The Famished Architects of Shining India

December 1, 2012

by Tathagatha Sengupta

At first sight, the main underlying reasons for the phenomenon of seasonal mass migration from western Orissa to Andhra Pradesh and other southern states could be ascribed to inadequate rainfall leading to agricultural crises. Most of these areas, covered by the so-called KBK (Koraput-Bolangir-Kalahandi) districts allow only one crop per year. This means migration of a highly impoverished population of about 4 lakh people every year under desperate economic conditions, mainly to the urban centers and thereabouts of Andhra Pradesh, to work in the numerous brick kilns and construction works. Although the role of nature behind this annual catastrophe can not be denied, but as one digs deeper into the socio-economic and political conditions of this region, other man-made factors emerge that are quite hard to ignore.

Tale of Three Villages
Let us look into the case studies of a few villages in Bolangir district. The village of Ganjaura (Turrekela block), deep inside a reserve forest, is inhabited mainly by tribal families, and a few dalit and OBC households. The village was formed around 1865, and vanished temporarily around 1932-35 when people left following a massive cholera attack. It was resettled again in 1965. The forest department of independent India used to effectively rule this village till 2 years back, before the officers fled from this area out of the fear of CPI (Maoist) squads. The end of their dictatorship was marked by an incident in 2009 when a drunken forest officer, with a few forest guards, visited the village during a village meeting and started abusing the people. The women of the village retaliated, and beat up the forest officer and his cohorts, to the point that the officer actually defecated in his pants, and ran off.

After this historic event, FRA claims were filed by the villagers, and individual pattas were obtained. Although the villagers complain that they have been given pattas only for the land under crops, and not for the neighboring forest patches from where they collect minor forest produce like firewood, mahua, tendu leaves, rassi, etc., nevertheless the forest pattas have brought some stability to the local agriculture, and now fewer and fewer families from this village are migrating for kiln work. But earlier the situation was different. As many as 20-25 families used to migrate every season. Shyama Majhi, a Gond tribal, recounted that he had gone to work in a Hyderabad kiln 20 years back, when the rates of payment were Rs. 2 for lifting 1000 bricks and Rs. 15 for making 1000 bricks. Although everyone in this village has some amount of land (most of them very small, to the tune of 2-3 acres), the means of agricultural production are totally beyond their control. For 1 acre of land under paddy, a farmer has to pay around Rs. 1200 for seeds, Rs. 4000 for fertilizers, in addition to a labour cost of around Rs. 3000. While the seeds are sold by the Government, the fertilizer and pesticide shops are owned by local Marwaris. The total output comes to around 15 quintals of rice per acre, which when sold at the rate of Rs. 8 per kg fetches only Rs. 12000. Thus, even if the farmers sells off his entire produce at the end of the season, her net profit is no more than Rs. 4000, with which she is supposed to maintain her whole family round the year. They end up using around 10 quintals for their own consumption, and sell the remaining 5 for buying oil, salt, clothes, etc. These 10 quintals are not even enough for sustaining them through the year. Thus, within a few months, they invariably get into the cycle of debt and hunger.

The situation is even worse in the revenue village of Mohorapodor (Khaprakhol block) on the foothills of the Gandhamadan mountain range. This is a large village of around 260 families, 90% of whom are ST, the rest being largely SC, and some OBCs and general castes. About 50% of the families in this village are landless. Their main occupation during the agricultural season is manual labour on others’ farms, earning Rs. 60-70 a day. The largest landholder in this village is the family of Satyanarayan Kunwar, a Gond tribal, who owns around 400 acres of land. Many landless families in this village don’t have BPL cards, whereas there are families with as much as 20-25 acres of land, who are listed as BPL. Although everyone has job cards, there is very little NREGS work, and even if there is some work, the payments get delayed by 3-4 months. Many of the landless families lease land from Kunwar, and have to pay him back with as much as almost half the produce. Khagapati Kumhar had leased 2 acres of land from Kunwar, around 2 years back. Out of the 25 sacks (75 kg each) that each acre produced, he had to give away 10 sacks to Kunwar. Here again, the numerics involved in the costs and outcomes is startling. Khagapati had to spend around Rs. 2500 for seeds, Rs. 4500 for renting bulls and plough, and Rs. 2500 for the chemicals, in addition to paying Rs. 6500 for labour costs, which led to a yield of around 25 quintals. After giving off around 10 quintals to Kunwar, he sold 3-4 quintals at around Rs. 960 per quintal, and saved the rest for their own consumption. Thus, Khagapati actually incurred a net loss of a few thousand rupees that got him into the debt trap. The local trader who bought rice from Khagapati is named Majid, who runs the biggest local business of paddy. Interestingly, it is the same Majid who works as a ‘sardar’ or middleman for an Andhra brick kiln owner, pays advances to people in this village, rounds them up and sends them to the kiln after the paddy is cut, to work and pay off the advance paid.

