PUCL – A Report on Migrant workers’ palm chopping incident

March 3, 2014

On behalf of PUCL a team had visited Nuaguda and Pipalguda village, met the victims at the Hospitals and interacted with the ADM and SP Kalahandi and the labour department officials at the district and state level. The report is based on the team’s findings.

Too much familiarity breeds contempt- runs an old saying. Put it in a social context, it can be said that too much familiarity with a social problem renders it almost invisible, and, thus, acceptable. But when something so horrible and cruel an incident happens that it breaks the armour of acceptability and invisibility, we begin to see it, talk about it and try to respond to, as if it were never there earlier, albeit temporarily. Chopping off palms of two migrant workers by the contractor is such an incident that recently took place in the District of Kalahandi in Odisha.On the 17th January 2014,when the local media reported the news of Nilambar Dhangdamajhi and Dialu Nial’s palms being chopped off by some labour dalals and subsequently, the electronic media showed the visuals of bandaged stumps, the hands without palms, of the two lying on the hospital beds, everybody – ranging from the minister of the concerned ministry to the Supreme Court, including a section of civil society – awoke to the situation and followed a flurry of activities and responses.

The labour minister immediately announced an ex gratia of Rupees two lakhs for each of the victims, and stated that the culprits would be punished according to the law. The district police arrested seven people within a week, and conducted raids to rescue migrant workers illegally trafficked by labour agents.Human rights organisations appealed to the State Human Rights Commission of Odisha and the National Human Rights Commission for their intervention, and the latter have asked for reports from the state government. The Chairman of the National Commission for the Scheduled Castes visited the district to inquire into the issue. The Supreme Court of India too took suo motu notice of the case and has asked for report from the government. But would all of this make any difference to the lives of hundreds of thousands of poor migrant workers like Nilambar Dhangdamajhi and Dialu Nial, who regularly experience inhuman treatment and exploitation in various forms in the hands of their employers and middlemen? In fact, since the palm chopping incident, several cases of torture of migrant workers have already been reported in the media, the case of 10 year old Sushanta Kumbhar, the son of a migrant worker who was mercilessly beaten up by his employer, being the cruelest one. The following narrative is an attempt by PUCL Odisha to understand this disturbing social phenomenon. It begins with the stories of three victims.

Hands that feed: Stories of three victims

Nilambar Dhangdamajhi of Nuaguda village in Jaypatna Block of Kalahandi district, a landless adivasi, earns his livelihood as an agricultural labourer. During the monsoon months, he works in the village, and for the remaining months travels with the family to work in the brick kilns outside Odisha. His father Madhab Dhangdamajhi is in possession of two acres of non-irrigated agricultural land. Nilambar has two brothers, and the land his father possesses is not yet shared between the sons. Last year, Nilambar, along with his wife Manjula and a four year old son, had gone to work in Andhra Pradesh.The older son, Umesh, was left behind in the village with relatives. This year as well the couple and the younger child planned to migrate for work while the elder child Umesh was to be left behind. He is studying in class VI. Nilambar and his wife are illiterate.

Dialu Nial lives in Pipalguda village, located in the same Jaypatna Block. He is about 19 years old, and belongs to a dalit community. He is the third of the four sons in the family. His parents are landless; they do not possess even a homestead land of their own. They have been living for generations in a small hut built on a government land in the outskirt of the main village. In fact, the entire dalit community living in this hamlet of Pipalguda village does not possess any homestead plots of its own. The family members of the family of Dialu Nial earn their living by making ropes out of used plastic bags. Dialu Nial was planning to migrate for work for the first time last year. The entire dalit community in the hamlet is illiterate. Only two children study in a primary school. Caste discrimination against the dalits is intensein the village. Some of the villagers reported that the children of the dalit hamlet did not go to the village school because they were taunted by upper caste children and teachers. The two school going children now go to a school which is meant for exclusively for children belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

Both of them were part of a twelve members group being taken by the local labour agents to Andhra Pradesh to work in the brick kilns sometime in the first week of December. On their way, some dispute occurred between the agents and the workers regarding payment of advance money to the workers. There are also reports of disputes regarding the place they were being taken to by the agents. Exact details of the dispute are not known. But, whatever it may be, the workers, except Nilambar and Dialu, managed to escape from the agents. After their escape, Nilambar’s family started receiving calls from the agents that unless they return the advance money (about Rupees two lakhs for the entire group) the agents will kill the remaining two workers. This threat went on for about a week. The families reported in writing to the SP of Kalahandi district on the 13th December about the threat. The same day, the family members of the victims had met the district labour officer and reported about the matter. The two workers’ palms were chopped off in the night of 15thof December, and they were left bleeding in a forest in Sindhekela Block of Bolangir district. On the morning of the 16thsome local people noticed the two, and sent them to the Bhawanipatna district hospital.

