Odisha’s migrants: Outsiders, in more ways than one

Over a million migrate from Odisha for work, often leaving them outside the political process in the state


Campaign posters and signs on the walls of locked homes of migrants in Balangir’s Tentulimunda village. Photo: Chitrangada Choudhury Aga
Campaign posters and signs on the walls of locked homes of migrants in Balangir’s Tentulimunda village. Photo: Chitrangada Choudhury Aga

Balangir: Udaya Pradhan, Sushil Kumar Podh and Kapilash Kata—natives of different villages in western Odisha—have all seen Narendra Modi, but not set their eyes on Naveen Patnaik. Modi, Gujarat’s chief minister, and his Odisha counterpart Patnaik have headed their state governments for the past 13 and 14 years, respectively.

Pradhan, Podh and Kata, in their 40s, 30s, and 20s, respectively, are annual migrants to Gujarat, where they spend up to 10 months of the year in the towns and cities, working as construction workers. They are among the hundreds of thousands of labourers from Odisha who make up the workforce of Gujarat, leaving behind families and farms in their home state.

Pradhan saw Modi at the inauguration of a public housing scheme he had laboured on; Kata at a public rally in an area in Rajkot where he happened to be passing by with friends one evening; and Podh when his employer rented a bus for him and fellow workers and paid them Rs.500 each to attend a rally by Modi.

Podh is not registered as a voter in Odisha despite having submitted his documents thrice, taking the help of literate villagers to fill up the forms. He is unsure what went wrong, and his long absences from his village each year has prevented him from following up with officials.

Kata, back in his village to prepare for his wedding, would be casting his vote for the first time. He knows little about local politics and has no particular allegiances, saying a good politician in his book is one who creates employment.

“If there was work for us here, we would not have to leave our homes,” Kata, 27, said.

Pradhan says his vote would go to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) because Modi is its prime ministerial candidate. His preference springs from his experience of Gujarat’s buoyant urban economy, which seems to have jobs in plenty, in contrast to his home state. “Even farmers there (in Gujarat) grow three crops in a year,” he says.

Odisha posted an average growth rate of 7.7% between the years of 2005 and 2011, according to its last Economic Survey report. But much of this has been jobless growth, with employment in the organized sector falling in this period from 745,000 to 722,000 jobs.

Big-ticket projects have attracted capital but not been job-intensive, according to former state planning board member Banikanta Mishra. In a recent paper in the Economic and Political Weekly, Mishra estimated that Rs.91,682 crore of investment routed through agreements in sectors including steel, power and ports had led to 108,654 jobs, or 1.2 jobs for every crore of investment.

Medium and small enterprises, which are usually more labour-intensive, remain an underdeveloped part of the state’s economy, employing a little more than 30,000 people in 2010-11, according to official data.

With the state’s rural poverty rate over 35% in 2010-11, according to Planning Commission estimates, finding work outside the state remains the only option, particularly for the rural poor of Odisha.

According to informal estimates, over one million migrants from the state work outside Odisha, travelling along well-developed networks which follow community and village lines, and end in specific destinations: those from coastal districts, such as chief minister Patnaik’s home constituency in Ganjam, head to Surat to work in the Gujarat city’s diamond-cutting houses, power looms and other factories.

Small and medium farmers from the west travel to the construction industry in states such as Gujarat, Maharashtra and others. Adivasis (tribals) from the northern districts such as Sundergarh and Jharsuguda, young women in particular, migrate to work as domestic helps in the metropolises. Dalits and Adivasis from the west, especially the landless, labour on a six to eight month annual cycle in brick kilns in the southern states, and more recently in neighbouring Chhattisgarh.

Migration has undoubtedly helped mitigate poverty. When he left with a couple of utensils for Rajkot in 1992, Pradhan became the first migrant from his village of Raksi. Those were days of extreme economic distress and uncertainty in this unirrigated block of northern Kalahandi district.

“Two square meals a day were a problem,” Pradhan recalls. The family is much better off now, among the millions of Indians who have risen above the official poverty line in the past decade.

But after several years of working, the earnings of migrant workers aren’t enough to meet even simple aspirations. For instance, Podh said he wanted his daughter to attend a private English-medium school, a three-room building that had recently opened.

That way, when she grows up, he argued, she can hope for a salaried job. But he can’t afford the Rs.550 monthly tuition fee and the Rs.150 bus fee for her to go to school, rues the father, himself a school dropout. About half the money migrants like Podh earn is spent on personal and living expenses, with the rest remitted to families back home.

After more than two decades as a migrant worker, Pradhan said he wished his family could stay with him in Rajkot, but the cost of living for the five-member household there would exceed his income.

Semi-skilled construction workers such as Pradhan, Podh and Kata are still better off than other migrants—they can travel between the two states mostly at will, earn wages ranging from Rs.10,000 to Rs.20,000 each month, and enjoy a greater degree of freedom in interactions with their employers.

In contrast, the thousands of families from the region who undertake a six to eight month-long annual migration to brick kilns in other states routinely encounter violence and lawlessness. In a brutal example last December, 19-year-old Byalu Niyal from Utchla in southern Kalahandi had his hand cut off by a contractor in the neighbouring district of Nuapada, after being kept captive following a money dispute.

