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The Shadow People

By Bhaswati Chakravorty

20 April, 2004
The Telegraph

The president is worried about voter indifference. He has asked the nation to vote for a happy, prosperous and secure India. This presupposes choice, a condition of democracy. But the elections are a mythical event for the lakhs of adivasis, harijans and backward class villagers from western Orissa, who leave their homes for eight months every year to migrate to other states or other parts of Orissa to work as wage labourers. Elections always take place when they are away from home. Even the census records fail to recognize them as migrants: they cannot say where they will go, they cannot always name the place they have been to.

These human beings lack the basic condition of life: they need to eat. After the harvest, they leave in thousands, most often for the brick-kilns of Andhra Pradesh. They are herded together by labour contractors, and organized into little groups of three to five called pathurias. There are other destinations too. Some go to the brick kilns within Orissa, where even without middlemen conditions of work are little better than in Andhra Pradesh. Some become agricultural labourers in the areas irrigated by the Hirakud canal; others go to big cities such as Mumbai, Surat, Varanasi, Raipur, to work in construction, in weaving, in hotels or as rickshaw- and cart-pullers.

Since 1965, their numbers have multiplied. They migrate seasonally from the districts of Koraput, Gajapati, Kalahandi and Bolangir, the greatest numbers leaving from the Junagarh, Bhawanipatna, Dharamgarh and Narla blocks of Kalahandi, and Turekela, Bongomunda, Muribahal, Belpara, Khaprakhole, Saintala, and Titlagarh blocks of Bolangir. The total number has been put at two million. From Bolangir alone, one-and-a-half to two lakh people leave every year. They cannot vote today should they want to.

This is not a new story, nor is it being told for the first time. Migration has increased since it first started around 50 years ago. This increase is a good index of independent India’s progress. It was the harijans who first started to leave; they could get no work once harvest was over. Now some of them have become prosperous labour contractors or sardars themselves. The money involved is enormous. Recently, a sardar’s son, running for the block chairmanship in Belpara, made sure of victory by gifting all panchayat samiti members a Hero Honda bike and one lakh rupees each. It is no wonder that the migrants’ story has continued through the years.

In most of the brick kilns of Andhra Pradesh the rate of payment is Rs 80 for 1,000 bricks made, that is, Rs 20 each for a group of four. The pathurias work for 12 to 15, sometimes 18, hours a day, usually from November to May. The groups are usually able to make 1,000 bricks in one day, although occasionally they may not make more than 500. The minimum wage for daily labour in Orissa, however, is a little more than Rs 50, and in Andhra Pradesh around Rs 70. Once made, 1,000 bricks will be sold at Rs 1,200 or thereabouts.

The owner pays for the tickets to and from the kiln. Full payment is made only when it is time for the migrants to return, and a weekly allowance, sometimes to be deducted from the final payment, is given for food. Even when they are in the market to buy provisions, they are strictly guarded. They must build the hovels they live in — with the bricks they make. So for the first two or three days they live in the open, till the tiny rooms, into which they have to crawl, come up. The owner provides the thatch or polythene for the roof. Water for drinking, and for every other purpose, is the same as that in which the clay for the bricks is soaked. Rice is unaffordable within the limits of the weekly allowance, hence chickenfeed as staple is normal.

There could be a way out of this at least. The public distribution system cards of the migrants could be transferred during their stay away from home. Such a proposal was considered for the first time this year, after the Orissa government acknowledged officially that there is such a phenomenon as migrant labour. Although the Andhra Pradesh government was willing to cooperate, the officials in Orissa sat on the decision till it was too late.

Illness is normal too, and this expense is at first borne by the kiln owner. Very ill people are sent home, but death is a problem. One woman, belonging to the Juba gram panchayat, was promised for a week that she would be taken to see her husband in hospital. She was brought straight home, given money, and told that her husband was dead and his body disposed of. While the migration out occurs over one to two months, the kilns are cleared within eight days when the monsoons come. A large number of deaths occur on the return journey in inhumanly crowded trains, out of suffocation, dehydration and sheer exhaustion. Trying to hide the fact that the man they had been travelling with had turned into a corpse in a general compartment, his wife and brother left his body on the train when they got off. This is obviously not the only case. So far, the railways ministry has ignored repeated pleas from activists to put in a few extra trains at this time. There is never a dearth of extra trains at pilgrimage or festival times.

