By Bidisha Sinha
Perched in the remote areas of Koyna backwaters and the buffer zone of Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary are a few villages which have been following a strange pattern of life for sixty years now. Being one of the highest rainfall receiving areas of Maharashtra, water scarcity is not a problem that bothers the farmers here. Yet, huge numbers of young people migrate each year to faraway cities for work and livelihood, only to come back in their ripe years to pursue agriculture. This blog post traces the path of this migration right from when it triggered to the present day scenario and reflects on its impacts on the surrounding environment and the local social fabric.
As the boat ferried us across the Koyna River and touched the other side of Tapola, the last bar indicating our mobile network connectivity was lost and not be found for the next four days. Around us was nature that seemed almost ancient, with plush green foliage that is characteristic to West Satara, one of the highest rainfall receiving districts of Maharashtra. The Koyna flowed to our left, accompanying us throughout the ride. Dusty and reddened with the red lateritic soil of the road, we reached Saloshi village at sundown.
As we waited for our host, the ex-Sarpanch of the village, we began wandering around. The first thing to capture our attention was that most of the houses were huge and made of stone (a primary requirement in high erosion areas like this), with dish antennas projecting out of their roofs. We felt the inquisitive glances following us everywhere. They belonged to very old villagers and, in some cases, children. What kept us perplexed – there was hardly any young population to be seen around us. Even if we assumed that it was pre-monsoon season and men-folk were in the field, what we could not explain definitely was the absence of young women.
The truth dawned upon us that night.
In a meeting held with the villagers, a man who looked like a sexagenarian, remarked, “Young men migrate to Bambai (the colloquial way of calling Mumbai, erstwhile Bombay), earn and send us money. Then, when they grow old, they come back and begin working in their ancestor’s fields. That’s how it has always been.”
“Always!” we exclaimed. “Can you give us a time, when this started?”
“… About 60 years back. Our fathers’ was the first generation that started off migrating”, replied the man.
“What happened sixty years ago?” asked one of our interviewers. The answer was a silence…the old minds today trying to unearth their childhood memories. As we juggled with questions about various parts of their lives, a story began to take shape.
Before moving into the story, a short delineation of the topography and the history of the area might prove helpful for the readers. The villages, Saloshi and Aarav located in Mahabaleshwar taluka, are located in the backwater area of the Koyna Hydroelectric power Project (KHEP). With annual precipitation of about 6000 mm, an adjacent river and numerous mountain springs, the possibility of water scarcity at any time of the year is ruled out. The rich biodiversity of the forest percolates into the lifestyle of the villagers with high dependence on flora for food, medicines and other household needs. The human-animal conflicts in the form of destruction of crops and some corporal damages to the livestock are commonplace. The soil in these areas has high leeching properties and cannot hold much water, restricting agriculture to monsoon months only.
The “story” starts with the rehabilitation for the land acquirement for Koyna dam which began in the late fifties and culminated with the declaration of the Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary in 1985. One or both of these have crafted the present scenario of the villages. Aarav is a village that was previously in a land that lies submerged in the backwaters now. The present Aarav is a coming together of rehabilitated people from many villages. While Aarav and villages surrounding Saloshi fall in the buffer zone of the Koyna Wild Life Sanctuary, Saloshi has been left out owing to political and administrative flaws. This has resulted in Saloshi losing out many opportunities (getting subsidized LPG connections, eco-tourism activities, etc.) that a village in buffer-zone generally enjoys, also losing rights to Minor Forest Produces (MFPs) from nearby land which falls in the buffer-zone.
Additionally, we learnt that initially people from both the villages were given land in various parts of Thane. However, owing to a disagreement with the new climate, dietary differences and eventual conflict with the local “Aagri” people, many returned to Satara and settled in the present villages. These villages have been historically dependent on agriculture and wild-flora before the opening up of the Hydroelectric Project.