Santosh Kumbhar and Bhanumati Kumbhar, parents of ten year old Sushant who got beaten up at the brick kilns, live in Kadalimunda village in Patnagarh Block of Balangir district. They are dalit, illiterate, and have a small piece of agricultural land. The couple has two other children who are older than Sushant. The family used to live in Rourkela for some years, Santosh working as a casual labourer and Bhanumati working as a domestic worker. They returned to their village Kadalimunda to look after Santosh’s old parents. But work was not available in the village to keep the family of seven members going. The family didn’t have a BPL card or a job card. Santosh again began to look for work outside the village. Last year he went to the Talcher area to work in the brick kilns. This year he had moved with his wife and three children to Gulbarga district of Karnataka to work in brick kilns.

Santosh Kumbhar’s family along with three other dalit families had left their village Kadalimuda sometime in September 2013. Each family was given two thousand rupees by a man named Mohan of Baglabandh village as advance money for the work they would be doing in the brick kilns. They were then handed over to a man named Bhutlu Behera of Tikrapada village, in the same Block. Bhutlu Behera took the whole group to a brick kiln in Gulbarga district of Karnataka. There the three families worked in a brick kiln called SBI Brick kiln. The owners gave each familly around 450-500 rupees per week as their food expenses. No wage was given for two months. And when the workers began asking for their wages, the employers began beating them. The brick kiln owners had a gun and they threatened the workers with murder if they didn’t obey the owners. They were kept under constant vigil, and were not allowed to go anywhere outside the worksite. One day, Sushanta was asked to work by the brick kiln owner and he refused. The owner couldn’t take it and started beating him with an iron rod. Seeing her son being beaten up, his mother came running to protect him. She too got beaten up. Sushant’s left hand was broken but he was not given any medical treatment. The family was not allowed to visit a hospital. The condition of the boy’s hand deteriorated. It was at that point that an NGO from Odisha got the news and with the help of Karnataka administration the workers were rescued and brought back to Odisha. Sushant is now undergoing treatment at the SCB Medical College and Hospital in Cuttack. There is little hope that he will be able to use his left hand for a normal living.

The vulnerability of these three migrant workers’ families was not unique in any sense. Rather, they represent the vulnerability of hundreds of thousands of men and women of South-western Odisha who migrate to other states every year to work in brick kilns.This is only symptomatic of a larger and deeper social malaise which the state and the larger society remain largely indifferent to.

Diagnosing the disease: A peep into Oral and Documentary evidences

Oral history suggests that in Western Odisha it is the landless dalits who first migrated to urban areas both inside and outside the state because of the rigid casteist feeling and the lack of employment opportunity in the rural areas. For the dalits, urban spaces not only provided them with livelihood but lessened the intensity of the experience of caste-based discrimination. But after the drought of 1965-66, mass migration took place from the Balangir and the adjacent districts. People from other castes and people having land, mainly small and marginal farmers, also began migrating seasonally, in what in Western Odisha called “Dadan Rutu”- the season of migration.The District Gazetteer (Balangir) writes, “Failure of crops which was the inevitable consequences of drought shattered the rural economy of the district. The bulk of the population which constituted the landless agricultural labourers was confronted with the ghastly problem of unemployment due to suspension of all sorts of agricultural operations, and there was a steady flow of such population to urban areas and industrial centres like Rourkela and Bhilai in search of employment”.

It is popularly believed that the season of migration begins after Nuakhai – a mass festival in Western Odisha marking the beginning of the harvest season – around mid-September or early October according to the lunar calendar. In some quarters, Nuakhai is held as the culprit for this process of migration. People, especiallythose belonging to the poorer sections, take loans from labour contractors to celebrate the festival, and then migrate for work in order to repay it. In reality, it seems to be a gross simplification of a complex socio-economic problem afflicting hundreds of thousands of people of that area. It is true that mass migration starts after Nuakhai. But it is a coincidence, plain and simple. The fact is that during the period between November and June, there is hardly any agricultural operation in an unirrigated belt to give employment to landless people. Secondly, small and marginal farmers owning bhata land (upland) finish harvesting early. And, as any cursory look will reveal, governmental schemes such as MGNREGS operates more on paper than in the field. Then, what will they do in their villages if not migrate in search of livelihood? On the other hand, brick making begins at the end of the rainy season, around mid-October and early November, and the demand for labour to work in the brickkilns rises. Hence, the local contractors and dalals who know the ground reality use Nuakhai for labour hunting.

