Reluctant migrants

Published : Sep 10, 2010 00:00 IST

TULSIRAM AND MENKA Meher of Sankenduguda village in Kalahandi district with their granddaughter. The average employment in their village under the NREGS is for 15 days a year.-MAHIM PRATAP SINGH

TULSIRAM AND MENKA Meher of Sankenduguda village in Kalahandi district with their granddaughter. The average employment in their village under the NREGS is for 15 days a year.-MAHIM PRATAP SINGH

Bolangir district in Orissa, facing drought conditions since 1965, sees an annual mass migration of farmers to other States in search of work.

SURESH GOHIR of Bhotapada village in the backward Bolangir district of Orissa consumed pesticide two years ago after his paddy crop failed. He survived the suicide attempt but found life doubly difficult as debt had mounted. Suresh was forced to migrate to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh in search of work.

This life is worse than death, he says. But there is a debt to repay, and so I have to find work.

This is not an isolated case in Bhotapada. According to local people, about 60 of its 300 families have left the village to find work at the brick kilns of Andhra Pradesh. Although the neighbouring State is the first choice, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Chhattisgarh are also destinations for these small farmers and farm hands in distress.

A combination of erratic monsoons and unstable livelihoods has made farmers of the region adopt migration as a survival strategy. However, this phenomenon is not new to drought-prone Bolangir district; it has only assumed serious proportions. Informed sources in the region trace the history of the mass movement of farmers to the prolonged drought of 1965. It crystallised into a permanent feature by 1985.

Distress migration has fuelled a parallel economy in the region with a market where labour is traded as a commodity through a strong network of labour agents known as sardars. Its cruel economics begins operation every year with Nuakhai, an agricultural festival celebrated in western Orissa which coincides with the rice harvest in August-September. At that time farmers are financially vulnerable and seek money to celebrate the festival.

This social compulsion is exploited by labour agents who offer advance payments in return for a long and exploitative stint of labour at the brick kilns. The migration occurs in groups of four or five people, called patharia. More often than not, members of one family form a patharia. Often, adolescents who cannot form a group on their own join one of the patharias.

Each group is paid between Rs.20,000 and 25,000 as an advance by the sardars. The group has to work for a period of over six months at the kilns. The labour agent gets a 10 per cent cut from this advance. The advance payment effectively converts the workers into bonded labourers as they cannot return to their villages unless they have worked enough against the payment they have received.

At the work site, the labourers receive about Rs.300-500 a week towards food, which can be denied if they fail to meet their targets. A patharia is expected to make up to two lakh bricks [starting from October-November and ending in May-June]. The weekly target for each of us is over 10,000 bricks, says Brunda Behra of Larki village, lighting a beedi. If we fail, we are denied our weekly food allowance, reprimanded, humiliated or even tortured physically, he says.

There appears to be a huge mismatch between the figures provided by official and unofficial sources. Activists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working with migrant labourers put the number of people migrating every season at around two lakhs. However, the official figures are much lower. According to information provided by the labour office in Bolangir, the number of registered migrant labourers stood at 10,965 for 2006; 20,701 for 2007; 10,503 for 2008; and 4,965 for 2009. The sharp decline in the 2009 figures was attributed to the global recession. Real estate activities went down because of the meltdown and so, in 2009, the demand for bricks was lower, said P.K. Bhoi, the District Labour Officer (DLO).

This could also be the reason for the delayed migration of labourers last year. While the migration usually occurs around October, this time it peaked around January.

According to the DLO, there are 70 licensed labour agents who can be tracked by the office. However, he said, the real problem was illegal migration, which accounted for most of the inter-State labour movement. This was fuelled by the large number of illegal brick kilns operating around Hyderabad, he said.

Most of the labourers go with unregistered sardars or with their relatives who are already working in Hyderabad, said Bhoi. A shortage of staff has affected the labour office's efforts to keep a tab on the number of migrants. The labour office has been unable to post enough personnel at major exit points such as Turikela, Bongamonda, Kantabanji and Titilagarh.

Our approach at the moment is curative, while the measures that are actually needed are preventive. Implementation of the NREGS [National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme] would be the correct step in the prevention [of the agrarian crisis], the DLO said. After journalist P. Sainath's [Rural Affairs Editor of The Hindu] visits, the district administration has become more sensitive and proactive [to the issues that affect the small farmers in distress] than before, he added.

The worst sufferers of this seasonal debt migration are women and children. Education of the children is a casualty in the migration process. Moreover, the children are forced into labour and are vulnerable to violation of their rights. Apart from economic exploitation, the migrant women face sexual exploitation.

Women are often abused by contractors and even brick kiln owners, says Venkateshwar, an activist working with migrant labourers in Hyderabad. The problem is that the contractor divides family members and sends them away to work in different locations, which makes women vulnerable to harassment. Informed sources in Hyderabad also listed the near absence of medical care and clean drinking water among other problems the migrant population faced.

Failure of the NREGS

We used to work from 4 a.m. until 10 a.m., take rest up to 2 in the afternoon and then work again until 9 p.m., says Basu Bhoi of Bahbal village, who has been going to Hyderabad for the past three years. However, he stayed back in his village this year as he found work under the NREGS.

Although the NREGS has managed to curb distress migration, it has failed to emerge as a viable source of livelihood. Luckily this time, there was some work under the scheme, but even that didn't stop most of the people as wages are almost always delayed, says Dasrathi Bhoi.

Delayed payment of wages is proving to be the weakest link in the NREGS apparatus and also the prime reason why the scheme has not been able to curb migration to the expected extent. Delays of four to six months were reported by several workers who had found employment under the scheme.

In the case of those who were paid wages the same day, their job cards were blank. This indicated the involvement of contractors who pay lower wages and leave the cards blank.

Further, the presence of contractors in the NREGS has meant that labourers have to work under conditions laid down by them. This has resulted in a strange trend of inter-panchayat migration of NREGS workers whereby a contractor recruits labourers from a village to work in a neighbouring panchayat. This micro-level trend also explains the preference for migrant workers to local workers.

Preference for migrant labour

Migrant workers are easy to manage. They are off their support systems and as such their bargaining power is low in comparison to the local people, says B.P. Sharma, an advocate from Kantabanji in Bolangir district, who has been working with migrant labourers for over two decades.

Once they are away from their local connections, they have to work unconditionally. Further, migrants also ensure completion of work since they cannot leave midway. This explains the general preference for migrant labour, says Sharma.

While labour agents and employers promise medical benefits at the time of migration, they are often not given. In Behran Silet village of Turikela block, five families recently returned from Hyderabad before the end of the season owing to health problems.

All of us, my husband, mother-in-law and two children, had malaria. Our employer did not provide us any medical help and since we could not work, he denied us food, too. We had no option but to return, says Mithila, 35. Jugesar Sona of the same village, who received Rs.15,000 as an advance for his patharia consisting of himself, his wife, his mother and his two children, returned with his family under similar circumstances.

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