Why Farmers Flee Home To Live In The Slums Of India's Teeming Cities

05 Apr 2021 16 min read  Share

Hit by cyclical drought, losses and few non-farm labour jobs in Maharashtra’s Marathwada region, people from farm communities stream into India’s big cities in droves each year. Children are cleaved from families, others never make it to school, while migrants work seven-day weeks as casual workers. An extract from 'Landscapes Of Loss: The Story Of An Indian Drought'

Tankers refill from dead storage in Bendsura dam, Beed district. Photographed by the author in the summer of 2019.

Mumbai: Laxmibai Shivaji Jadhav has tough, leathery palms from five years of working on construction sites in Mumbai. She treats the calluses by mostly ignoring them, occasionally willing them away. But they are hard to forget. There is a rough reminder every time she washes her face or mops her brow. Her face reddens where the calluses touch it. ‘Maybe it’s just as well that I can’t pet my little boys every day,’ she says dispiritedly.

Her sons, in Class V and VII, live 575 kilometres away in a private hostel, beyond the reach of her coarse hands. A web of intricate problems has led Laxmibai to live apart from her boys. For five years now, the Jadhavs have lived seven to eight months of a year in a tiny home in suburban Mumbai. Nestled at the bottom of a hill filled with row upon row of semi-pucca shanties, their home in Bhatwadi, Ghatkopar, is so small that Laxmibai and her husband Shivaji must lay their sheets perpendicular to the doorway when preparing to turn in for the night. They stoop to enter, and most of their belongings are stacked outside. Every morning, Shivaji stands at his doorstep, towel wound around his wiry frame, brushing his teeth and spitting in the lane. On winter mornings, there is ash left behind from the little heaps of garbage they burn to stay warm through the night, and Shivaji aims for the ash as he spits.

By 8 a.m., the Jadhavs walk down the lane where other daily wagers gather as they wait to be picked up by labour contractors. The men gather first, bantering in Banjara, their native dialect. The women hurry out later, each one carrying lunch for two, often only bhakri and a chutney, sorghum or millet flatbread with a blend of green chillies, spices and crushed peanuts. Water is refilled into worn-out plastic bottles that once held mineral water. They meet their neighbours at the Bhatwadi junction, people they have known almost all their lives, all of them belonging to a cluster of five or six villages of Mukhed taluka in Nanded district.

The Jadhavs are from Manu Tanda, a hamlet where they own a little less than two acres of stony land atop a hill. Around the village lies a section of the Balaghat range of mountains, impervious and unsympathetic. The Jadhavs and other residents of Manu Tanda depend on wells and river streams for water. Laxmibai does not have a well on her land. About ten years ago, when she began to hear about a rash of new borewells being drilled in the neighbouring Latur district, Shivaji laughed. ‘We’re on top of a hill. Every farming season, when we go back, we have to start by removing stones from our land. Not pebbles, mind you, but large pieces of rock. If you hit my land with a pickaxe, you would likely hit a rock,’ Shivaji says. ‘Nobody digs borewells in Manu Tanda; it would just be silly.’ Tanda is the Marathi word for a hamlet, mostly peopled by members of a single community, often backward or Dalit, and sometimes located just outside a larger village. The Banjaras’ ancestors were originally nomadic, and they are categorized as an Other Backward Class.

Shivaji Jadhav, in his late forties, is nothing like the average migrant living in Mumbai: he’s a graduate, a rare feat for the Banjaras. But like almost all the able-bodied men in his tanda, he is now a casual labourer. And like 50 per cent of the men in his hamlet, he is a Marathwada migrant in Mumbai. Manu Tanda and the villages around it, just like thousands of others in Marathwada, send men and women in droves to Mumbai every year, not all of them construction labourers, though that is the easiest unskilled job to find.

The state government has no definitive data on migration from drought-hit Marathwada, but in Bhatwadi, in the slums of the Kalwa–Mumbra belt, in the slum colonies engulfing the creekside and marshy areas of Mankhurd and Govandi, at construction sites across the Mumbai Metropolitan Region and at various fixed spots where the ‘naka’ workers gather, named so after the traffic junctions or nakas from where they are picked up in trucks and tempos by contractors, there are tens of thousands of those exiled by Marathwada’s drought of opportunity.

