Reverse migration in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic – the Ukhrul Experience

The most immediate challenge for the state would be to make productive use of the new manpower accumulated from reverse migration.

 

Migration of people from rural settlement to urban centre is considered an unavoidable outcome of technological progress. The arrival of agricultural machineries has led to reduced demand for labour, resulting in rural-urban migration. The trend is considered a good sign, by reasons of industries expanding in urban centres creating new opportunities, technology upgrades freeing up more labour force with human mobility linking up the benefits.

Demography is the statistical study of population. The structure or composition of population i.e. the demographic variable like age, gender, death rate, fertility rate, sex-ratio, infant mortality rate etc, has a telling say on socio-economic development; some societies have demographic advantage over others by virtue of demographic endowments.

According to the United Nations Population Fund demographic advantage means, "the economic growth potential that can result from shifts in a population’s age structure, mainly when the share of the working-age population is larger than the non-working-age share of the population". On this definition it can be held that the working age population constitutes an important demographic capital, an asset of economic value the society at large.

Migration trends of Ukhrul

With these basic premises, if one is to examine the trends of demographics and migration trends for Ukhrul District, post Indian independence, it can be broadly demarcated into two stages or eras for outbound migration i.e. migration of natives of the district away to other destinations.

Mobility with demographic stability: In the initial stage migration from Ukhrul mainly consisted of students pursuing higher studies outside the district. This was usually of the shorter term and most of these migrants come back to the home district. With improvements in health facilities and onset of modern outlook, the society would also have experienced better statistics in terms of Infant Mortality Rate (IMR), life expectancy, maternal mortality rate, etc. Thus essentially, there is marked improvement in social stability. Longer term outbound migrations were few in number in this era. This trend ended towards the end of the 20th century.

Demographic de-capitalisation: With the coming of globalisation and India’s economic reform measures opening the country to globalisation, the cities of the country underwent rapid changes. The boom of service sector created vast opportunities and the allure of city life did not escape the youth of Ukhrul. By the turn of the 21st century, migration trends quickly tipped from shorter-term toward longer-term migration.

The youth were now moving away from the home district, mostly, for seeking greener pastures. If annual estimates of natives leaving the district for a duration of over one year versus natives coming back to stay for similar duration can be compared, the former is likely to heavily outnumber the latter. From the start of the 21st century a profound impact would be seen in the demography of Ukhrul. A huge gap would come about in the age characteristics and people in the age-group of 18-35 would progressively constitute lesser and lesser proportion of the district resident population. 

The difference between the two eras being the degree of longer-term outbound migration.

Implications of demographic de-capitalisation

The fallout of demography de-capitalising longer-term migration out of Ukhrul has been comprehensively felt across socio-economic spectrum. Some acute social and economic dysfunctions afflicting the district may be highlighted as follow:

The era of increased mobility and longer-term migration drew away a huge chunk of youth to major cities of the country. This meant that modern enterprises, which are naturally the forte of the younger generation have had limited growth in the district, and additionally, almost all of the non-traditional labour intensive jobs such as construction work were left to the migrants coming in the district from other states.

The mainstay occupation continued to be cultivation, traditional arts and craft, and trade in forest produces. In the absence of youth, traditional industries neither evolved nor grew in substantive terms, but merely, remained as a means of subsistence. With no diversification within and beyond the primary sector, the economy is as frail as it gets.

Businesses and trade in commercial manufactured goods were ushered in by migrants from states with better access to education and economy, and continued to be dominated by non-natives. Having captured the market as first movers coupled with long absence of local competition, supply side saturation, and confined geography with no alternative logistic routes have fabricated high entry cost that effectively deters entry of local entrepreneurs.

With outward migration draining out the youth, the academic landscape has failed to develop. Creation of viable and worthy higher education institutions requires certain threshold of students. However, the aggregation of such number is prevented by outward migration. The absence of working-age group has direct affect on the quality of school education. With teachers retiring and teaching approaches stagnating, students of Ukhrul for about two decades were left devoid of exciting new teachers and teaching-learning approaches, ostensibly, augmented by the absence of qualified working age group. This may be one main reason for the conditions of discontented students sorely under-prepared to thrive at the competitive arena, and overall stagnation of academics.

