Understanding Reverse Worker Migration during the Covid-19 Lockdown in India and the Green Revolution

Source: Sumita Roy Dutta CC BY-SA

By Vipul Singh
Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Delhi

The Covid-19 pandemic has posed a grave challenge, with countries around the world struggling to control its spread. The easiest and most viable solution to reducing the rate of infection has been to impose a total lockdown. India is no exception. Here, too, the government announced a complete lockdown understanding the indispensability of taking such a step. The country was already struggling to recover from an economic slowdown, with the lockdown dealing a further blow, but central and state governments were left with hardly any other options. The rules of lockdown have been wholeheartedly followed by the urban middle class. Social distancing has become the buzzword for facing up to the novel virus contagion. The educated middle class has been upbeat in supporting state regulations. They have been proudly sharing photographs of working from home on social media. Yet significant amounts of industrial workers and daily wage earners in densely populated cities have reacted differently. They depended on their daily earnings, which have come to a complete halt as a result of the lockdown. The affluent and middle classes have stopped allowing them entry into their houses and apartments because of the notion they live in unhygienic conditions. And, indeed, they live in difficult conditions in shanties with the bare minimum of facilities.

Although the government devised relief packages and started up soup kitchens at different locations, these were just not enough to support all those who had lost their incomes. Poor working people were not happy with the measures adopted for expedience—they had been hit hard by social and physical distancing. Within a few days of the announcement of a lockdown, many workers finished off whatever little was left to eat in their shanties. When they went out looking for foodstuff, they were beaten up by the police for breaking the lockdown rules. As the state tried to discipline them with a set of behavioral rules and conditions, workers passively resisted and decided to go back to their villages.

The decision to migrate was deliberate; it was a way to survive the difficulties brought about by the pandemic. In an atmosphere of uncertainty, these poor workers and daily wage earners were desperate to return to their far-off villages even if it required walking hundreds of kilometers. Some of those migrating also shared the concern that the government was transferring cash relief to their home bank account branches (through Jan-dhan Yojna), which were actually located in their home villages. Many of the workers returning to their villages were bachelors, but a large number were migrating with their families, including small children. They carried bags and any other small belongings that they could manage to bundle together in a short amount of time, carrying them as they walked. All government efforts in the first few weeks failed to stop their migration, and ultimately it had to run special “Shramik trains” to carry the workers back to their villages.

Singh_V_Migrant Workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.2011 (1)
Number of migrants that moved to Delhi and Maharashtra from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, according to the Census of India, 2011

The Green Revolution
India represents a unique example of large-scale human displacement as a result of the pandemic. If we look at data from the India Observatory, most of the workers returning to their villages during the lockdown were returning to Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. As per the Census of India 2001, the total number of migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar is 2.6 and 1.7 million, respectively. Figures from the Economic Survey of 2017 for total rural to urban migration are between 5 and 9 million annually, with almost half of these migrants belonging to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar [1]. These two states have the largest number of net migrants migrating out of the state. The latest estimate of reverse migration is alarming with 23, 60,000 and 17, 48,000 workers belonging to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar respectively [2]. These migrants worked in and around big cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Surat as daily wagers, masons, rickshaw pullers, and street vendors and were those most heavily impacted by measures introduced during the lockdown.

Singh_V_Total Number of Migrants (1)
Source: Census of India, 2001. Graphics by Yug J. Singh
Singh_V_Total Number of Reverse Migration Migrants2
Source: The Indian Express, New Delhi. Graphics by Yug J. Singh

At the core of their reverse migration story during the pandemic lies the Green Revolution (GR), which is associated with a huge increase in agricultural production with the introduction of a new hybrid variety of seeds. In 1946, during World War II, an agronomist with the US army noticed a dwarf variety of wheat being grown in Japan, known as Norin-10. He imported it into the US. In 1953, the US government funded Norman Borlaug to conduct further research into Norin-10, resulting in the successful development of semi-dwarf, high-yielding varieties of wheat. Traditional wheat varieties used to be tall and bend down when grown in highly fertile soil. A shorter height meant that grain-laden crops would not be toppled down with the weight, resulting in more grain per acre of land. In 1970, Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his invention of “miracle seeds” and the creation of “a new world situation with regard to nutrition.”

