The nationwide lockdown imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic had a devastating impact on livelihoods. Among the worst affected were workers from Bihar employed in distant industrial centres like Surat, Ludhiana, Amritsar, Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Delhi. As factories shut down because of the lockdown, these migrant workers returned home. But a Bihar IAS officer gave at least 50 migrant workers new hope to fight back.
Bihar IAS officer Kundan Kumar
Kundan Kumar, a 2012-batch IAS officer of the Bihar cadre who took charge as district magistrate of West Champaran only a month before the lockdown, had his work cut out.
His administration would receive these workers, conduct health checks and put them in quarantine camps for 14 days, as per guidelines issued by the Bihar government.
According to the district administration, which has its headquarters in the city of Bettiah, approximately 80,000 workers returned home following the announcement of the nationwide lockdown.
These workers were put into a series of quarantine camps propped up by the local administration.
“Before visiting these camps, the impression I had was that they were all simple labourers. But upon meeting them, I realised that many of these returnees were highly skilled workers with a good understanding of the latest technology in their chosen trade. These returnees knew all the verticals in the production chain and understood the market linkages associated with their respective trades. They were once the backbone of their respective industries in places like Surat, Ludhiana, Amritsar, Ahmedabad and Delhi, but had decided to come back home during the lockdown,” Kundan Kumar tells The Better India.
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What made the Bihar IAS officer help the migrant labourers?
What transpired from these meetings with migrant workers was a grand vision, which addressed two key questions.
Why not help the returning workers who specialise in trades like apparel wear, footwear, stainless steel or cricket bat making, find work in their home district? Since these workers were experienced hands in their respective trades, why not help them establish their own factories or plants here?
The Startup Zone
Nearly 10 months since he asked himself these questions, District Magistrate (DM) Kundan Kumar has established a “Startup Zone” in the town of Chanpatia, where 49 newly-minted entrepreneurs ply their trade today. These factory owners, who were once workers, are now employing fellow residents from the district.
From the despair of losing their livelihood, people from this remote corner of Bihar bordering Nepal, have rediscovered their dignity.
Before the returnee workers could leave the quarantine camps for home, the district administration sent all its officers to conduct a skill-mapping exercise for everyone there.
“We soon had a database of which migrant workers specialised in what trade. This was followed by the formation of these Udyami Mitra Mandals comprising 8 to 10 energetic returnees. Say, in a quarantine camp, there are 200 people. These returnees/Udyamis became points of contact for the entire camp, making it easier for us to keep in touch with them. Finally, the district administration proposed to them that they would help them establish their own industry here, giving them the option of working in their home district. They expressed a genuine desire to work here,” recalls Kundan.
Since these returnees understood the nitty-gritty of their respective industries, the administration asked members of Udyami Mitra Mandals to come up with detailed plans of how they will set up industry here, alongside the contact details of their previous employers, and the process of shipping the necessary manufacturing equipment there. Discussions between the administration and the returnees began sometime in July 2020.
What the returnees have to say?
“When the lockdown was announced, I had returned from Ludhiana. I used to run a small factory there that did fabrication work for big apparel brands. When the lockdown was announced, my factory ran out of business and the karigars (craftsmen) that I had employed went back to their respective homes. It was a difficult time and I had no idea what to do next except come back home to Bettiah. One day, however, I read a newspaper article talking about DM Kundan Kumar’s initiative for returning migrant workers like me. After reading the article, I sent a tweet to DM Sir explaining my situation and expressed my desire to set up a factory and work here,” says Shoaib Tahir, a Udyami.
Shoaib goes on to recall how Kundan established contact over the phone. After returning home and fulfilling the quarantine requirements, he attended a meeting of Udyamis organised by the district administration.
“I have been in the apparel business for over 20 years now. At the meeting, we told DM Sir and other officials from the district administration about our respective trades — how we source raw material, what machinery was required and where our products would sell. We were asked whether any problems would arise in running a similar enterprise here. Our response was that we would face some problems initially, but it was nothing we couldn’t overcome,” says Shoaib.
“We roped in funds from schemes like the Prime Minister’s Employment Generation Programme (PMEGP), but this endeavour predominantly came under the umbrella of the Bihar government’s Zila Audyogik Navpravartan Yojana, a district industrial innovation scheme for returnees. A lot of financial support also came from public sector banks. On average, each entrepreneur received a capital of Rs 25 lakh,” claims Kundan.