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Migration and the transformation of peasant agriculture in the Ganges plains: the new frontier of agrarian change


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Lack of access to water for irrigation drives many men in the Ganges basin to migrate for work in the dry season. Women left behind struggle to farm and remittances are insufficient to pull families out of poverty. Could more investment in water management help?

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Migration and the transformation of peasant agriculture in the Ganges plains: the new frontier of agrarian change

  1. 1. Migration and the transformation of peasant agriculture in the Ganges plains: the new frontier of agrarian change Fraser Sugden – IWMI Nepal
  2. 2. Background  Out migration represents a critical transformation in the agricultural sector throughout the majority world • Changing intra-household division of labour • Changed urban-rural linkages • Changed patterns of investment (or disinvestment) on the land  Of critical importance to note is that in the South Asian context, despite the astronomical rise in migration, agriculture remains critical for rural food security – emergence of a dual livelihood strategy. People are not “leaving the land”  We must live with migration – but there are ways in which the outcomes can be made more equitable, particularly for those who stay behind and remain in agriculture.
  3. 3. Kathmandu Tibetan Autonomous Region Nepal Survey sites Darbhanga Madhubani MITHILANCHAL Bihar Janakpur Biratnagar ADIVASI BELT Purnea
  4. 4. Methods  This study is an amalgamation of multiple sources, following a decades’ work in the plains of Nepal and Bihar.  The primary data source is two large random surveys on agriculture and livelihoods.  CCAFS survey in 2013: 427 households in Rakuwari and Bhupatti of Bihar’s Madhubani district, Thadi Jijha and Ekrahi of Nepal’s Dhanusha district, and Bhaudaha, Jhorahat and Thalaha of Morang district.  SRFSI survey: 809 households in Ragunathpur and Giddha of Dhanusha, Korahiya and Nanour of Madhubani, Dogadhinagar and Damdaha of Bihar’s Purnea district, and Simariya and Mahendranagar of Nepal’s Sunsari district.  Data from interviews with 127 women farmers in Madhubani (India), Saptari and Dhanusha (Nepal)  51 FGDs and interviews for both studies
  5. 5. Poverty and land inequality in the Plains of North Bihar and Nepal Tarai  While dominance of a single zaminidari class has declined, the relations of production remain overwhelmingly feudal in character  The Plains of Bihar and the Nepal Tarai-Madhesh is a region with one of the most inequitable agrarian structures in Asia  The amalgamation of survey data from the 14 villages showed that half the land was under tenancy  Large farmers (>2ha) who represent just 5.5% of the sample own a third of the land, while 55% of the rented-in land belongs to absentee landlords, often the relics of the zamindar class.  Marginal farmers with less than 0.5ha, tenants, part tenants and landless labourers together constitute 70% of the population.  Despite greater peasant mobilisation and awareness of their rights, surplus appropriation through sharecropping, low wage labour, and usury remains widespread.
  6. 6. 0 5 10 15 20 25 30 35 40 Madhubani Purnea Dhanusha Sunsari Morang landless labourer tenant part tenant <0.5ha 0.5-1ha 1-2ha >2ha Agrarian structure in 14 village study
  7. 7. Agrarian stress in the eastern Gangetic Plains • Agrarian crisis since the 1990s • Increasingly erratic climate • Changing precipitation patterns • Winter cold spells • Early rains during wheat harvest • Limited capacity to invest in irrigation • Cost of pump sets unfeasible for poorer and tenant farmers • Absentee landlordism constricts expansion of tubewells • Limited electrification and power shortages.. • Rising cost of living, consumerism. • Poor terms of trade for agriculture following economic liberalisation – rising input prices, stagnant demand for commercial products • In the context of agrarian stress, the non-farm economy is increasingly essential for farmers to meet their subsistence needs
  8. 8. Migration trends in North Bihar and Nepal  Migration started in colonial times, but it only became a significant component of the livelihood strategy in the late 1980s  Agrarian stress combined with external changes in the labour market, created the conditions for the migrant boom. External changes include: • Economic liberalization in India and urban growth, particularly in the service and construction sector • Changing geopolitics in the Gulf states which sought a politically neutral and flexible labour force from the 1990s onwards.   Survey in North Bihar by Karan (2003) noted that as of 1982/3, 27.69% of households had migrated. As of 1999/2000 this had doubled, jumping to 48.63%.  In 1981 Nepal census, there were 402,977 household members classed as ‘absentee’. This increased more than fourfold to 1,921,494 by 2011.
  9. 9. Migration and accumulation of wealth  Over 50% of households across all wealth groups had migrant family members  However, they type of work varies considerably according to economic class position, as does the income. 0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 Landless labourer Tenant, part-tenant land owner with <0.5 ha Land owner with 0.5-1 ha 1-2ha Land owner with >2ha % of households having used remittance to invest in land or agricultural equipment
  10. 10. Is migration leading to socio-economic upliftment?  A significant proportion of migrant remittances are absorbed by non- productive investments.  Integral link between debt, surplus appropriation and migration • Debt both drives migration, while migration itself often causes farmers to fall into further debt (esp for overseas work with high upfront costs) • In Nepal, the informal money lending sector has boomed as a result of migration, with interest rates of 36 – 50%. Provides a new source of income for landlords with declining holdings. • Alongside this is an entire sector of rent-seeking institutions such as the manpower industry.  Migration and socio-economic breakdown • Community institutions such as canal management committees breaking down due to labour shortages • Few efforts to include women in formally male domains
  11. 11. Data from Bihar and Nepal case study sites on average % distribution of remittances .00 5.00 10.00 15.00 20.00 25.00 30.00 35.00 40.00
  12. 12. Feminization of agriculture and ‘subsidized labour’  Despite the boom in migration – agriculture remains critical for those who stay behind – namely women and old people.  Remittances only cover part of the subsistence needs  Migrant labour has emerged in a very different context from Industrial Revolution Europe where entire families would leave the land, and wages would support labourers and their families – along with en entire socio-political formation to support the working class – emergence of the welfare state.  In the contemporary South Asian context, migrant wages only support the sustenance of the labourer, with some excess to meet cash needs at home.  Feminised agriculture, even under semi-feudal conditions, provides food for the rest of the family, and provides sustenance to the labourer during his leave  In effect, feminized agriculture supports the entire low wage labour regime of South Asia and labour receiving countries.
  13. 13. Challenges for those who stay behind  Extremely high workload – especially for marginal and tenant farmers who can not hire in labour  Restricted access to government and non-government services due to policies which have not caught up with changing demography and gendered division of labour.  Challenges in accessing irrigation and other key resources which were once in the male domain.  Economic and social isolation – particularly for newly weds (e.g. cross border Nepal-India marriage patterns)  There are some opportunities for gender empowerment – yet this is often restricted to better of households with access to capital and land
  14. 14. Ways forward  The only long term solution will be through the development of broad based equitable growth of domestic employment opportunities – remittances are not a path to economic growth.  Engage in meaningful dialogue over redistributive land reform – providing a stronger livelihood for those who stay behind, and making agricultural investment of remittances more feasible. • Explore new models of land management such as collectives  Coping with migration? • In the immediate future, critical need for agricultural programmes to better engage with women – the primary custodians of the land in new ways which can help them overcome agrarian stress. - Move beyond tokenism and engage women more actively in key decision making roles, including the identification of gendered constraints to participation. - Reform policies which constrain women from accessing government services – e.g. requirements of land ownership papers for agricultural support • Much stronger regulation of the overseas manpower industry.
  15. 15. Thank you…