Like all forms of slavery and bonded labour in history, this is a meticulously worked out system. Central to it is the debt trap. The areas chosen have been denuded of possible livelihoods for the very poor, through a land distribution process bewildering to the tribal population, the acquisition of the best land by rich landlords and big farmers, deforestation and the resultant aridity, and the fencing off of the remaining forests by the government. The old people left behind by their families simply starve. For the poorest landless or marginal farmer, the short spell up to harvest time is the only period that he can eat at home.

The local sardar appears as a blessing. He offers a loan, at a vulnerable time, of anything from Rs 5,000 to 20,000, that will be paid back by labour when the time comes. That is how the cycle begins. The pathurias actually make all the bricks necessary to pay off the loan within a few months of their arrival at the kiln. But at going-home time, the calculation shows a shortfall, which they must pay back next season. They do bring back some money, most of which goes in treating illnesses, or just to eat. It might also work as an incentive — a new loan to tide over a marriage perhaps. Dowry is just a decade-old acquisition among many tribal communities. The cash required may go up to Rs 8,000, and the wedding, in some places, might not take place without a bicycle and a radio.

Why do they keep going? Their first answer is that they have to eat. Besides, there is no way out. The brick kiln owner has his own sardars. These men fix agents at the local levels, from the blocks down to the panchayats. The gram panchayats again have their own informers in and around the vulnerable villages. These men not only identify potential targets for loans, but they also find out if any labourer is trying to escape the cycle. In the worst cases, goons descend on such families, beating up the men and threatening the women with rape.

The present and only law, the Interstate Migrant Workman Act, 1979, formulated with particular attention to western Orissa, applies only to people who cross state boundaries. Movements within the state do not fall within its purview. Its emphasis is on regulation of movement, not on welfare and security. The licence to move, paid by the sardars, and acquired without the danger of any inquiry, is Rs 100 per worker. In effect, the migrants are punished — by the conditions of work, lack of insurance, and deprivation of PDS benefits — for their desperate search for food. And it is almost impossible to apply the law in favour of individuals: there is yet no state machinery to follow up on names and addresses, even if a worker is able to report them. The point is that such a skewed law goes against the fundamental right of the Indian citizen to move freely. But for a law protecting displaced labourers, within and outside the state, the state must first acknowledge that these are human beings.

But some things are changing, if only because of the persistent efforts of social workers and NGOs. They feel that the media, both local and national, have been a great help. The state government has, at last, acknowledged the problem, and has started registering the migrants. Ten thousand have been registered this year in Bolangir. The number may seem ridiculously small, but it will be more difficult now to torture these 10,000 or throw their dead bodies away.

It is a bit of a riddle that a democracy should deny all rights to people who are unable to vote because they need to eat. Perhaps happier circumstances can be created, so that people are not forced to live miserably away from home. The state’s food-for-work programme is still badly timed, beginning only when work on the fields has started. For communities who have no concept of savings, this is useless. Work on government projects in the hard months is never enough. But social workers are still trying. This time in Nagfena, a village in Bolangir, the support from an NGO to start small businesses has held back some 50 migrants.

It is not easy to say who suffer the most, but perhaps it is the children. Schooling is impossible; they travel and work with their parents. They are the fodder for the future. But last year, the state began a residential care centre programme, with more than one hundred centres in which some labourers can leave their children behind for schooling, shelter and food. Each of these houses 20 to 40 children as long as their parents are away, and is run on aid from the district administration and the district primary education programme.

In the RCC at Khalipathar village, miles away from the town, a nine-year-old girl, one among 25 boys and girls at the centre, stood up and sang for her visitors. She wasn’t sure exactly where her parents had gone with her four siblings, but she sang in a full voice to Krishna, asking him to hurry up because Radha was about to go to the Yamuna. A merciless afternoon glared beyond the window, which her head barely reached. In life there are only a few soul-piercing moments. Her song ended only when a fiery wind burst open the wooden doors of the schoolroom. Perhaps even nature cannot bear too much reality.