The local chemical fertilizer and pesticides shops are largely owned by Muslim traders, Majid, yet again, being one of the leading men in the business. There was a local moneylender, who used to charge more than 10% of compound interest per month. Thus in 5 months’ time, a loan of Rs. 10000 would lead to more than Rs. 5000 as interest. This person was from the Meher community (OBC), and a lot of people are known to have lost their lands and belongings to him because of debts. However he lost his license after one local SP went after him. The local Maoist squads also surveyed the details of property this person looted from the people, and he was forced to return the pattas, passbooks, etc. In the absence of any other money lending institution, the people now depend on the kiln sardars for lending them money, buying a gasp of air in the suffocation of this vicious debt cycle.

The local Public Distribution Shop for this village runs only once a month. If someone is not able to show up on that specific day, they have to wait for another month. All the local shops are owned mostly by members of the OBC and general caste (mostly Brahmins), in addition to settlers from East Orissa who control large parts of the economy in these areas of West Orissa. The local MLA is one Kanakvardhan Singhdeo (BJP), who belongs to the family of the earlier kings of Patna State, the local princely state, who has won the past four elections. His wife, Sangeeta Kumari, is an ex-MP, again from BJP. His cousin, Kalikeshnarayan Singhdeo is a current BJD MP. His father, Rajaraj Singhdeo, was a minister in the State Government run by erstwhile Janata Dal.

The same story repeats itself in Bagjharan village (Khaprakhol block). Out of the 240 families in this village, around 40 are landless, and around 150 families are marginal land owners. One of the largest landholder is Rohit Meher (OBC), who is also a current Panchayat member (ex-Sarpanch, BJD). His is one of the families who came and settled here from Patnagarh state, and took over tribal lands. Another person called Niranjan Jena, a Khandayat Khstriya (OBC) who came from Cuttack and settled down in Bagjharan, owns another 45 acres of land. Dainath Suna is a marginal land owner, owning less than an acre of land, which does not sustain his family needs. So he has to work in others’ farms as a labourer. His land yielded around 10 quintals of rice this time, which is not enough to feed his family. But even he does not have a BPL card, and Karjat has to survive on rice bought at Rs. 14 per kg. The shops are all owned by local OBC people, except one ST owner. The local fertilizer shop is again owned by a Meher, who is also the main local moneylender.

History of the Patna State
The current geographical area of Chhattisgarh and Western Orissa were originally the princely states of Garjat and Patna. After transfer of power in 1947, the state of Patna was merged with Orissa. Patna has a relatively recent history of agriculture. Cultivation as a dominant socio-economic practice started here mainly around 100 years back, when the Agariyas, known to be skilled cultivators, were settled here by the king. These were the people who cleared large patches of forest and started organised agriculture. According to some estimates, the amount of land under irrigated agriculture was around 35% around this time. This irrigation infrastructure was largely built and maintained by the local communities without any state intervention and control.

