Ashutosh Mishra

Bhubaneswar: Elections in a democratic country like India are about people exercising their franchise freely. This pre-supposes an atmosphere in which people, cutting across classes, do not find their freedom curbed by restrictive circumstances. This implies, among other things, freedom from hunger and guaranteed employment.

Our democracy is yet to become mature enough to guarantee such an atmosphere and, hence, despite claims by government and its various agencies that elections are free and fair they are never so in the true sense of the term. For example, how can you expect the poor men and women from the hinterlands of Kalahandi and Bolangir, migrating annually to other states in search of menial jobs to quench their hunger, to cast their votes freely.

Even as people in four Lok Sabha constituencies ( Kalahandi, Koraput, Nabarangpur and Berhampur ) and their corresponding assembly constituencies cast their votes today migrant labourers in several villages in Kalahandi are sweating it out in the brick kilns of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana under the scorching April sun. The lucky ones manage to return home to cast their ballots but most are not so lucky.

The phenomenon of human migration is even more acute and visible in the neighbouring Bolangir district where village after village in blocks like Tureikela and Bongomunda gets empty soon after the Nuakhai festival that marks the beginning of the migration season. The labour touts make informal contracts with the poor labourers by making advance payments. Within days of Nuakhai festivities getting over men and women with children in tow start making a beeline to the nearest railway station, ready for the journey to the inhospitable terrains of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Chennai and even Raipur which is closer home.

Most work in sweat shops and brick kilns and return home not richer but with horror stories of torture at the hands of their employers. There have been cases of deaths and maiming and young women getting pregnant at their work sites. Each time there is a complaint the state government struggles to come to their rescue because a majority of these labourers are not registered and hence there is not much information available about them at the official level.

Cases of torture mostly come to light when the labourers trapped by cruel and exploitative employers manage to send SOS messages to their families back home and they rush to the nearest police station or the labour office seeking help. Rescue is a long drawn process with red tape making it even more cumbersome.

The bulk of this work force goes out of the state after failing to find remunerative jobs within Odisha, specially in the districts to which the labourers belong. Drought-prone Kalahandi and Bolangir are among the worst affected because jobs outside the farm sector are few and far between. So when the crop fails they are left with no option but to migrate. Even the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNRGS), once hailed as a game changer as far as rural employment scene is concerned, has failed to curb the trend of human migration which is a sad commentary on our democracy. The right to vote of this section of our population is being stymied by its circumstances.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are 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)