The socialist revolution was at its prime in 1960. At that time, the US was looking for a strategy that would “blunt the appeal of socialist revolution.”[3] It used Borlaug’s hybrid variety of seed as a strategy for this purpose, creating peace through the creation of an abundance of grains. This policy came to be known as the Green Revolution. In countries like India, where ideas of land reform were becoming popular as a solution to broad-scale poverty, the Green Revolution provided respite to the urgent need for land reform. Historian John McNeill argues that it was an alternative to the socialist idea of the redistribution of land, which required huge financial investment by the state.

The leading agricultural scientist of India, M.S. Swaminathan, was quick to suggest to the government that the new hybrid variety of wheat could solve the immediate problem of a shortage of grains. It was also seen as a means to achieve rapid industrial growth. More efficient agriculture would assist in the development of capital for industrialization, allowing the additional workforce created through increased efficiency to leave the land to work in factories. India, therefore, seized the opportunity to use hybrid seeds, which were being exported from the US during the 1970s. As a result, record grain output of 131 million tonnes was achieved between 1978 and 1979, making India self-sufficient in food grains. Due to the sizable increase in returns from the land, the income of farmers owning cultivable land increased, which was now at their disposal to spend on tractors and thrashers. The increased prosperity of farming families stimulated the rural non-farming economy, thus adding to the overall growth of the country’s GDP. Per capita incomes also increased tremendously.

However, the Green Revolution also created a huge divide between big landowners and small landowners, or the landless. The owners of large farms were the main adopters of the new hybrid varieties. They were the major beneficiary because of their better access to irrigation water, fertilizers, seeds, and credit. By contrast, small farmers remained untouched by the benefits of the Green Revolution. They were badly impacted because it resulted in overall lower product prices and higher input prices. The landless farmers used to rent land from rich landlords for their survival. After the introduction of hybrid seeds, landlords increased the rent of the land. Critics also argue that the Green Revolution encouraged unnecessary mechanization, thereby pushing down rural wages and employment. Vandana Shiva has rightly pointed out the paradox that after two decades of the Green Revolution, the Punjab is neither a land of prosperity nor peace [4]. She says that instead of peace, the Green Revolution brought conflict and violence to the Punjab. This happened because it created a disparity among landowning and landless communities.

Escaping the Green Revolution
Ironically, the regions of Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh currently witnessing reverse migration did not experience the fruits of the Green Revolution until very late. One of the prime reasons for this was that canal and private tube well irrigation, which played a key role in the Green Revolution in Western India, especially in the Punjab, remained absent here. While canal irrigation remained neglected, the use of private tube wells could not increase, as it required huge investment. Interestingly, Alfred Deakin, the Australian Commissioner of Public Works, who visited India to understand the irrigation system in 1891, did not draw in his map of the canal network any canals in Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. This was because the British government realized that the region already had a web of rivers, and so it did not require canal irrigation. As it turned out, in the latter half of the twentieth century, economies of scale could not be realized through the fragmented and small-scale farmlands of Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh, and so private tube wells were not considered to be realistically feasible.

Singh_V_Network of canals as shown by Alfred Deakins-edited (1)
Map of Indian canals in 1891 drawn by Alfred Deakin, Australian Commissioner of Public Works, who visited India to understand the irrigation system [5]

While the new hybrid variety of rice was quite resistant to summer heat, it needed very frequent watering. Ostensibly, Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh, being part of the huge mid-Ganga plain fed with many rivers coming down from the Himalayas and meeting the mighty Ganga, could have been the cradle of hybrid rice cultivation. However, the network of rivers posed a challenge because of annual floods, especially the Kosi, also known as the “sorrow of Bihar.” The farmers here had to depend on monsoon rains, which also failed every four to five years.

