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Travels through the Hindi belt: As MGNREGA projects dry up, Chhattisgarh labourers migrating south face squalor

Editor's note: This is part of a multi-article series on the jobs crisis in the three states crucial to Lok Sabha election 2019: Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.  

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“I don’t know where my son is, nor do I know when he'll be coming home.”

Son Singh, 58, didn't seem worried. In fact, he was downright laid- back. Smoking a chillum on a platform outside his home in the remote village of Ichhapur in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district, Singh merely shrugged. “My son migrates for work every year, and returns after a few months when he has made some money,” Singh added.

Chhattisgarh accounts for 7.5 percent of India's tribal population. Thirty percent of its population is tribal. Of the 90 Assembly seats in the state, 29 are reserved for Schedule Tribes. Twelve of those fall in the division of Bastar, which comprises seven districts: Bastar, Kanker, Bijapur, Narayanpur, Dantewada, Kondagaon and Sukma. The region is beset by conflict between Naxals and security forces, which isn't conducive to job creation.

In spite of a large Adivasi population, Chhattisgarh is one of the poorest performers in the implementation of Forest Rights Act, which would secure the livelihoods of lakhs of forest dwellers, most of whom live in Bastar. With lack of alternative sources of income and armed conflict looming large, Adivasis end up migrating to other states for work.

 Travels through the Hindi belt: As MGNREGA projects dry up, Chhattisgarh labourers migrating south face squalor

Labourers who migrate south face slave-like conditions. Parth MN

Singh said the family depends on their four-acre land for livelihood, but there is no work after harvest season concludes. “We cultivate rice,” he said. “It is a four to six month crop. We toil hard during the season, but there is no work after harvesting the crop. Those who have a private source of water opt for winter crops. We do not. So my son migrates to make money. Not many jobs are available locally.”

A scheme like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) was expected to solve the problem. It had been perceived as a crucial intervention, especially for a region like Bastar. One of the major objectives of MGNREGA was "enhancing livelihood security in rural areas by providing at least 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in a financial year, to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work".

However, according to the numbers on MGNREGA website, in the financial year 2018-2019, 45,216 households were provided employment in Bastar. Of which, only 4,865 families completed 100 days of work with a month to go before the financial year ends. In Bastar — which has seven districts — 280,406 households have been provided employment, of which 44,543 families (less than 16 percent) completed 100 days of work.

Among the 73,000 employed for varied number of days in 2018-2019, the zilla panchayat noted that more than 36,000 had not received payments totalling Rs. 1.45 crore in Bastar. With respect to the previous financial year, more than Rs 50 lakh is due to over 70,000 labourers who worked on a project under MGNREGA.

Local journalist Nizam Ali, who blew the whistle on a 120-crore MGNREGA scam in Bastar in 2013-2014, said migration should not come as a surprise, considering fewer projects are on the anvil every year.

According to Bastar’s zilla panchayat figures, 56,123 projects were initiated in 2016-2017 under MGNREGA. The number came down to 15,848 the following year, and fell to just 3,360 projects this year. “The situation is similar across the region,” said Ali. “So Adivasis mostly migrate to Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. They work in construction or run borewell rigs. But they are treated like slaves. Once they migrate, they are at the mercy of their employers.”

The issue rocked the Chhattisgarh Assembly in 2016 when MLA Santosh Bafna of the then ruling BJP party raised it through a call attention motion notice. "Every day, a large number of labourers migrate through buses en route to Hyderabad from Bastar. They migrate through agents,” he said, alleging “several instances of deaths” of migrant workers in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Chipping in, Congress MLAs said the Adivasis are migrating because of lack of jobs and “apathetic attitude of state administration”.

In his reply, then labour minister Bhaiyalal Rajwade conceded the trend. But he added, "During the inspection, no (case of) migration through agents or contractors was found." However, contractors hiring workers and supplying them to different states is an open secret in Bastar. One contractor, speaking on condition of anonymity, said around 250 villagers from his gram panchayat alone have migrated to different southern states. “We have to be wary of the police checkposts,” he said. “If they catch the workers migrating, they throw them back to their homes.”

