Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Untold stories of women migrants

They work in inhuman conditions so that the city can have malls and multiplexes. Sarada Lahangir reconstructs the horrifying experiences of women at construction sites and brick kilns

When Basumati Suna (21) stepped off the train at the Titlagarh railway station near her home in the tribal belt of Orissa last September, her joy knew no bounds. She felt she could finally breathe again, after having led the life of bonded labourer at a brick kiln in Bangalore.

She and her six-month-old baby were in a batch of 75 migrant workers — which included 40 children — that was rescued from the clutches of a brick kiln owner in Bangalore, after her husband fled from the work site and reported the owner to the authorities.

Yet, just a few months later, Basumati is preparing to leave home once again — this time to work in a brick kiln in Raipur, Chhattisgarh. “Nobody wants to desert their home and family, but what choice do we have when there is nothing to eat?” she asks helplessly.

Basumati knows too well the conditions of work that face her. “When working in the brick kiln in Bangalore, I had horrifying experiences. Although I was pregnant, I was not given sufficient food and the owner forced everybody, including me, to work long hours. I lost that baby because of the lack of medical care and nutritious food. At that point we came back to our village, but because we were desperately short of cash, we went back. As I was pregnant again at that time I didn’t want to go back, but we had to repay our debts and returned to that brick kiln,” she says.

The owner of the kiln had even sent some money to Basumati’s husband as an advance and they went back in early September 2009. Basumati worked there from September to July 2010, when she gave birth to her son. Since she herself could no longer work because of the baby, her husband was made to work even harder, although he was paid only Rs 100 a day, which is much lower than the minimum wage.

When the couple expressed the desire to visit their village, the brick kiln owner got tough and refused to allow the couple to leave if they did not pay him a sum of Rs 50,000. That was when Basumati’s husband decided to escape, get help from the district administration, and bring the man to book.

There are tears in Basumati’s eyes as she relates this story. She knows there are no happy endings to stories like this. “We were freed from one hell, but are soon headed for another,” she says.

There are many others like her in this impoverished tribal belt of Orissa. Even minors are not spared. Katha Bangola (14), from Bolangir district, too was held in captivity by a kiln owner in Warangal district in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. She was rescued by the district administration with the help of an NGO last April.

A sizeable number of India’s migrants come from this region. They are usually landless peasants, or farmers with small, unproductive plots, who cannot feed themselves and their families. Intermittent drought and deforestation have made life more difficult for them. Then there are sudden expenses — like a marriage in the family, a funeral to pay for, a bout of illness or a crop failure.

Those already in debt have to pay high rates of interest on their loans. The situation comes to such a pass that there is no option but to mortgage land and other assets and migrate in search of work. Economists have an expression for this: distress migration.

What many don’t realise is the role played by middlemen in the dismal tableau. These agents are constantly profiting from the poverty, helplessness and illiteracy of tribal migrants. They readily advance money, even to the tune of Rs 20,000, and then force them to live and work in the most oppressive of conditions. This even leads — as is evident from Basumati’s case — to situations of bondage and slavery. Many die of serious ailments without any recourse to medical help. Clearly, though, it is the women who suffer the most in such situations. They are faced with innumerable problems, including having to give birth and care for children in a hostile environment.

Conditions of housing are abysmal and sanitation facilities, non-existent. Not that life is easy for those women left behind in the villages, who have to multi-task perpetually — looking after the elderly in the family as well as the little ones, even while tilling their land or working in the local landlord’s fields. They often also fall prey to the wiles of moneylenders and others, and end up being sexually exploited.

As Jamuna Majhi of Belpada village in Bolangir explains, “We do not get any work locally in the village except agricultural work, which is also limited because there is very little arable land. And even when we get work, we do not get full payment on time. We try to request those who hire us for our legitimate dues, but it is like trying to get water from a stone. As women, we feel very awkward visiting these men constantly to get money of them. Sometimes I think it is better to migrate than work like this.”

The data compiled from migration registers maintained in about 45 villages in three blocks — Muribahal, Tureikala and Belpada — in Bolangir by the Migration Information and Resource Centre (MIRC) and Aide et Action, a civil society organisation, indicates that 0.15 million out of a population of about 1.3 million had migrated out of the state between November-December 2009 and January 2010. Of these, about 40 per cent were women.

These are people who have fallen off the map, but the state government remains complacent. Orissa’s Labour and Employment Minister Puspendra Singh Deo argues that workers migrate, not because of the failure of government initiatives, but because of their desire for upwardly mobility. “Workers move out of the state with hopes of getting better wages,” he states.

But the truth is that migrants generally have no support structure. Even the law does not work for them. “The law is focused on the regulation of movement rather than on the welfare and security of people. And the only law — the Interstate Migrant Workman Act, 1979, formulated with particular focus on western Orissa — applies solely to people who cross state boundaries,” explains B P Sharma, an advocate from Kantabanji in Bolangir district, who has been working with migrant workers for over two decades. He adds that there is no attempt by the state to record the names and addresses of migrant workers.

As for national initiatives ostensibly designed to discourage distress migration — like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) — they are not having the desired impact. Umi Daniel, Head, Migration Thematic Unit, Aide et Action, says: “These so-called poverty alleviation schemes are not being properly implemented in the areas that need them most, like Bolangir.”

As for the women, everyone agrees that they are the most vulnerable. Amrita Patel, a women’s activist based in Bhubaneswar, strongly believes that the time has come to flag the concern of safe migration. She points out, “Since women and children are now migrating in large numbers and can fall prey to the machinations of unscrupulous elements, the government should set up a mechanism to protect their rights and interests, even if they come from other states.”

Basumati, given her harrowing experiences as a migrant worker, would certainly agree with her.

Courtesy: Deccan Herald

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