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    Dalit Migrant Labour Depends on a System that Perpetuates Poverty

    GovernanceFood SecurityDalit Migrant Labour Depends on a System that Perpetuates...
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    Dalit Migrant Labour Depends on a System that Perpetuates Poverty

    To meet the Nuākhāi festival expenses, most of the poor and underprivileged families take loans at higher interest rates from local money lenders and repay that with the lump sum advances received from the labour brokers, thus remaining in the debt trap.

    Akash Suryawanshi

    Poverty and seasonal migration have a positive relationship. As almost all the seasonal migrants move out either with a deficit of livelihood options at their native village or to repay the loans. The majority of the migrants are landless labourers or owned small patches of land that barely met their consumption requirement for more than two months. The workers’ belongings are meagre. There is a significant negative relationship between land owned and migration, i.e. the more the land owned, the less the household is likely to migrate.

    Findings from a research on the dynamics of distressed seasonal migration in Kantabanji, Odisha, suggests that seasonal migration has turned into an easy option for the rural poor from the arid regions of the country to tackle the hardships of drought, famine, crop failure and other socio-economic factor challenging their livelihood. ActionAid International (2005) in their study found that land alienation – the shift of land from the poorest to the rich within or outside the village is increasing year by year. Most mortgages are taken in exchange for credit to pay for marriages, medical treatment, debt repayments, and when they need to buy clothes for important festivals.

    The rural poor even term seasonal migration as an alternative credit mechanism when they need cash for the same reasons. While migration serves as a common economic coping or survival strategy for households in many parts, and can provide families and their children with new opportunities, it can also make them more vulnerable. Being away from their homes and villages and leading uprooted lives, the first thing that migrants lose is their identity as citizens.

    Foregoing basic entitlements

    They do not belong to the places where they go and increasingly lose acceptance in their own villages. Cut off from their community, culture and traditions, unable to take part in festivals, fairs and religious and social functions, which are an important part of their lives, migrants lose their sense of identity. The vulnerability of people who cross state boundaries is even greater as they are unfamiliar with the language and culture of the areas they go to and they find themselves increasingly at the mercy of their contractors.

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    In their villages, migrants forego all of their basic entitlements including access to schooling facilities for their children, free services in public health centres, and Public Distribution System (PDS) / Below Poverty Line (BPL) grains. The condition of the family members left back in the village during the migration season is no way better. While migrating families face hardships, the elderly, ailing family members or children left behind in villages have difficulty fending for themselves, and are often reduced to destitution. The old people left behind by their families simply to starve. For the poorest landless or marginal farmer, the short spell up to harvest time is the only period that he can eat at home. This deficit of basic needs for survival forces them to take advances from the money lenders/contractors.

    Vulnerable to mental health conditions

    Seasonal migrants to brick kilns are a vulnerable group and remain at a high risk of mental disorders battling through poverty, agrarian distress, crop failure, indebtedness and food security at their native village and issues like bondage, violence, discrimination and violation of labour rights at the work sites. Insights from the field suggested, there could be several reasons for developing mental health issues by the study population. For instance, the local harvesting festival of Nuākhāi, which is celebrated with full vigour by all sections of the society also causes stress and anxiety among the poor and underprivileged. To meet the Nuākhāi festival expenses, most of the poor and underprivileged families take loans at higher interest rates from local money lenders and repay that with the lump sum advances received from the labour brokers, thus remaining in the debt trap. In return, they promise their labour for the next work season which is known as the Dādan system in the region.

    It is evident that, SCs and STs are more vulnerable to mental health conditions as discrimination and alienation are higher against them in the region. The study also found a significant association between ownership of land and droughts with the mental health conditions of the respondents. As respondents are primarily landless and marginal farmers and often engage themselves in their own and others’ farmlands, the failure of agriculture shatters all the labour work done in the monsoons.

    Little or no hope from MGNREGA

    Despite the known risks, workers migrate every year after the harvest festival of Nuākhāi. The insecurity of sustenance at the village, mounting debts, forces the poor households to opt for appealing advances offered by the Sardārs. The MGNREGA fails to offer an alternative livelihood as the workers do not get enough work to sustain their families at the village and the most significant factor that pushes them away from availing MGNREGA works is the extremely delayed wage payments which sometimes gets delayed up to a year. The workers in the region thus have little to no hope from MGNREGA. Lack of employment opportunities, poverty and rising indebtedness compels the poor migrants to opt for advances from the Sardārs, thus resulting in migration to faraway destinations. The Dādan system thus helps these distressed populations in repaying their older debts in return of another indebted and bonded life. Although these migrant workers survive at the bare minimum level at the worksites, it guarantees them employment and survival until the next onset of monsoons.

    Akash Suryawanshi is pursuing Masters in Population Studies from International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai. This piece has been extracted from his research report following his stint as an Abhijit Sen Research Intern with the National Foundation for India (NFI).

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