The KHEP, which is about 50 km from the villages, did not generate much economic opportunities when it opened, owing to poor commute between the Project site and the villages. However, the minimal transport that opened up during this time led the villagers to look for economic opportunities in cities like Pune and Mumbai, where the work was in abundance and the wages, relatively higher. It was comparatively easy for them to get jobs here because of the short stay that many families had in Thane. With many former neighbours staying back in Thane, the village network grew slowly and the young men found jobs easily.
As mentioned earlier, due to poor soil quality, the productivity of the land was low. The Hydroelectric project acted as a trigger to a huge migration culture. With passing time and generations of migration, today, the village network has become robust and it is very easy for the young lot to find work in these cities and also in cities like Ahmedabad and Diu.
Such stories of displacement and migration are common and have been explored several times. However, what is interesting about this particular case is what follows. Migration has become a tradition. Almost all households have young members working in large cities where they find work as skilled (drivers, masons, etc.) and unskilled labourers. They generally move out with their wives and children, but remain connected to their extended families back home and send them substantial remittances. The remittances are enough to equip their village homes with the trappings of prosperity such as TV sets, dish antennas, phones (BSNL landlines), and well- constructed double storied huts with glass shutters, etc. The older generations, who had migrated once, have re-migrated back to their villages and primarily live on the remittances sent in by the younger generations, with agriculture serving almost like a pensioner’s activity, solely done to suffice the grain requirement of the household for the coming year. This cycle of migration and re-migration has been occurring for three generations now and has acted like a stumbling block towards improvement of agricultural practices.
Despite the bountiful rains, the farmers in these villages sow a single crop. When asked, why did they not try doing a second cropping and sell, they stated “Market is too far, which is also unreachable during the monsoons on account of landslides.”
Upon observation, we found that the kind of agriculture that these villages practice is not very technically updated. They practice mono-cropping with indigenous seeds; techniques of Slash and Burn (‘Jhoom/Rab’ cultivation) are still followed.
Even with such high rainfall, they have only one harvest per year. Understandably, the soil has high leeching properties but that does not explain why there has been little effort for adopting new technology or crops requiring less water for their cultivation. The villagers pointed out that while money is not the problem, any significant improvement requires young labourers which have been significantly missing in their villages. Owing to their remoteness, little effort has been taken by Government or other organisations to create training programs for this area. Only recently, some eco-tourism activities have been initiated in Aarav.
Leaving aside the usage of improvised techniques, the communities also faced considerable losses on account of animal attacks. Nilgai attacks are said to destroy 70 % of the produce annually and obtaining compensations for this is a tedious process. For Saloshi specially, these compensations are ruled out simply because it isn’t registered as a village in the buffer-zone.
The question that was hanging in front of us was a classic one – what comes first, the egg or the hen? Was poor agriculture the cause of migration or was migration the cause of poor agriculture? This, however, can be classified as a case of self-augmenting cycle. Herein, although migration was triggered due to the absence of agricultural knowledge and/ or infrastructure and an external pull factor, the absence of a young interested working class coupled with a huge remittance from younger migrated population removes any impetus for bettering agricultural techniques. Also the remoteness, absence of markets and simply not needing anything beyond consumption, has gradually stunted the need for improving agriculture and thus, completes the circle by resulting into more migration.
The ex-Sarpanch’s daughter-in-law who stays with her husband in Diu and who had come to Saloshi for a family function with her two sons quoted “How can I stay here if my children do not receive proper education? The Anganwadis do not function properly. No teacher wants to stay in such a remote place.”
When I replied, “Why don’t the villagers submit a petition?”
She replied, “For that one needs to go to the taluka headquarters in Mahabaleshwar. That is a two day to and fro journey altogether. Besides, who will go for that? There is hardly any able-bodied person in this village.”
In this light, the pattern of migration and re-migration is the definite issue of worry and only an external policy impetus can break it. With the huge remittances in hand, there has to be a major positive economic shock in the form of agricultural schools and subsidies to break the cycle. Given the rich bio-diversity that already exists and is very much a part of the villager’s lifestyle, every policy must be critically evaluated so as not to destroy it with rapid development activities.
But what stands as a major introspective topic is what if the cycle breaks in a way that the newer migratory generations never come back to the villages and they gradually stagnate into villages of the old.