But the king of Patna was soon to learn the tricks of the trade from the British colonial rulers. In 1946, the state of Patna started taking over these public irrigation projects – a process that only gained in momentum after 1947. This led to a peasant uprising whose main political agenda was to gain back public control over irrigation. Narratives about this peasant revolt can be found in the Patna Deepika newsletter and in the Cabinet meeting resolutions. Under pressure from the people, the cabinet of the king decided that only State-funded irrigation projects would be controlled by the state. Incidentally, the lack of understanding of the uprising that the state had is quite telling, particularly one of the narratives stating that these people like fish in their meals, which is why they are trying to get control over these reservoirs and canals, many of which were rich fishing areas. However in January 1948, Patna was merged with Orissa, which led to essentially bulldozing of the community control over water bodies by the entire state machinery, mostly through the Panchayats. Once the state took over, the maintenance of these projects met with fatal blows. Many of the water bodies were converted to fisheries for state revenue. The current agricultural figures show that only around 5% of cultivable land in western Orissa is under irrigation.

Another major historical event was the drought of 1965. This led to acute food shortage and hunger deaths. Under desperate circumstances, the administration opened up the jungles for people, for relief measures. This might have been an unavoidable decision in those circumstances, but it led to indiscriminate felling of trees, and the rise of a forest mafia controlled by the Marwaris and Gujaratis, together with the Forest Department. While the Gujaratis controlled the trade in tendu leaves, the rest of the forest produce were managed by the Marwaris. The migration of people from western Orissa started mostly after the 1965 drought. Initially it was the dalits who started migrating to the cities of Raipur and Hyderabad, mostly because their local employment was the worst affected, and they were the most severely exploited class because of caste discriminations. This is why out of the handful of people who reaped some economic benefits out of this migration over the years, the dalits seem to be the majority.

Yet another key aspect around this issue of migration is on the legal side of things, namely the Inter State Workmen Act (ISWM) of 1979. It was seen as a progressive piece of legislation when it first came, in terms of provisions such as the temporary residence of the workers should be near the site of work, and stipulations in terms of working hours, payment of travel by the employer, etc. But soon people figured out that firstly it was only a regulatory legislation and not preventive or prohibitive, secondly it was qualitatively not very different from the already existing legislations like the Minimum Wages Act, the Workmen Compensation Act (1923) and the Payments of Wages Act (1936). Moreover it came to be misused by the administration and the law enforcers as and when they wished. Around the issue of licensing, the initial sections of people who got the wrong end of things were the workers themselves who had no clue about the kinds of documentation required, and were regularly harassed and looted by the police for not having proper papers.

It took a lot of effort on the part of some activists and progressive lawyers to shift the focus on to the employers themselves. In terms of working hours, the Act did not mean much because brick-making involves working in only certain specific hours of the day such as before noon and after sunset, because otherwise the bricks develop cracks due to the sun. In terms of residing near the worksite, it anyway had to be the case because of the unusual working hours. It could not regulate the employment of children in the work because they are used to flip the bricks since the heavier adults doing it would again lead to cracks. The sardars get around the travel allowance stipulation by just paying for unreserved fare on long distance trains. All in all, the ISWM did not mean much. Moreover, it fails to reflect the effects of other employment related legislations such as NREGS, resource-ownership related legislation such as FRA, and other fundamental rights such as Right to Education, etc. Speaking of legislations, the Orissa Relief Code has a provision that if there is news of migration in any public media, the Collector should ensure that work is provided to those people. But no Collector in the history is ever known to have used this.

The principal nodal point from where the migration takes place is a small town called Kantabanji in Bolangir district. The town was established fairly recently, after a railway track was built in 1936. The main reason for existence of the town initially was that the king of Patna used to take his train from here. Soon, perhaps because of the north Indian origins of the ruling Singhdeos (For instance, the last king and later Chief Minister of Orissa, Rajendranarayan Singhdeo was born to a Punjabi mother and brought up in Kharsua, Jharkhand), Marwaris and Gujaratis started flocking to this hitherto unknown town. The local businesses were soon to be taken over completely by these communities, which continues till today’s date. The key businesses are around forest produce, liquor industry, processing of crops, textiles, stones, medicines, etc., most of which are run illegally without any license. After many of these industries were nationalized, the Marwaris again became the contractors for the state. Thus, the effect of nationalization has been nothing more than introduction of some hollow legalities, and reorganization of the same business class. The Marwari-Gujarati domination of the town has led to unparallel Hinduization of the polity. Hindutva politics dominates the local socio-political scene, the latest symbol being a huge Gayatri temple that is being built bang in the heart of the town.