In Bhatwadi, not more than 4% or 5% of families have a child living with them. Like the Jadhavs, almost every couple has left behind some or all of their children at home with a grandparent or a relative, or have admitted them to one of the handful of private hostels that mushroomed in the larger villages and taluka towns of the region. The hostels cater to the specific need of Marathwada’s farmers or landless workers who migrate to the big cities for employment, leaving home for a life of even more uncertainty, but determined to provide their children with a measure of stability and an education. Some decide whether to bring a child depending on the amenities they are able to arrange, such as daycare in the form of a neighbour, proximity to a municipal school and secure living quarters.

“If we don’t come to Mumbai, we’ll have to either die of hunger or kill ourselves,” says Kashinath Pawar, one of Bhatwadi’s oldest Banjara refugees from Marathwada.

When Pawar first arrived in Mumbai twenty-five years ago, Bhatwadi was an idyllic hillside in suburban Mumbai, and Bandra Kurla Complex, now a bustling commercial hub, was still a bog. “Farming was always difficult in Abadi Nagar Tanda,” Pawar says of his native village, its name literally translated to mean ‘populous city’. “But in the last ten years, things have become worse there. Because even when there is one decent crop after two failed ones, the produce fails to fetch a decent price.”

He thinks the pricing problem of agro-commodities is linked to the modern marketplace where shortfalls and gluts are no longer limited to a single region that a farmer can study and analyse. “Now you’re seeing even the onion farmers of Nashik taking their own lives. That never happened earlier; they were the somewhat bigger, more successful farmers,” he says without any emotion. As far as he is concerned, there isn’t any hope for his lot, and the annual migration of young men from his village into Mumbai will continue unabated.

Among Bhatwadi’s youngest migrants, Arvind Jadhav says he is nineteen years old, but he looks barely sixteen. He arrived in 2018 from Rampur Tanda in Udgir taluka, Latur. “There were problems at home,” is all he will offer by way of explaining away why he gave up schooling midway. He is living with his sister, Shyamka Rathod, and her husband, who have been in Mumbai for a couple of years. In the nine months that he has been in the financial capital, he has never watched a movie in a cinema hall, nor ever gone to sit by the sea. There’s a ‘Kabaddi Premier League’ underway at a municipal ground right across the Bhatwadi hillock, but he has never attempted to visit. “Where is the time?” he asks. He leaves Bhatwadi with the other Banjara workers around 8.30 a.m., returning by 7 p.m., with just enough time and energy to wash, eat, make a couple of telephone calls back home on his new Jio phone, play with his niece and then head to bed, tired to the bone.


In Salgara Devti village of Osmanabad’s Tuljapur taluka, Savita and Eknath Lomte, both in their late thirties, see each other a few times every year. Eknath works as a casual labourer on contract at a fibre optic manufacturing company in Silvassa, Gujarat. The pay is about Rs 400 per day for an eight-hour shift, all thirty days of the month. Leave comes with a loss of pay, so he takes a month off around every quarter to return to Salgara Devti, help at home, ensure the children’s higher education is on track and to see if Savita needs anything specific.

Three years back, when Savita was unwell with a serious gynaecological problem, she had to seek help from a neighbour. At the time, few in Salgara Devti had a latrine at home, and Savita needed help even to do the daily one-kilometre trek to the brushland that the women used as a toilet. They have a son and a daughter, both in college. About fifteen young men from Salgara Devti are employed as contract labourers in Silvassa, Eknath says.

In nearby Walwad, four to five young men found employment in 2018 in Alandi, a temple town near Pune, about 300 kilometres away. They work in the service and hospitality industry as helpers. In Beed’s Patoda taluka, 80 per cent of Bedarwadi village’s people left home at the height of the 2016 drought, turning it into a ghost village where only very old people lived, including some unable to even fetch water from the tankers. These are only a tiny fraction of the desperate tales of those who leave, and of those left behind. And in each of these villages, residents point to the same frustrating set of circumstances.

Farming is simply not an occupation of choice when the income from it is so unreliable. The cost of cultivation has risen sharply; a bag of seeds, a sack of fertiliser, labour, power, drip irrigation systems, mulching sheets and pump sets have all become more dear, but the prices of agricultural produce have remained depressed. As yield per acre improves, some commodities run into a glut in some years. At other times, local produce competes with imported fare. Those with perishable commodities incur deep losses every time their delicate market mechanism is disrupted.

Right after the Union government demonetized the currency notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 in November 2016, for example, cash-operated markets in mofussil towns simply wound up overnight. In Beed’s Dharur taluka, without state-run cold storage facilities or any resources to afford refrigeration systems themselves, owners of nearly 50,000 milch animals found their home finances further wrecked after the kharif crop failed that year.\

Tiny Book by TARA ANAND @taraanandart on Instagram.