Generation gap in the district is compounded by the absence of the working age generation. Assuming that major longer-term migration to the cities started towards the end of the 20th century, and assuming an average age of 18 years for the people leaving the district that time, and such continued trend, then people in the age-group of 18-42 years would be largely missing from the population landscape of Ukhrul at any given time besides the Christmas holiday. This means the youngsters of Ukhrul do not have immediate access to a mentoring figure, and senior citizens also faces similar losses. Such access is necessary for preserving social norms, imbibing new technologies, and safeguarding various social interests.

Absence of productive age population in a society cause another chronic affliction that incapacitates savings, a condition where the money send back by natives of the district working in the cities quickly dissipates out of the district without circulation, or leading to savings and capital formation. Anything in excess is harmful, the same goes for migration. So long as there is demographic stability, migration to cities in search of better opportunities would have been beneficial as it ensures utilisation of resources. In the case of Ukhrul where the condition of demographic imbalance exist, the working age group are mostly working in the cities, while this means that they are earning and also sending back some portion of their income to their families, the impact will be restricted to subsistence and welfare of recipients, because most of the remittance received fails to circulate within the district beyond a single exchange. This arises because labour, trade and commerce within the district are provided by migrants in the district from other states, who in turn will repatriate their income back to their home states. 

Large scale migration of youth leads to dispersed majority, dissipated public voice syndrome. Intuitively, it can be reasoned that the most active and vocal group in matters of social and political issues are people in the working age group. The demographic landscape of Ukhrul presents a peculiar phenomenon because majority of the people in the said age group are dispersed far and wide from the district, and the vocalisation of public sentiments is left in the hands of a few, who due to minute numbers are unable to sustain on its own and vulnerable to influence of powerful figures. This condition tends to hamper collective decision making or consensus development, thus leading to feeble ‘Public Voice”. Society in such a scenario is deprived of power to challenge mala fides, unfair trade practices, corruption and misgovernance are major hindrance to welfare and development. Movements against such mala fides need people’s awareness and power of the mass. 

A worrisome feature horrifyingly apparent is Host marginalisation. The people of Ukhrul have a distinct culture compared with mainland India. Cultures that live together intermingle and lead to assimilation of cultural values and norms. In Ukhrul, however cross-cultural assimilation has not taken place. The locals have adopted most aspects of mainland culture in terms of food habits, clothing, entertainment, etc. however the local culture has not been adopted by migrants coming into the district. Thus this produce one-way trade, the local consume product coming in, the migrants normally do not consume local products/produces. The only viable earning for the locals from the migrants is renting out accommodations. This trend can be however harmonized as and when the locals realized the gap in trade exchange. It arose to a large extend because the locals have neither the expertise not the will to market local products to the migrant population. Revival of local industry will need the recognition of this gap. Given the lack of marketing expertise and traditional industries infrastructure (which still persist in primitive stage), institutional supports are required to correct this asymmetry.

Ukhrul has largely been devoid of industrialization. It has the trifecta of spatial isolation, rugged topography and political instability that bars the district from joining the march towards growth and development. Thus, the migration of youth away from the district is not in any extend caused by freeing up of labour from mechanisation of the primary sector.

Causes of demographic de-capitalisation: 

The basic condition that makes migration from rural settlements to urban centres a manifestation of economic vibrancy is balanced growth. While it is not explicitly stated, any imbalance in the rural/urban development is most likely to cause disturbance in the socio-economic stability of a society and hamper economic development. 

The fallout of such imbalance is evident in many developing economies, where the shift in rural-urban population is not matched by mechanisation/industrialisation of agriculture and allied industry. Fast urbanisation without balanced industrialisation leads to massive unemployment in urban areas and little or no growth in agricultural productivity. in such scenario, at best the economy may experience jobless growth, where overall productivity of the community improves in terms of output, but there is little or no improvement in per capita terms. This would be marked by undesirable phenomena of growing gap between the rich and  the poor, unsustainable job competition in urban centres and non-optimal utilisation of resources in rural areas. Pre-empting such fallout, China implemented the Hukou System, where people in rural areas needed permits to settle in urban centres. However the system was fundamentally flawed in that it insulate urban centres from burden of rural population inflow; thereby, allowing it to grow without balancing growth of rural areas. In effect it created a form of apartheid existence.

A synoptic list of why demographic de-capitalisation of Ukhrul took place would include:

Higher Education: The district have little to offer in terms of higher education, hence moving away to the cities is a natural choice for many students. Despite being at the forefront of education among the tribals of the region producing many stalwart citizens in the past, the district has lost currency in academic domain.