A look at some key socio-economic indicators of Kalahandi and Balangir – the two districts where Nilambar Dhangdamajhi, Dialu Nial and Santosh Kumbhar come from-would throw some light on why people increasingly migrateto other states in search of work. In Kalahandi, dalits and adivasis constitute 17.67% and 28.65% respectively of the total population; in case of Balangir it is 16.92% and 21.63%. Forget about higher education, the rate of literacy among these two social groups of both the districts is also not encouraging. In Kalahandi, the rate of literacy among dalits and adivasis is 47.12% and 34.17% respectively, and in Balangir it is 53.54% and 43.64 % (Census 2001).

Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy of both the districts, and it is largely rain-fed. In Balangir, 22.42% of the total sown area for Kharif and 5.58% for Rabi season are irrigated; it is 54.81% and 38.94% respectively for Kalahandi (District Statistical Handbok-2009). Still, a huge percentage of workforce i.e. 71.08% (Balangir) and 79.95 %( Kalahandi) are involved in it. But the relations of production surrounding land are skewed, largely dominated by marginal and small peasants. In the Balangir district, of the total operational holdings, marginal and small holdings constitute 48.99% and 31.01% respectively; and the area under them is 17.57% and 29.21%. On the other hand, medium and large holdings constitute 4.67% and 0.67% of the total operational holdings but the area under them is 19.12% and 6.71%. That means 80% of the operational holdings hold only 46.78% of the total area, whereas 5% of the operational holdings hold 25.83% of the agricultural land.

Similar is the case in the district of Kalahandi as well.Marginal and small operational holdings constitute 46.84% and 29.03% respectively; and the area under them is 16.03% and 24.95%. On the other hand, medium and large operational holdings constitute 6.93% and 0.68% of the total operational holdings but the area under them is 24.61% and 6.30%. That means 75.87% of the operational holdings hold only 40.98% of the total area whereas 7.61% of the operational holdings hold 30.91% of the agricultural land. Secondly, there is a sizeable landless population in both the districts as evidenced by the percentage of agricultural labourer; in Kalahandi and Balangir they constitute 50.32 % and 40.05% of the total workers. And it is this workforce, largely drawn from the dalit and adivasi sections of the population, which finds itself without work after the harvesting season, and migrates to other states in search of work. (Statistical Abstract of Orissa, 2008)

Though this has been a recurring phenomenon for the last several decades, there is no authentic official data available either at the district or at the state level on the magnitude of this migration. According to official records of the state Labour Department, a total of 120381 workers migrated from the state in 2013 (till November) of which 34407 workers were from Balangir and 3636 were from Kalahandi. However, it is important to note that the official figures are based on information supplied by licensed labour contractors. But, in reality, most workers go through unlicensed agents and their number is obviously is a multiple of what the official records show. Various non-official estimations [2] put the figure around 1 million, the majority workers being from Ganjam district to Surat in Gujarat. People migrating from western Odisha to other states are estimated to be about 2 lakhs. An ongoing joint study of ILO and the state Labour Department has identified 29496 households from Balangir district alone which have one or more persons who migrate to work outside the state.

Against this background, let us see how the state has responded to the enormity of the problem.

Acts and Schemes: Responses of the State

After the drought of 1965-66 when mass migration followed and kept on continuing, the Govt. of Odisha brought about an Act called Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 to protect the interests of the workers. And Odisha was the first state to bring about such a law. However, as it was a state (Odisha) law, other states to which workers were migrating, were not bound to act upon it. Hence, a Central Govt. Act, “Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 was enacted. This act envisages that the licensed labour contractor who will take the workers to other states and the principal employer with whom the workers will work will see to the wellbeing of the migrant workers. This also presupposes that the migrant workers should go through a licensed contractor. But, this is not the case, and it is amply clear from the stories narrated above. This is primarily because majority of the workers migrate through unlicensed contractors out of sheer desperation, and do not know who is a licensed contractor and who is not. They go through a person who happens to be someone from their own village or a nearby village who has migrated once or twice, and knows the place and the rail route. He can even be a pan shop owner at the railway station who has some connections with the Railway Police (because Railway police sometimes intercept the movement of migrant workers taken by the unlicensed contractors) to facilitate the movement of the migrant workers. The whole process is unwritten and invisible and has created its own vested economic interests at each level.