Weeks later, ATMs were still not functioning. Even pensioners, who depend entirely on cash withdrawn from banks, were given a withdrawal ceiling at nationalized banks–there just wasn’t enough cash. With currency notes sucked out of the market, poor farmers with milk or khowa to sell found they had to settle for half or one-third the usual rate if they wanted to be paid in cash. This class of very small farmers depends on daily cash income and were the worst hit, and that too during a drought year when bank loans and shop credit had already dried up. Many from these subsistence-farming communities are now annual migrants to Pune and Mumbai.

Meanwhile, government efforts to industrialize pockets of Marathwada to energize employment generation remain a non- starter. Under the Delhi–Mumbai Industrial Corridor that has been in gestation for a decade now, Aurangabad was to get two commercial nodes, Shendra and Bidkin. They were renamed the Aurangabad Industrial City or AURIC a couple of years ago and projected in official pamphlets as one of the country’s best-planned industrial cities, occupying 10,000 acres and to be equipped with state-of-the-art infrastructure and technology. Work continues, but the proposed employment generation remains on paper.

The 2016–17 plight of the small milk producers of Dharur should have caused an upheaval for Marathwada’s planners. That is because Dharur, a hilly, backward and drought-prone taluka, is seen by many locals as an ideal spot for the dairying business. Home to about 50,000 milch animals, its unorganized milk market is a bi-weekly bazaar held on Mondays and Fridays where purchasers including domestic consumers, small and large restaurants, caterers and others sample and buy fresh milk directly from farmers. On other days of the week, in the absence of cold storage facilities, the milk has to be turned into khowa, made from condensed milk, that is a staple in most Indian sweetmeats.

Milk producers either make the khowa themselves or sell to operators of khowa bhattis, stores where milk is thickened on stove-tops while being stirred continuously until all that’s left is the flaky milk solids, or khowa. Because there is no market on other days of the week, and because neither the milk producers nor most of the khowa units own a refrigerator, the product is kept cool in clay pots hanging from roof beams. Khowa has a longer shelf life than raw milk, but only slightly. On very hot days, it splits, rendering the labour a waste. Khowa prices are seasonal, reaching Rs 170 per kg in the festival season of August– November (2018) and otherwise hovering between Rs 120 and Rs 150 per kg.

When a young aspiring dairy entrepreneur conducted a survey in December 2017, he estimated that Dharur’s daily milk collection was close to 2.6 lakh litres. He also calculated that about 1–1.5 tons of khowa is purchased from Dharur’s weekly markets, which then travels to bigger towns such as Parbhani, Majalgaon, Pathri and even Pune. But the milk business provided only subsistence-level earnings for farmers, and the milk and khowa businesses generated negligible employment.

Dairying is very quickly turning into a go-to solution for agrarian communities struggling with cropping and crop pricing, and Beed would be an obvious hub in Marathwada, with its very large number of livestock. Right through a drought, thousands of families in regions such as Beed subsist on selling milk or khowa. Traders often purchase milk from the occupants of state-sponsored fodder camps, where the free fodder allows livestock owners to make small and life-saving profits through a period of drought. But milk from somewhat remote areas such as Dharur’s villages cannot hope to reach larger markets until the infrastructure comes up, including a purchase network, cold storage and cold transportation facilities, and possibly a nearby dairy.

A 'cattle camp' in Maharashtra photographed by a drone in January 2019, during the drought of 2018-19. Tens of thousands of livestock-owning families spend months at these camps to avail of the free cattle-feed and water. Villagers sometimes spend weeks in cattle camps several dozen kilometres away from their homes/COURTESY MANN DESHI FOUNDATION.

The aspiring dairy industrialist’s first challenge was land: plots in the twenty-five-acre MIDC in Dharur were mostly taken already, even though not a single unit was operational. He could have got a job and moved to Pune or Mumbai but felt keenly that he must do something productive in and for Dharur, something that will bring success to many people. Until December 2019, he had not made much progress. This is despite the fact that any number of experts have pointed to the need to focus policymaking on dairying as an additional income generation avenue and also to generate employment.