Livelihood: The district offers little in terms of earning a descent livelihood, this is compounded by other factors like trade and business in manufactured goods have high entry cost in terms of established competition, low margin, high cost of developing supply network, limited capital etc., skill development and entrepreneurship are still at a nascent stage, difficulty in accessing bank loans etc. mismatch of skills and opportunities. There is also a visible fancy for government service which hampers workforce diversification.

Safety: While seeking higher education and livelihood remains the primary reason for migration out of the district. Socio-Political turbulence and insurgency greatly exacerbated migration out of the district. The district is considered ‘unsafe’ for the locals in view of clashes/tension between security forces and insurgents and between insurgents. Very often the local youth bear the brunt of brutal actions and reactions between such players, merely, by being present in the vicinity. The safety of children is the clinching factor why youth migrate out of the district. Every parent reasoned that their child is safer away from the district, even when financial constraints exists, safety of the upcoming generation is considered a good trade-off for financial burdens.

The youth of ukhrul who moves away to the cities in pursuit of higher learning or livelihood hardly comes back. It would be because the grass in ukhrul just is not green enough to bring them back. Ukhrul just does not have the requisite systems in place to make productive use of the education, skills and competencies they have acquired, and the socio-political environment prevailing in the district was not conducive for entrepreneurial activities. Interestingly, the very absence of working age population makes it improbable to usher in the desired changes.

Post Pandemic Scenario

The pandemic is to be assessed for its overall impact. It has brought about a health crisis and in  the process, greatly, damaged the economy. There may be many structural changes in the post pandemic era, government as well as private sector jobs are likely to dwindle both in terms of trimming down the work force and scaling down of new recruitment drastically Accompanying these would be an increasing demand on the productivity of those who still hold jobs at the end of the crisis. Overall the attractiveness of urban centres looks set to decline. This means for at least a few years, the youth may mostly opt to stay back home. The return of state natives is essentially a correction of the demographic imbalance. Proper policy formulation is, however, a requisite in order to prevent collapse of the economy from sudden influx of population and economic strain, and to cultivate a productive workforce.

Policy outlook have to recognise the district as an administrative unit with a democratic political system, and an economic entity requiring a healthy demography to be viable and vibrant. Migration in and out of the district is unavoidable and desirable as long as the trade-off is favourable for the socio-economic condition of the district. However, the state and its districts must also make itself attractive enough to retain and attract manpower.  The outflow of working age population to cities is particularly acute in Ukhrul and likely to exceed other districts of the state in proportional terms. 

A district is an administrative unit just below the state government. The district magistrate, as the basic unit of administration, is the starting point of any policy implementation. In the hill districts of Manipur, people exercises local self governance through autonomous district council (ADC) constituted under the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council Act 1971 while the valley districts have Panchayati system (rural) and urban municipal corporations/councils. Local self-government wields substantial powers in matters of education, employment, public utilities, health and sanitation etc., with power to make rules and bye-laws under the act. Their role in building local economy and social stability is substantial and will only increase in the wake of the pandemic. People’s empowerment and discontent shares an inverse relationship, the local self-government is the most immediate formal platform for a person to exercise his democratic rights and power. Thus the state must ensure the proper functioning of these institutions with adequate devolution of power, and their functional evolution. The society as a whole, with active participation of the state, needs to imbibe best practices in local self government from around the country and beyond. 

Post pandemic Action Plan

It is evident that the state cannot expect to resume business as usual nor would temporary relieve measures such as ration distributions or benefit transfers suffice to tide over the economic turbulence. The immediate challenge would be to make productive use of the new manpower accumulated from reverse migration. 

The state has to find means of productively engaging its manpower while also seeking to reduce financial burden on itself.  Short term initiatives that the state can take to mitigate the crisis as well as build capacity could start with building a district wise database on unemployed youth mapping their education, experience, skills and competencies and identify possibilities of their utilisation on short term contracts as per the need of the state. For example, the state may be having backlogs in digitisation of records. Thus, where requirements and competencies match, the state may offer contract of a few months to employ such youth in record digitisation and database development. Another possible avenue would be embodiment of suitable unemployed youth as locality tutors to help the school children make up for the lost of class hours by providing tutorial support, and any such other gaps that the state may identify to deploy manpower gainfully in the short term. These initiatives needs to be aligned with public health concerns and implemented in such a way that the manpower so deployed are made the instruments for new norms for health and safety in public space.