Beside legislation, the state has responded to the problem by bringing in one scheme or the other as and when a horrible story of child-selling or starvation death or mass migration hits the national media, and then Prime Minister of the country visits the area. Indira Gandhi visited this area in the late 1960s, Rajiv Gandhi visited in the 1980s and P.V. Narasimha Rao visited in the 1990s. Since then a plethora of schemes of both the State Govt. and the Central Govt. – RLTAP( Revised Long Term Action Plan), BKVY (Biju Krushak Vikash Yojana), WORLEP (Western Orissa Rural Livelihood Programme), OTELP (Orissa Tribal Empowerment and Livelihoods Programme), Western Odisha Vikash Parishad etc. – have been implemented to deal with the issues of hunger and poverty of the region.

In 2005, the central Government brought in the much hyped Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) to address the issue of rural poverty across India. The Act provided for a minimum of hundred days of employment guarantee to any rural household willing to do unskilled manual labour at the statutory minimum wage. Following is an account how the Scheme has really worked in case of the families discussed in this report.

During our field visit it was revealed that none of the victims’ families possesed a job card. In fact, the entire dalit hamlet of Pipalguda village having 10-12 families did not have a job card. It was only after the palm chopping incident that the district administration issued a job card to Dialu Nial on a back date; obviously to avoid any embarrasment. Similarly, in Nuaguda village Jaya Parabhue and his wife Bhumisuta Parabhue – who were part of the same group of labourers in which Nilambar Dhangdamajhi and Dialu Nial were being taken to Andhra Pradesh – did not have either a job card or a BPL (Below Poverty Line) card. The couple had been issued an APL (Above Poverty Line) card, though they are landless and belong to an adivasi community. Gobardhan Dhangda Majhi, another landless adivasi man, who lives in the same hamlet as Nilambar Dhangda Majhi has no job card. Ratnakar Sahu, a landless man belonging to the OBC (Other Backward Classes) community, has no job card. According to these villagers, there are many landless families in the village who do not possess job cards.

However, for those who have job cards, the situation is no better. There is either the complaint of delayed payment of wages or of some malpractice involved in its transaction. For example, Sukand Dhangdamajhi, a woman labourer from Nuagad village complains of not yet getting wages for 15days of work in a government nursery two years ago. Her husband Sadhu Dhangdamajhi says that as per entries in the post office pass book an amount of Rs. 3024/- was deposited in and withdrawn from his account in the year 2013, when none of his family members had worked under NREGS for that year. Such incidents smell of corruption in the implementation of MGNREGA and call for further investigations. It needs to be noted that acting upon a PIL filed by an NGO called Centre for Environment and Food Security (CEFS) based in New Delhi, that alleged large-scale irregularities and corruption in the implementation of the MGNREGS in Odisha, the Supreme Court of India had ordered for a CBI inquiry into the allegation in 2011. Based on a study of 100 villages in six districts in the KBK region (the region comprising of the undivided districts of Kalahandi, Balangir and Koraput), the NGO had alleged that NREGS funds to the tune of nearly rupees five hundred crores had been misappropriated by corrupt officials. The investigation is still going on.

Apart from corruption, the provision of one hundred days of employment guarantee has been fulfilled only for a very small number of job seekers. According to government’s own data [3], in Balangir district, out of 273550 job card holders, only 5575 households have been provided 100days of work till the January ’14 during the financial year 2013-14. During the same period, in Kalahandi district, out of a total 295831 job card holders, only 2801 households have been provided 100 days of work. The PEO of Uchhala Gram Panchayat(GP), under which Nilambar Dhangdamajhi’s village Nuaguda falls, told the PUCL team that out of about 1400 job card holders in the GP only three families had got 100 days of work this year till December 2013. He also said that payment of wages getting delayed by one month is common and sometimes it takes even three months. This has recently been highlighted by Jayram Ramesh, the Minister for Rural Development in his letter to the Government of Odisha, stating that “wages amounting to Rs.216 crores, which is about 41 per cent of the total wage payment, have been delayed by over 15 days by the state government while Rs.29 crore out of the total wage payments has been delayed by over 60 days”. (New Indian Express, 11th Jan, 2013). In such a scenario, it is not hard to imagine that people are left with no other choice but to migrate out in search of employment and livelihood.

Conclusion:

When a socio-economic problem like mass migration has been persisting for the last several decades and becoming more and more acute, it needs deeper probing and analysis. This small, limited report cannot claim to have made such a study. But, it should be evident from this report that structural inequality in the agrarian economy of these two districts has a bearing on the mass poverty and the resultant mass migration. The Acts and the Schemes of the Govt. do not address this inequality. Unless and untill this basic inequality is addressed incidents like palm chopping, or such brutalities in many other forms, will continue to surface time and again.

Notes

[2] Various unofficial reports cited in a study by Aide et Action, an International NGO, working on migration issue in Odisha.
[3] Official website of the Govt. of India, Ministry of Rural Development