Singh_V_Flood Prone Area of Bihar (1)
Flood Prone Area of Bihar [6]

While big landholding families were able to introduce hybrid seeds because they could afford tube wells, tractors, pesticides, and fertilizers, small landholder families continued to depend on traditional crop varieties that did not require frequent irrigation [7]. Naturally, these crops did not supply them with enough yield, and it was difficult for an entire family to survive on the grain produced. During the eighties, the growing trend among the young, rural, landless workers was to move to cities like Patna and Varanasi for work. This trend increased to include migration to more distant cities during the nineties. After the adoption of liberalization policies by the central government, many industries developed with the support of foreign direct investment, which gave a much-needed boost to the dwindling economy. However, the pitfall was that these industries mostly developed in Delhi, Gurgaon, Noida, Pune, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Mumbai. Remote regions of Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh remained bereft of industrial development, thereby forcing poor, landless workers from small landholding families to migrate to the industrial cities for work.

The ever-growing number of migrant workers was also coincident with the rise in long-distance trains connecting Patna and Mughalsarai to big cities, which occurred because most of the time the Railway Minister in the central cabinet came from Bihar, as for example did Ramvilas Paswan, Lalu Prasad Yadav, and Nitish Kumar. These ministers used their tenure as an opportunity to provide easy transportation to their voters. It was an easy solution to the regressive economy of the state, as a large amount of money was sent by these workers back to their families, keeping the rural economy moving. However, in the long run, it proved to be a retrograde step, as it made the state’s economy parasitical on development in other regions.

Now that the coronavirus pandemic has led to reverse migration to areas previously suffering from a lack of economic development, it is the right time for the government to promote setting up industries in these undeveloped areas. Sai Balakrishnan has rightly observed that it is largely within the arc of the Green Revolution that we also witness clusters of Special Economic Zones [8]. It is high time for India to work on its macro economies for inclusive growth. The solution lies in creating employment opportunities in regional areas to reduce the immense population pressure facing big cities such as Delhi, Pune, and Mumbai, a problem that becomes glaringly obvious when sudden calamities such as the coronavirus pandemic occur.

[1] “Economic Survey (2017–18),” Ministry of Finance, Government of India, 1 June 2020,

[2] “67 Lakh Migrants Return to 116 Districts in 6 States,” The Indian Express, New Delhi, 11 June 2020.

[3] J. R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000).

[4] Vandana Shiva, The Violence of Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Ecology and Politics (London: Zed Books, 1991).

[5] Alfred Deakin, Irrigated India: An Australian View of India and Ceylone, Their Irrigation and Agriculture (London: W. Thacker and Co., 1893).

[6] Vipul Singh, Speaking Rivers: Environmental History of a Mid-Ganga Flood Country (Delhi: Primus Books, 2018), 107.

[7] Yuko Tsjita, “How Agriculture in Bihar Lagged Behind,” in Yuko Tsjita, ed., Inclusive Growth and Development in India (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014): 40–73.

[8] Sai Balakrishnan, “India’s Brutally Uneven Development Patterns are Mapped in Routes Migrant Workers are Taking Home,” Scroll.in, 26 May 2020.

Further Reading

Agrawal, Arun, and K. Sivaramakrishnan, “Introduction: Agrarian Environments,” in Arun Agrawal & K. Sivaramakrishnan, eds. Agrarian Environments: Resources, Representations, and Rule in India, 1–22. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.

Ahlberg, Kristin L. ““Machiavelli with a Heart”: The Johnson Administration’s Food for Peace Program in India, 1965–1966.” Diplomatic History 31.4 (2007): 665–701.

Brown, Lester R. Seeds of Change: The Green Revolution and Development in the 1970s. New York: Praeger, 1970.

Cullather, Nick. The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle Against Poverty in Asia. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010.

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