Bastar superintendent of police Shravan Kumar denied this. “Migration is voluntary,” he said. “We cannot stop anyone from migrating. We are only on the lookout for minors who may have been forced to migrate. One of the reasons behind migration is that contractors pay more than the Rs 203 per day under MGNREGA.”

Ishwar Baghel gets paid Rs 8,000 to cook food at this stone crushing site, but most aren't that lucky. Parth MN

Ishwar Baghel gets paid Rs 8,000 to cook food at this stone crushing site, but most aren't that lucky. Parth MN

Ishwar Baghel, 48, another resident of Icchapur, returned from Karnataka three months ago. “I spent 10 months drilling borewells,” he said. “I was given a truck with a borewell rig mounted on it. I would work 14 to 16 hours a day. I got paid Rs 13,000 per month. But the conditions in which we lived were appalling. I migrated because I had no option. Machines are doing the work of humans these days.”

Interestingly, the 56,123 projects in 2016-2017 cost Rs 105 crore, in which 81,140 labourers were employed. But 15,848 projects in 2017-2018 cost 143 crore, involving 78,538 workers. In 2018-2019, the projects initiated at the level of zilla panchayat cost spent Rs. 1.37 crore on labour, but Rs 4.14 crore on material. It is the works at gram panchayat-level that ensured the district compensates for zilla panchayat’s heavy material-based projects and maintains the mandated 60 to 40 ratio, with at least 60 percent being spent on labour.

Baghel said his migratory days are now behind him. “A month ago, I got a job at a private stone crushing site near my village where I cook for the workers,” he said standing at the hazy site enveloped in dust. “My salary is Rs 8,000 but I get to be with my wife and two children. I was lucky to get this job. Most are not.”

First Person

Lack of jobs in Bastar mean Adivasis migrate to southern states for work, where they live in appalling conditions, and are treated like slaves. Local contractors or agents, who supply labour to the companies that are on the lookout, facilitate their migration. The agents are wary of police so they operate clandestinely. A contractor, requesting anonymity, explains the process.

How did you get into it?

Actually, I used to work as a supervisor for MGNREGA projects. I would be the link between project manager and workers. But as years went by, the projects declined and my work and income dwindled.

How long did you work as the link between project manager and workers?

I started in 2007 and quit in 2014. I mostly got watershed projects, which reduced with time. I guess funding decreased, and there was a lot of corruption. Especially in plantation projects under MGNREGA, the administration sanctioned tree plantations for an area greater than the area of the village. It was so blatant. They stopped after local reporters exposed the scam.

Part of my job with MGNREGA was to supervise labourers. I was in charge of 1,200 workers. Since work reduced, they weren't employed as much. They wanted jobs, I wanted money. So I became a contractor. It was not difficult. I knew labourers from my MGNREGA days.

How was your experience with MGNREGA?

The projects were haphazardly done. It started off with hope. We thought it would generate employment. But it didn’t happen. Even wages weren’t paid on time. After I quit in 2016, I worked as a labourer on a project building toilets. The project wasn't finished. I still haven't been paid Rs 15,000 for it.

What is your role as a contractor?

Employers in brick furnaces, construction sites or borewell owners are on the lookout for labourers. Mostly in southern states. I supply them the workers. I send batches of 40 to 50 people. I get Rs 1,000 per labourer.

Are the labourers treated well?

They get their meals on time, and a place to stay. That's good enough for workers because they have to look after their families. But exploitation of workers is common. The workers know it's part of the deal.

What kind of exploitation?

Working hours are crazy. They don't get overtime. If they're injured on site, they don’t get medical benefits. They cannot leave until the employer agrees.

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Updated Date: Mar 03, 2019 10:45:43 IST