Push factors

Published : Sep 21, 2012 00:00 IST

Industrial and agricultural sluggishness in the north-eastern region fuels migration to other parts of the country.

in Guwahati

ON August 17, two special trains from Bangalore to Guwahati brought in Kiran Doley of Sisikolghar in upper Assams Dhemaji district, who works as a security guard in Bangalore, and over 5,000 other young people from Assam and other north-eastern States. They had all fled from their places of work in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Gujarat and Maharashtra. Subsequently, other special trains brought back several thousands like them. When these young people arrived at Guwahati, there was both consternation and surprise as not even the governments of the north-eastern States had any specific data on migration from these States, mainly Assam. That such large numbers of young people had left the region for work and study, therefore, came as a surprise.

A combination of push factors has created this situation. One of them is non-remunerative agriculture in Assam and the other north-eastern States. In Assam, 70 per cent of the population is directly dependent on agriculture, while about 15 per cent depends on allied activities. Eighty-five per cent of the farmers in Assam are small and marginal. While the average landholding is 1.11 hectares against the national average of 1.33 hectares, the average landholding of the small and marginal farmer in Assam is 0.63 hectare.

The erosion caused by the Brahmaputra and its tributaries is a serious problem. An official estimate by the Planning and Development Department, Government of Assam, reveals that in the past 36 years the annual average loss of cultivable land has been 3,900 hectares, which has resulted in an annual crop loss of around 700 tonnes.

Low productivity adds to the problem. The highest productivity of rice, which is the principal foodgrain, during the Eleventh Plan period was 1,969 kg/hectare (the target for 2011-12 was 2,032 kg/hectare) against the national average of 2,240 kg/hectare. The total rice production in Assam in 2011-12 was 50.54 lakh tonnes, with a marketable surplus of about five lakh tonnes. However, in the absence of adequate procurement of surplus rice, the farmers have not benefited from the increase in production. They did not get remunerative prices, and this resulted in distress selling. The Food Corporation of India procured 27,000 tonnes of rice in the State in 2011-12. The State does not have a procurement system of its own.

Effect of partition

The partition of India left the entire north-eastern region isolated and also landlocked as its rail heads and the Chittagong port were lost to erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. The nearest port is now Kolkata and the region is connected to the rest of India through a narrow stretch of land in Siliguri, which is popularly known as the Chicken Neck corridor. (To take one instance, Agartala, the capital of Tripura, was only 350 km away from Kolkata before Partition; now the road distance between the cities is 1,700 km.)

As a result, the entire region has for decades grappled with problems of remoteness and connectivity, and the consequences are now evident in poor infrastructure, a weak financial resource base, poor economic growth, non-remunerative agriculture and poor industrialisation. These, in turn, have fuelled insurgency and ethnic tensions, further pushing the region into underdevelopment.

Sluggish industry

The lack of industrial growth has been a major push factor behind the large-scale migrations. The region failed to attract substantial private investment despite the sops under the North East Industrial Policy (NEIP), first in 1997 for a 10-year period and again in 2007, modified as the North East Industrial and Investment Promotion Policy (NEIPP), for another 10 years. The report of the Task Force on Connectivity and Promotion of Trade & Investment in NE States of the Planning Commission stated that an Impact Evaluation Study done by Tata Economic Consultancy Services found that no large investment had taken place in the region as a result of the NEIP, 1997, and 69 per cent of the units fell in the investment range of up to Rs.1 crore.

The study also found that the total investment in the region was Rs.1,067.28 crore, with Assam accounting for Rs.528.19 crore and Meghalaya for Rs.441.01 crore. Nagaland received a total investment of Rs.19.64 crore, Arunachal Pradesh Rs.39.86 crore, Tripura Rs.31.58 crore and Mizoram a meagre Rs.4 crore. Manipur received only Rs.3 crore over 10 years. Altogether 681 units were assisted, of which 520 were in Assam, under the NEIP.

These units generated 20,709 jobs, of which 12,422 were in Assam and 6,056 in Meghalaya, while the other States got 500 to 600 jobs. As against the total investment of Rs.1,067.28 crore over a period of 10 years from 1997, the incentives disbursed and revenue forgone on account of excise duty exemption and Income Tax exemption would amount to Rs.1,664.76 crore. The incentives included transport, capital, interest and insurance subsidies.

After a mid-term appraisal of NEIPP 2007 by Industries and Commerce Ministers, Parliamentary Secretaries and senior officials of the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, officials of State governments and various industry associations of the region in Guwahati in June 2012, the States in the region urged the Centre to shift the policy thrust from big industries to micro, small, and medium-sized industries to attract more private investments.

Unemployment continues to stalk the region. An estimated 20 lakh job-seekers are registered with the employment exchanges of Assam, and 80 per cent of them are without any professional skills. The situation is no better in the other States.

Dr Amiya Sharma, economist and executive director of the Rashtriya Gramin Vikas Nidhi (RGVN), explained how the demand for security guards generated by high growth elsewhere in the country had opened up a channel of employment, and migration, for young people in the region: Following the wave of liberalisation, many foreign companies set up shop in Bangalore, Hyderabad and other big cities. They were concerned about security and a demand for private security guards arose in 1991 and the subsequent years. Mall and supermarkets also needed security guards. A number of retired Army officers from Assam set up security services in the State and started training young men as security guards.

Young people in the villages were attracted. The ex-Army officers had a pan-Indian outlook because of their long career in the Army and they also had access to employers in Bangalore and other cities. The youngsters trained by them thus landed jobs elsewhere in the country. We notice huge turnouts of young people in Army recruitment rallies in Assam. Those who do not get selected join these training agencies.

Sharma added that in establishments in the services sector such as restaurants, malls, supermarkets and hospitals, people from the north-eastern region were preferred as they were relatively well-dressed and good mannered and were often fluent in English.

The want of adequate institutions for professional and technical education in the north-eastern region prompts students from the region, particularly those from well-off families, to migrate to big cities. Professor M.P. Bezbaruah, who teaches economics at Gauhati University, said young people from the region wanted to pursue their studies in big cities such as Bangalore because these were perceived as offering greater opportunities. He added that improvement in information dissemination also contributed to migration as those already working were able to communicate with and help others to land jobs.

Sharma added that the region should be prepared for a possible reverse migration in another few years for economic reasons. These young people, particularly the security guards and others whose stakes are not very high in the cities where they work, might want to return when they are ready to marry and settle down. The money they earn may not be enough to marry on in those cities, and they might think of their hometowns as a better option where they may be able to use the experience they have acquired.

If such a reverse migration is sought to be prevented, then governments in the region must get into touch with the employers of these young people and negotiate on their behalf for better wages and ensure that they can avail themselves of security schemes such as pension and insurance. They can also consider giving long leave twice a year, such as enjoyed by Army personnel, which they can spend with their families. The governments in the region, particularly in States like Assam, can also raise special police forces by recruiting those security guards who are eventually going to return for economic reasons, to meet the shortage of police personnel.

Bezbaruah felt that a general slowdown in the economy would bring down the migration from the region gradually. He pointed out that many management and engineering colleges in the south and other regions were not getting their seats filled as a result of the economic slowdown.

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