Of course the history of the region would be incomplete without the history of land struggles. During the time of the king, every village of Patna state had a “Gaontia” or a village head who was also the local feudal lord, with an army of service providers for the king, such as the washerman, gardener, etc. In return the Gaontia was not paid by the state in cash, but was given rent-free land. After the merger with Orissa, these lands were re-acquired by the State, along with other zamindari lands, using pre-1947 laws like the Patna State Land Revenue Act and the Patna State Tenancy Act. There was a lot of debate around the issue of how to use this land. Later Nandini Satpathy declared that this land be distributed to the landless, through the Gram Panchayats. Although the land was distributed accordingly (each landless family getting only about 0.5 or so acres of land), the land records were not corrected. In the early 1990s, the Gaontias filed a case asking for rights to these lands on the basis of existing outdated land records, won the case, and started harvesting. The indigenous people did not have any reason to distinguish between the State administration and the judiciary, and were left confused and disappointed with this dual nature of the same State first assigning lands to them, and then taking it back with the stroke of a pen. Helped by a progressive lawyer, Adv. B.P. Sharma, they however filed an appeal against the judgment, leading to the setting aside of as many as 60 such ex-party orders, which means around 600 landless families.

It was around this time that the Singhdeos won the elections, and the same old ruling dynasty was re-established in the area, this time under the garb of democracy. The Gaontias, mostly STs, OBCs and General Castes (there are no Dalit gaontias), formed the “Gaontia Sangh”, started having regular meetings, to many of which Singdeo would come and participate. Thus the pre-1947 linkage of the local ruling class of the Gaontias and the State of Patna was re-established within the Constitutional framework, and the both of them together once again marginalized the landless (Sukhwasi in the local terminology). Although the Gaontia Sangh weakened over time and the landless are now harvesting crops from these lands, the records are still not set straight. The ruling class is still intact as the Gaontias are still the local ruling and economic elite, and the Singhdeos are still in Parliamentary power.

This is the local political economy which forms the framework in which this mass migration needs to be understood. On the one hand we have the feudal ruling elite still ruling the villages, particularly the revenue villages, where the feudal relations are still necessarily intact though there is no corvee or feudal militia anymore. The ruling family during the times of the princely state still supplies the legislators both at the state and the central levels. The village economy is completely controlled by the upper caste traders and political heads. The Marwaris in the Kantabanji area have built a strong politics around Hindutva, through organizations such as Brahman Samaj, etc., which further alienates the indigenous people socially, culturally and politically. All this and the State and mafia control over vital natural resources like forest and water, completely sweeping away historic community ownership, form the basic premise for class relations, and the basis for the economic decisions made by the landless and marginally landed. The above, coupled with neo-liberal anti-farmer agricultural policies, efficiently drives people out of their homes. This incidentally also forms the basis of development politics, civil society activities, and local political society. Given that the appropriation of the commons has been successfully instrumented by the Indian state over the decades, the developmental pittances given out to these communities by the same predatory state (through its own machinery and a plethora of NGOs which have come to represent civil society in these areas) in the form of special economic packages, rice at Rs. 2 per kg, NREGS job creation, etc. become the broad framework of local politics.

The political society reacts accordingly. While the ideological basis for politics is the issue of development, the technology of political action takes the form of electoral politics, negotiations with the state apparatus comprising of a ruthless forest department, police administration, judiciary, local goons hired by political parties, local business class, religious actions, etc. This desperate struggle for existence by the marginalized through its political society is then celebrated by the same Indian state in the name of democracy – a democracy which is nothing but a thin crack in the wall of the huge behemoth of a ruthless state built on the bedrocks of historical injustice and politics of alienation and marginalization. Like any other hegemony, it is in the interest of this structure to maintain this crack in the wall to act as a valve for the release of political energy that generates in the polity out of such tensions. But the control of the valve is to rest with the State itself. Any form of politics that questions the core class nature of such political hegemony and power structure can not be tolerated. In the case of Western Orissa, the displaced village family, unable to negotiate with such power structures, sets out on a long journey to the neo-liberal urban shining India, to work in its brick kilns.