For the long term the state has to develop a roadmap for economic stability and resilience. It would perhaps be pertinent for the state to constitute a task force at this stage to develop a comprehensive plan for economic development.  Despite being a small state, Manipur possess diversity in terms of culture and geography and is also situated at the doorstep of a viable economic corridor, the gateway to the east. Thus a customised action plan for the state reconciled with central policies is needed.  Investment in education and research needs to be ramped up.  The state must aspire to provide good options for higher education and professional studies for its students and attract students from other place.

One definitive policy action that may be recommended for the state is to facilitate and support setting up of district level trade and commerce chambers. The state has to play pivotal role to thrust entrepreneurship forward. Business or commerce performs the essential roles of optimizing output, efficient utilization of resources, job creation and wealth creation. Fundamentally speaking a business improves welfare of the society it operates in by creating a symbiotic relationship. A business that thrives while sickening the society is either predatory or tumorous, a society to remain healthy needs able watchdogs against such establishments. A backward society like the one we have in this state cannot lie back in the hope that the market will create itself and grow but require active state participation and intervention. The existing market condition is skewed unfavourably towards new entrepreneurs who are predominantly state natives. A state regulated and supported district trade chambers with representative officers of the state departments along with members of local trade unions, and prominent citizens can be put in place to take up crucial tasks such as 

-Ensuring fair competition among traders by correcting market anomalies such as equal access to large suppliers.

-Formulation of entrepreneurship policies suitable for local needs. 

-Bridging gaps between government and entrepreneurs, providing a transparent platform of lobby.

-Promoting research and linking market with academia

-Identifying areas for state intervention.

-Disseminating government initiatives etc.

Self reliance is the latest policy position taken by the Centre. While there may be many debatable issues on the content and delivery of the policy position, the overall stance is apt for the current context. Self reliance does not simply translate in producing all the consumption needs of an economy by itself, rather, the more realistic translation would be being able to afford its needs, the later translation is in harmony with economic theories, promoting specialisation and trade.

Some approaches that the state may consider that manifest this policy outlook could include:

District migration registry and Youth Index: The district administration may maintain a registry of native/residents leaving the state for duration of over one year or returning back after such durations. This would help the district/state gauge the demographic profile, and indicative of the overall attractiveness of the district for the people to live in, it would also be usual in events necessitating evacuation of natives. A periodic survey (eg. triennial) may also be mooted to develop an index showing how many graduates of the district (How many out of every 100) resides within the state/district. The District Employment Exchange is perhaps well suited for preparing this index.

District Local Crop Stockholding: The district ADCs may be allowed to maintain stocks of food grains like maize and grain that are locally produced. Such stocks may be held at district headquarters by the ADCs employing locals who can maintain the stock using traditional techniques. For example, harvested rice and maize are stored by villagers for long time. These stores may be either used for consumption or for seeds, and it has some advantages over the conventional modern food storage systems which are only meant for consumption. Such initiative may focus on organic farming through no cost participatory certifications. This initiative may have positive impacts of promoting production and instilling public confidence on food safety. The stocks can be purchased by the ADCs from local farmers on rational pricing such as cost plus, and in contingent needs, these stocks may be sold or distributed to the public at cost price. Otherwise, eventually sell/auction off on periodic basis at market price to local buyers or outside the district.

Social Audit: MNREGA is a powerful programme for welfare and development, post the pandemic its importance will only increase. Its effectiveness may be better enforced through social audit. The state has to quickly operationalise social audit as laid down in the social audit rules. The functioning and programmes of local self government may also be brought under social audit.

Augmentation of Primary Sector: Agriculture and allied industry have a lot of scope to improve. The state needs horizontal and vertical augmentation. Horizontally, the state can consider introducing new varieties of crops, explore and adopt new practices and methods like Zero Based Natural Farming, organic farming and mixed cropping. The sector needs to be diversified and through Horticulture and Animal Husbandry to secure the rural economy. Vertically, the sector needs marketing support for demand and supply management, logistics of transport, storage and warehousing and promotion of food processing industry. Direct state investment in the sector could be limited due to budgetary constraints but it must proactively facilitate the growth and development through policy measures that eases the conduct of business.

Credit reach extension: Institutional credit facility continues to be a major issue especially in tribal areas. The state may endeavour jointly with some banks to launch such business loans that are given on the basis of project viability. The state may issue guidelines for the project applicants to fulfil for availing such loan, and such facility may be for specific sectors which the government in consultation with experts identify as viable. 

With prudence in policy planning and implementation the state may be able to come out of the other end of the tunnel in a good shape.

(The views expressed is personal)

 

First Published:Aug. 10, 2020, 12:32 p.m.