As per informal estimates, over 2.5 million people from Odisha migrate to other states for livelihood. While industrialised states and mega cities have offered job opportunities to younger segments of unemployed persons of Odisha, thousands of people in the state of acute economic distress have resorted to migration for jobs like brick making and moved to states like Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Telangana.
Migration to work in brick kilns demonstrates human distress in most acute form. Children too are engaged in brick making while they ought to have been in school. These children when they grow up, lose opportunities available to educated youths. Most workers don’t get the wage and working environment promised during recruitment. Being away from home for over six months year after year bestow on these families a separate disadvantaged identity in their own villages and they lose out in integrating themselves with the economic and social development process taking place in their place of birth. Children are the worst victims in this process of disconnect.
Process of recruitment for brick kilns is pernicious, cruel, exploitative and clearly a system of bondage. The employer controls the employee by keeping him/her in debt and withholding wages. It is cunningly justified as being beneficial to the worker as, at the end of the season, it leaves with the worker a good amount of savings. The reality however, is the system allows the owner to control the supply of labour. If workers were paid at the end of each month their full wages, as required under law, most would be able to pay back at the end of the second month the large advances paid at the beginning.
National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has been of the view that the concerned authority is duty bound to raise a presumption that labourers were bonded labourers if the employer had not maintained statutory records for workers. In case of migrant workers in brick kilns such a presumption would be absolutely legitimate. That such an unacceptable mode of distress migration keeps going demonstrates severe governance deficit. It cannot be justified on the ground that in the past too people of the region left homes with families to work in distant tea plantations. Times then were difficult; welfare government hadn’t arrived. It would be therefore sheer insensitivity to view migration to brick kilns as a legacy issue.
This year too, annual migration season has commenced from parts of Bolangir, Nuapada , Kalahandi and Bargarh districts. Labour Sardars from different states reportedly have arrived at Kantabanji. They have an elaborate network and they lure vulnerable families in thousands. The situation has aggravated in last two decades, with no solution in sight. The zone of recruitment seems to be getting larger and has spread to the undivided Koraput District. This region of the state is marked by little industrial activity.
Government, unfortunately, seems to be viewing this unacceptable activity with a stoic attitude. To keep state intervention limited to a revamped MGNREGA by providing work for 300 days with a daily wage of Rs 308 would be highly inadequate. MGNREGA afflicted with usual nepotism and lack of commitment by executing agencies, hasn’t been able to ensure adequate relief. Participation of household has been extremely disappointing. In the 20 critical blocks of Bargarh, Bolangir, Kalahandi and Nuapada, the programme had provided 100 days of work to less than 4000 households in 2018-19; less than 20,000 in 2019-20 and less than 80,000 in 2020-21. Less than 15,000 households could get 200 days of work and less than 200 had 300 days of work in 2020-21.
Distress induced migration to brick kilns is a story of cruel exploitation of the weak by the wily. The state has a role to play. A brief narrative on the role of state in such situations would be relevant. On February 23, 1994, the Chief Minister, Biju Patnaik, was travelling to Rourkela on official work. I had accompanied him. The plane was overflying Bonai region of the state. "I had started my official career at Bonai in my first posting as the sub divisional officer (SDO)" I told the Chief Minister. "This is an area which is so rich in natural endowments and yet is economically so backward", I continued. He was listening with interest. Encouraged by his eagerness to listen, I thought of telling him what I thought should be an appropriate approach in governance in such areas." In our society, for those people who do not have strong power of discrimination, the state should act as a protector; people having power of discrimination should be free to shape their lives according to their volition and the state should act only as a facilitator. While formulating policy, government should keep this objective in view", I said. "As a young officer I had made many surprise visits to many shops, both, licensed and unlicensed, selling country-liquor in Bonai sub-division at different times of day and night. Each visit had made me sad for I had noticed every liquor shops to be a virtual granary. A simple tribal would run short of money while consuming more liquor than what he could afford and would, in a state drunkenness, pawn his crops to the liquor merchant. Most of the agricultural produce of a village would find its way to the liquor shop. In my view the state must protect the vulnerable section of the population. In the tribal areas government should abolish liquor shops. Government would thereby suffer some financial loss; but as Finance Secretary I assure you that I would be able to absorb the loss. You alone can take a bold step in this regard" I told him with some emotion but with conviction. He listened but was quiet.
The next day he made the historic announcement on the floor of the Assembly abolishing country liquor in the tribal area.
The state acting as protector for these poor families of Nuapada, Bolangir, Kalahandi and Bargarh who seem destined to work in brick kilns is yet to be demonstrated. To that extent government seems to be failing; but it must succeed.
New initiatives must have to be taken. A policy announcement needs to be made by the Chief Minister that the state will not permit its people to migrate for working in brick kilns. The Sardars would stop coming to the state thereafter. Commercial Banks must be advised to come up with appropriate loan products to finance purchase of Smartphone, Computer, Television under study loan so that the need for an advance by Sardar doesn’t arise.
Farmers have been growing cotton, maize and oilseeds for years but the region has remained bereft of downstream industries which could provide jobs in all seasons. A mission approach seems necessary to set up adequate number of maize processing units, ginning facilities and at least 20,000 power-looms in a cluster. Western Odisha Development Council has to spearhead these initiatives.
(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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