The Kelkar Committee Report in 2013 said expressly that complementary businesses such as animal husbandry and milk processing, as well as making available veterinary experts, would greatly help the landless farmers in Marathwada. It also flagged fodder and milk production as areas for likely acceleration of sectoral and regional growth through a ‘Fodder and Livestock Improvement Mission’. The Economic Survey of India for 2018– 19 says as much: ‘Livestock, poultry, dairying and fisheries is a sub-sector of agriculture that provides livelihood to agricultural households during phases of seasonal unemployment.’ In discussing livelihoods, the central government’s Manual for Drought Management notes that dairying and marketing of dairy products should be encouraged. But while India’s dairying industry has grown steadily since the 1960s and 1970s, and the country now accounts for 20 per cent of the world’s milk production, the experience in Marathwada is that there is no booster shot for smallholders in the sector.

With agriculture and agro-based industries both tottering, it is then a fairly straightforward decision, especially for the landless farmers, to leave the village. Vishwanath Todkar of the Jameen Adhikar Aandolan says the opportunities in the cities have also diversified for migrants who have had some education. “A transformation is slowly taking place in Maharashtra’s labour force of migrants. The largest numbers of the unskilled labourers in Maharashtra’s cities are now from other backward states. Among the Dalits from Marathwada who migrate to Mumbai, many now manage to find slightly better occupations, working in shops or as drivers, for example, even though their living conditions in the slums is very poor,” says Todkar.

An activist with the Jameen Adhikar Aandolan for many years, Ashruba Gaikwad of Gojwada village in Osmanabad’s Washi taluka is now a regular visitor to Mumbai, where his son has migrated. Gojwada is one of the hundreds of villages in Marathwada that witnessed the historic occupation of community lands meant for grazing animals in the 1960s and 1970s by landless Dalits.

“The younger generation is much less interested in fighting for a small parcel of land that mostly yields losses,” Ashruba says of the continuing struggle for land titles in Gojwada. His son and others from there live in the Govandi– Mankhurd slum belt of suburban Mumbai.

“Some of us have jobs at a store or a mall. Some have set up small enterprises, as contractors for electrical fittings or small civil works, or trading in something including agriculture produce,” says a young migrant from Gojwada. The youngster is not averse to farming, he says. “But nobody is paying attention to the systems that need to be set right for small farmers to begin earning a decent living in Marathwada. Those circumstances must change first if the next generation is to take up farming.”


The Jadhavs of Manu Tanda, Mukhed, survived years of the same debilitating circumstances before they began their annual migration to Mumbai, where they live seven to eight months of the year, returning home to till their small patch for a few quintals of jowar that they then stock up for the family’s use through the year. Their annual travel is mirrored by that of thousands of others who were born and have homesteads and families around the tourism and manufacturing hub of Aurangabad, but still travel nearly 500 kilometres to Mumbai or Pune to scrape together a subsistence lifestyle.

For the first time in their five years of living in Mumbai, Laxmibai brought her sons with her for the 2018 Diwali holiday – and regretted it right away. “We were away at work all day, and the kids were just at home alone with nothing to do.” The boys still actually liked Mumbai, or whatever part of Ghatkopar they were able to explore themselves, catching a glimpse of the Versova–Andheri–Ghatkopar Metro Rail and the crowds at Ghatkopar railway station. Laxmibai and Shivaji managed to find time on four or five evenings during the boys’ month-long holiday, and they visited a few streetside markets with them. But Laxmibai was relieved when it was time to send them back to hostel. In their five years in the city, the Jadhavs too have never visited a movie hall or a restaurant. They were never rich, but they had pride in their land back home. Laxmibai describes her home in Manu Tanda with moist eyes: it is in an uneven row of simple brick and cement homes with thatched roofs, but with wide-open spaces between homes.

Hanging on the arm of Bhatwadi newcomer Arvind is his niece Anita, all of four years, wearing a frock too long for her and a mischievous glint in her eye. Reluctantly, the family admits she has not yet gone to school. Her mother Shyamka, who gives her age as twenty-three, has an older son aged six, who is being looked after by a grandparent back home. Anita is still too young, says Shyamka, picking up her barefoot daughter. The girl lost her slippers several weeks ago at a construction site.

Neighbours laugh as somebody passes around a mobile phone with photographs of the girl. In them, a grinning Anita is covered from head to toe in a thick layer of cement. “Maybe she should be in school; it’s not always possible to keep an eye on her while I’m working,” says the young mother. “But who will drop her to school and bring her back and look after her during the day until I get back?”