Human trade to keep India shining
Janta Majhi of Budhibahal village had to take an “advance” (loan) of Rs. 20000 from the local sardar Kishan Dhurwa, a Gond tribal, for paying for his agricultural inputs. In order to repay the loan after the harvest, a harvest that barely met his family’s food requirements, he together with his wife and his mother Nuadei Majhi (60 years) had to migrate to Dundigal area near Hyderabad in 2010 to work in a brick kiln. The Majhi family was forced to work in the kiln for 7 months. Work would start at 4 in the morning everyday, and go on till 11 in the night, with a half an hour lunch break. The family as a unit was being paid Rs. 150 for making 1000 bricks. In a typical day they would generally make around 1200 bricks. Rs. 300 was given to the whole family as “food allowance” for an entire week, with which all they could manage to eat was broken rice. Even after working for 7 months, the Rs. 20000 loan was apparently not covered, and in fact Janta had to pay Rs. 1500 to his owner before he could get back to his village, completely bankrupt and with a broken body. Nuadei, Janta’s mother, had even fallen sick a few times at the work site, where there was no doctor. Likewise, Khagapati Kumhar was paid an advance of Rs. 4000 in June 2012, and had to go to a Bangalore kiln to repay his debt. He was paid for the first 3 weeks of his work, after which the payments stopped. His family of 3 used to be given a food allowance of Rs. 500-600 for 10-12 days. He sustained injuries on his leg during the course of his work, but could not afford to visit a doctor ever. No worker in this kiln was getting paid after those first few weeks. The owner Papanna and his stick-wielding son Binod beat up 2 workers when they asked for money. They were prevented from going out of the worksite, or from talking to anyone. The workers were kept under strict surveillance by goons hired by the owner, who would keep guard over them, even when they would go for latrine. The working hours in this kiln were also about 16 hours a day. This is the story of almost each and every worker who goes for work in the kilns.

Over the course of decades, one of them would make it big through extreme hard work and enterprises in getting other workers to go with him to the kiln. Such people would soon rise up the ranks, become local sardars themselves with help from the kiln owner, and then gradually go up the ranks. One of them has recently even become a kiln owner himself. These few examples are touted by the local and Andhra based capitalists as the ideal cases to lure workers to the kilns. This, and liquor. The local liquor industry, again run by the same local business class, is geared mostly as an instrument for getting people to the kilns. There are numerous occasions of the male patriarch in the family being paid hard cash as advance, which he spends off on liquor and disappears, leading to the women and children of the household being harassed and forced by the owner/sardar to get on to the train to Hyderabad. This leads to further entrenchment of gender inequalities in the community, which in itself deserves a much more comprehensive and focused study.

A core feature of this form of feudal predatory capitalism is how capital makes its way by controlling time. The essence of the payment of advance by the sardars is not just in the money being paid, but the fact that it is paid during the time of a crisis – a crisis that is bound to recur every year, due to the anti-people policies dictated by the same capitalist machinery. It is the critical time of the agricultural season, the critical time of festivals, the time of the year when a family tries to build a house for itself and thus goes into debt, or the critical time when a member of a family falls sick and hence needs immediate supply of cash, that is at the heart of this form of money lending. The political economy described above is geared precisely to ensure that these crises occur, so that the landless and the marginal land-owning class has no option but to get into the debt trap. The precarious situation of the Indian farmer is hinged largely on this time-sensitivity of her economic practices, and there is nothing, and can not be anything, within this capitalist framework that is meant to reduce this time-dependence. We see this in other contexts as well, for instance when the farmer is forced to sell her produce at the wrong time of the year because of lack of proper storage facilities. This is the culture of what could be called a “capitalist time” which has been imposed on the other historic indigenous notions of time which never had such dependencies on market forces. The State is the chief architect of such imposition.

