has risen substantially for agricultural inputs, the demand for which was itself rising to offset population growth and land fragmentation. The use of shallow tube wells for example, has expanded considerably in the Gangetic plains, although with it comes increased costs for pumping equipment and diesel. Added to this is a rising culture of consumerism. With expanding markets and media reach, demand for manufactured goods has risen, with mobile phones or satellite TVs being viewed increasingly as ‘essential’. With a flood of imported commodities, rural cottage industries have declined, and demand for factory made utensils or clothing has spiraled. Even food habits have changed. In Kimalung for example, as in many higher altitude rainfed regions of Nepal, farmers who were once satisfied with local buckwheat or maize now aspire to eat rice. It is not grown locally, yet now it is easily available in the market, consumption has risen. Old ideologies dictate that eating rice rather than local grains reasserts one’s social status. Added to this is the demand for biscuits, noodles, liquor and other ‘luxury’ consumables.

Nepal’s Bhojpur district: The expansion of roads and markets has led to spiralling cash demand and a change in consumption patterns
Nepal’s Bhojpur district: The expansion of roads and markets has led to spiralling cash demand and a change in consumption patterns

 

Increased demand for cash has gone side by side with an increasingly fragile agricultural resource base and far greater water scarcity. Farmers from Bihar’s Madhubani district and noted how a generation ago, monsoons were reliable, and one could meet their rice needs on the land without irrigation. Today however, monsoons are reportedly often late, resulting in significant losses, unless farmers invest in costly groundwater pumping. While it is difficult to assess climatic change on the basis of testimonies alone, the broader literature from the region points to increased variability and unpredictability of precipitation. Against this backdrop, agriculture becomes risky for the marginal farmers who cannot afford the investments in irrigation to provide water on demand. The fragile agricultural resource base itself has rendered poorer farmers more dependent upon the market to purchase foodstuffs, again increasing the need for cash.

 

Migration as a coping strategy

It is in this context, that farming or the limited local off-farm labour opportunities is simply no longer sufficient for households to meet their subsistence needs. Migration, either to better off Indian states or the Persian Gulf, is now an essential component of household livelihoods. What differs when compared to historical experiences of migration in regions such as Europe however, is that migration rarely constitutes a ‘fresh start’ for farmers. It is not matched by large scale industrialisation with the capacity to absorb the rural population. Neither is it matched by the gradual development of welfare systems to support their families in growing cities.

The Janakpur - Jayanagar railway which crosses the Nepal-India border has for decades been used by would be migrants from the Nepal Tarai, searching for new opportunities in Indian urban centres.
The Janakpur – Jayanagar railway which crosses the Nepal-India border has for decades been used by would be migrants from the Nepal Tarai, searching for new opportunities in Indian urban centres.

 

By contrast, migrants to Indian employment centres end up working in sectors such as construction, plantations or low value agro-industries, where work is often menial, temporary and poorly paid. Despite the hype about Gulf migration in Nepal and its role in ‘transforming’ the rural economy, the success stories of the few often distract attention from the hard reality for the majority. Migrants are usually on temporary contracts, while wages, which are as low as $200 a month, are often little better than what could be received working in factories at home. Farmers take crippling loans to pay a plethora of middlemen in the manpower industry, and in some regions such as the Nepal Tarai, usury is flourishing and offering an attractive source of rent for landed elites, all to the detriment of migrants and their families. In this context, neither migration nor agriculture can provide households with their minimum needs alone, and for the marginal and tenant farmer majority, livelihoods are strongly focused on combining both male migrant labour with female led agriculture.

Feminisation of agriculture and the dual livelihood strategy: Women are increasingly in charge of managing agricultural affairs while male family members work outside
Feminisation of agriculture and the dual livelihood strategy: Women are increasingly in charge of managing agricultural affairs while male family members work outside

 

Role of water

During this years’ World Water Day, when attention is focussed on the issue of water and jobs, it is important to note that water plays a critical role in mediating migrant worker flows, while it can also be a solution to provide more favourable migration outcomes. With regards to seasonal migration in rural Bihar and Nepal, this often takes place in the dry season, where limited access to irrigation reduces the opportunities on the farm. Similarly, in a drought year, migration may increase considerably as households require cash to purchase grain to make up for shortfalls. Those who stay behind, particularly women, are often highly vulnerable to climate stress such as drought, particularly when males are absent and remittance flows are sporadic. Deeply entrenched gender ideologies make accessing irrigation, state agricultural services and other inputs particularly challenging for women farmers.

More accessible, lower cost and more efficient irrigation is critical to build more resilient livelihoods for those who stay behind, while also providing alternative livelihood and income generating options for potential migrants. However, this involves a better understanding of the structural constraints associated with accessing water, such as those grounded in land tenure, gender ideologies and spatial inequalities. Now is a pertinent time to explore new technical and institutional innovations to promote equitable irrigated agriculture in an era of demographic change such as farmer collectives. In Bihar and the Nepal Tarai, pilot collective farms have been piloted, whereby groups of landless women take a joint lease of land and farm as a group, making joint irrigation investments more feasible, while increasing their bargaining power with landlords and agricultural service providers.

Improved irrigation can offer new opportunities for those who don’t migrate
Improved irrigation can offer new opportunities for those who don’t migrate

 

The bigger picture

It is also important for policy makers and practitioners to look at migration itself within the context of larger national development strategies and global patterns of uneven development. More equitable migration and wage labour opportunities will only emerge with broad based growth across sectors which provides strong domestic employment opportunities, which can increase the choices of marginalised groups, and reduce their dependence on casual, menial and temporary migrant labour. In Nepal for example, dependence on remittances has been institutionalised nationally in the context of an increasingly weak industrial base and import based economy. There are also critical issues related to the unequal distribution of agricultural land and decades of failed land reform across South Asia. This is often the root cause of the livelihood insecurity which drives farmers into the migration economy. While addressing the structural disparities in global development may be a long way off, there are short term pragmatic solutions such as better regulating migration flows and increasing migrants’ awareness of their rights.

Migration will always be an important feature of societal change, particularly in the majority world. A critical priority though for researchers, rural development practitioners and political actors, is to better understand the mediating factors in driving migration patterns. It is also important to identify pragmatic technical and institutional solutions to improve the outcomes for those who stay behind, as well as for migrants themselves.

 

Fraser Sugden
Interim Office Head, IWMI Nepal

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