Every Banjara home in Bhatwadi empties out in the morning, Monday through Sunday, everybody ready to work on public holidays, weekends and festivals too, if work is available. The few who have children at home simply must take them along to the site of their work for the day. Ironically, the lane where the labourers gather in the mornings before they are picked up by contractors leads to the Barve Nagar municipal school. Only a couple of years older than Anita, a row of children is herded in by teachers, plastic water bottles around their necks and weighed down by their satchels, all sleepy or glum, or both. Anita has no idea where they all march to every morning.

The problem of out-of-school children is rampant across Marathwada. The largescale seasonal migration, whether to Mumbai for casual labour or to sugarcane fields in Western Maharashtra or Karnataka, keeps thousands of children away from school for several months at a stretch, after a few years of which many just drop out. In 2009, alongside the enactment of the Right to Education law, mandating school education for all children, activists who work with migrant sugarcane harvest labourers prevailed upon the Maharashtra government to study the problems of these families’ children. Consequently, in 2010, the Maharashtra government announced its intention to keep children of migrant agricultural labourers in school even when their parents migrate, and introduced the idea of seasonal residential hostels for such students. These were to be called the hungami vastigruha, or seasonal hostels, where children could not only attend classes but also reside for a period of six months in the year, with the state sponsoring the children’s food and essential supplies through an appointed caretaker and cook.

These quickly ran into trouble – security standards, especially for girl students, the quality of food and the inevitable problem of corrupt contractors. Sudhakar Kshirsagar of Sankalp Manav Vikas Sanstha, an organization based in the drought-hit Pathri taluka of Parbhani district, says the seasonal hostels were a good experiment, even if their impact is yet to be scientifically assessed. But with farm labourers travelling farther and farther, and others like the Mukhed residents being away for almost three quarters of the year, the government should consider extending the facility year-long, turning these into permanent hostels for the children of families suffering on account of distress migration.

Kshirsagar’s organization also conducted a study of sixteen existing seasonal hostels in 2014 and found lacunae ranging from the absence of security guards to lack of specific facilities for girls.

In any case, the Banjaras of Mukhed have never heard of these seasonal hostels. There are probably not enough of them, they say, and perhaps none in areas lacking a politically powerful class. The Jadhavs spend Rs 25,000 per year per child to keep their sons in a private hostel, almost one fifth of their annual income. Those with marginally better means admit their children to hostels in Mukhed city, a tier III town about twenty kilometres from their village. Babu Jadhav, the sole Banjara in Bhatwadi to have purchased his own home in Mumbai after nearly fifteen years here, is one of them.

When he first arrived, he pitched a tent in the Barve Nagar municipal ground where the kabaddi tournament is now held. He lived there for the first two years, right alongside a large open drain, the odours wafting from it and his threadbare mattress constantly reminding him that he needed to move up the food chain. Having started as a labourer, Babu now takes on minor civil contracts for constructing or paving gullies in slums, public toilet blocks, repairing drain walls, and so on. He owns a smartphone and a motorcycle.

Youngsters like Arvind call him from home before they arrive in Mumbai, enquiring if they are likely to find work. Of course, there is work, he tells everyone. There is plenty for everyone in Mumbai. He himself manages to employ ten to fifteen casual labourers on most days, paying them the standard industry wages – Rs 500 per day per skilled or experienced male labourer, less if the worker is a fresher or completely unskilled, Rs 250 or Rs 300 for women, and Rs 700 on average for a couple.

“Nobody here likes the work we do or the way we live in Mumbai. It’s long hours of back-breaking work in the heat and dust; there are no benefits like holidays or festival bonuses. But at the same time, not a single person has ever returned home because they’re unwilling to work here,” he says.

Towards the latter half of 2019, a few more youngsters from Mukhed arrived in Mumbai, bearing the familiar stories of repeated cycles of crop loss, bad credit, private credit and despair. He says, increasingly, the migrating workers are younger nowadays when they arrive, most of them just about eighteen. Some have completed Class X or XII and try to look for other work in place of hard labour. But for all, Babu says, even the squalor of makeshift shanties along fetid suburban Mumbai drains holds some value if it comes with a few thousand rupees sent home or saved each year.

Less than two years back, Babu purchased a small home in a row of squat chawl structures in Bhatwadi. He doesn’t like calling himself a success story but admits that he learnt the ways of Mumbai and found his own little toehold. He is evidence of the possibility of returns from migration improving slowly, over time.

Excerpted with permission from Landscapes Of Loss:The Story Of An Indian Drought (HarperCollins).

(Kavitha Iyer is a Mumbai-based journalist. Landscapes Of Loss is her first book.)