Government data on the scale of annual migration is thin. Jatin Patra, an activist of a Balangir-based advocacy group called Adhikar, has been keeping migration registers in villages in his block since a decade, in an attempt to capture family data of those who leave. He estimated that 150,000 people (parents and children) leave the district each winter on southern-bound trains to live and work in brick kilns.

In neighbouring Nuapada, Daya Sagar of the Migration Information and Resource Centre surveyed 160 villages last year, roughly one-fourth of the district. Based on the findings, he estimated that up to 60,000 villagers migrated from Nuapada each year to work at the brick kilns. The migrants were overwhelmingly Adivasi and Dalit families, living on the margins of the village economy and society.

The exodus was obvious in Tentulimunda village in Balangir on a recent morning, with lane upon lane of empty homes—some locked, others merely having a string cot standing against a closed door, reflecting the poverty of the absent owners.

More than 100 Dalit and Adivasi families in this village had been taken as bonded labour by a network of middlemen to brick kilns in Bangalore, Chennai and various cities and towns of Andhra Pradesh. Contractors had advanced Rs.30,000-45,000 to each family last winter around harvest time. Against this, families would work for 6-8 months on brick kilns.

They would be sent back in June, as monsoons begin, to work on rain-fed agriculture at home. Residents who had stayed behind were predominantly the aged, who had made up the migrant workforce a decade ago, and now live off family support or state-funded old age pensions, which arrive erratically.

The persistent absence stemming from migration “alters the profile of the village, and makes democracy meaningless for the depressed sections of Odisha,” argued former Delhi university professor and political scientist Manoranjan Mohanty. “They are not just missing out on elections. They are not part of the political process.”

Mohanty said the prolonged absences of migrant workers meant the state government neglected creating structures for long-term improvement, such as access to land, employment and fair wages in areas of the state where they were needed the most.

Economic growth and electoral democracy have ironically contributed in some ways to reproducing long-standing inequalities in this region. For example, in a typical work season on the kiln, each migrating unit made up of parents and children could produce up to 160,000 bricks—making a vital contribution to urban India’s growing construction industry.

Back-of-the envelope calculations showed they received only 10% of the value of what they produced as wages, having little bargaining power due to a range of economic and social vulnerabilities, such as indebtedness and illiteracy. The remaining money, said Patra, went to multiple levels of middle-men across states, moneylenders and contractors, some of whom were contesting candidates or relatives of local legislators.

Most panchayat representatives also doubled up as small-time labour contractors. Income from labour trafficking was reinvested in political campaigns, Patra said, making legal protections or basic rights like a minimum wage for the migrants burning issues, but which were never raised as part of the electoral agenda.

Electoral victories have also helped to recast the power of the erstwhile principalities of the region, with royal households sending a steady supply of family members as members of Parliament and members of state legislative assemblies, as well as one former chief minister. In this election, four royals are contesting in Balangir, including the father-son duo of Anang Uday and Kalikesh Singh Deo who are the second and third generation of dynasts to represent the area in assembly and Parliament.

“Electoral democracy has provided the mechanisms and the space for feudalism to perpetuate itself,” argued political scientist Mohanty.

Kalikesh Deo is among the state’s richer MPs with declared assets of Rs.8 crore, including real estate in Delhi and Gurgaon. He said of his missing constituents, “The administration made some efforts to bring back migrants to vote, but it is difficult since most of the contractors who take them don’t register them.” The MP, who is contesting for his third term as elected representative, added that he backed things like irrigation and a skill development centre, but they “take time”.

Residents of Tentulimunda said they had seen the young MP in their village only when he came to ask for votes. They added that the issues that afflicted them struggled to gain an audience. “We have written thrice to the district administration, asking for a watershed project to be started in our village under MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act),” said Dalit resident Satish Suna. “If the water situation improved, our agriculture would also improve.”

The rural jobs programme in the state, which was meant to arrest distress migration and build rural assets, has seen very poor implementation. Against the mandated 100 days of work (now raised to 150 in districts like Balangir), the programme generated an average of 34 workdays in a year in 2012-13, with just 9% of the households getting 100 days of work, according to ministry of rural development data.

The state as a whole spent Rs.788 crore in the last financial year, a low figure when compared with states such as Andhra Pradesh (Rs.2,960 crore) or Rajasthan (Rs.2,009 crore). State government data show that in Balangir, just 6,508 of the 276,000 registered households had got 100 days of employment in the last year. Local observers such as Patra and Sagar opined that the rural jobs programme, if implemented thoughtfully and in a timely manner, could arrest about 15-20% of the migration from the villages.

A veteran journalist based in Bhubaneswar said he had raised the issue of bonded labour migration with Patnaik. He urged the chief minister to craft policies to counter the seductive advances given by contractors to families during times of acute need for liquidity.

“I told him to consider introducing a similar system under MGNREGA, where families could be given small advances during times of monetary need, against work to be done on the programme,” the journalist said on condition of anonymity. “The CM later told me that he took the idea to his bureaucrats who turned it down, saying the poor would run away with the money.”

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