This is the true face of capitalism in India, at least in west Orissa. The local primitive form of capitalism, feudal and casteist to the core, driven by a post-colonial State, driving the vast majority of its subjects – people with no access to the means of production – away from their lands and productive professions, to the clutches of the neo-liberal urban political economy, which is equally predatory if not more. For clearing the Gangetic plains the Aryan settlers used the conquered shudras (lower class stratum of the non-Aryan tribes) that led to rapid class differentiation of the early Gangetic civilizations. Caste and its subsequent codification were used as one of the most effective coercive mechanisms to facilitate this process. The same underlying principle can be seen in the historic developments of the political economy of west Orissa, where the local tribals and dalits have been prey to similar exploitative economic processes. Any dissent against this political hegemony is seen as heresy and an attack on the codification called Constitution, and branded as “anti-national”, “anti-development”, etc. Primitive accumulation thus continues in different guises.

All these factors together turn Kantabanji into a slave market during the November-December period of the year. All the lodges are filled up with brick kiln owners from Andhra and Telangana. Rented vehicles can be cited in almost every village in the region, waiting for the sardars to round up people and push them in. The ATMs run out of money because of the money drawn by the sardars to be paid as advance. Swarms of people with terrified body languages flock to Kantabanji from the villages. Every night the train station is filled with people carrying sacks on their heads with their essential belongings. Apart from the workers, two other kinds of people prominently visible at the station on such nights are the local sardars and the railway police personnel. The two trains that go to Vishakhapatnam – the Korba-VSKP Link Express and the Durg-VSKP Passenger – have a delayed halt in Kantabanji to make sure that all of the workers are pushed into the unreserved compartments, one stacked above the other like sacks of rice. The lathi yielding police make sure that no one gets into the reserved compartments, ever ready to use their sticks at the slightest provocation. The ticket sales go up by 10 times than usual. The workers are not told what their ultimate destination is till the moment before they get off the train. By the time they reach Vizag or Hyderabad, they are already starving. Soon they realize that starvation has only begun, since starvation is what they can afford with the food allowance they are given at the kilns. Women regularly get sexually harassed. Sex trade is rampant in many of the kilns. No food, no drinking water, no dignity, no safety, no medicines, no doctors, no one to talk to, no leave, no rest, no respite, no politics.

Bricks are being made, in the thousands, in the lakhs. Bricks, whose making cost is probably no more than 50 paise per unit, are sold at Rs. 2.50 per unit. Bricks are transported from the kilns to the construction sites. Buildings get built – huge, tall, imposing, arrogant structures. Bridges, flyovers, toll roads get built for the fast cars and heavy trucks to run uninterrupted, for capital to flow uninterrupted. Dams get built for rivers to be stopped, for capital to flow. Industries get built to generate power and steel, to generate capital. Manmohan Singh assigns ever increasing proportions of his fabled GDP to investment in infrastructure. India gets built, building by building, flyover by flyover, industry by industry, brick by brick. Towards the end of June, the architects of this India – the brick makers – return home, with lesser blood, lesser flesh, fewer smiles, fewer limbs, fewer dreams, and at times fewer family members. They return, only to get back to the kilns next year. India keeps shining with the blood of its illegitimate workers. The last bit of the irony is that now contract workers from Andhra are being taken to Bolangir for construction work, since they are “hard working”, and do not have the socio-political and cultural “distractions” and organizations, unlike the local workers.


2 Responses to “The Famished Architects of Shining India”

  1. Murlidhar Says:
    December 15th, 2012 at 00:55

    This is real story of Rural neglected tribal India.We also working with same community in MP. If we realy wants to do some thing for these community we make govt. accountable because Govt. spending lot of many but it doesn’t come. We insure fist crop and some irrigation for second crop. Also marketing.

  2. Sripati Pati Says:
    April 11th, 2014 at 02:43

    Since late 70s the story has not changed. Agricultural indebtedness, migration of rural labour force on a mass scale, exploitation of the poor still continues unabated despite the existence of numerous socio-economic beneficial legislation. It reminds us of our duty in building a just society even within the framework of our Constitution which is a living document. Let’s not get it paralysed.

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