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State clueless about labourer figures

Bhubaneswar, Jan. 28: Last month, TV grabs of two migrant labourers with their right palms missing sent shock waves across the state.

Hailing from Kalahandi district, part of Odisha’s poor KBK belt, Nilambar Dhangada and Bialu Nial had to lose their palms for refusing to do the bidding of the labour contractor who had hired them for work in Raipur but was forcing them to go to Andhra Pradesh and work at a brick kiln.

Their hands were chopped off by the contractor and his henchmen.

The incident that took place on December 16 last year has been taken suo motto cognizance by the Supreme Court, which has served notices to the Odisha and Andhra Pradesh governments.

Barely had the uproar over this inhuman act of the “sardar”, as labour contractors are referred to in the local parlance, subsided than came another shocker. A 12-year-old boy from Balangir, also a part of KBK, returned to the state on January 12 with his left hand smashed by his employer in Karnataka with an iron rod.

Even as young Sushant Kumbhar is undergoing treatment at the plastic surgery unit of SCB Medical College and Hospital, hoping to regain the use of his hand, the National Human Rights Commission has sought a report on the incident from the Odisha and Karnataka governments.

Such horror stories notwithstanding, the exodus of labourers from the state’s hunger zone continues. On a rough estimate, around 3.5 lakh people from Kalahandi, Balangir, Nuapada and Sonepur, the four west Odisha districts included in the KBK belt, migrate to other states annually in search of jobs.

Most return home to narrate stories of torture and exploitation at the hands of their employers, but there is no end to this human traffic fuelled by the grinding poverty of the region. What is worse, the state government is yet to collect reliable data on migrant labourers and seems helpless as far as the proliferation of illegal contractors or middlemen is concerned.

The migration begins in October soon after Nuakhai, west Odisha’s harvesting festival, when poor families take advance money ranging from Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 from the labour contractors, a majority of them unlicensed. The contractors often send their middlemen to the villages scouting for potential recruits.

Soon after men, women and children leave for states such as Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Punjab, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to work in inhuman conditions. The bulk of this labour force is employed in the brick kilns.

“The migration season stretches from October to June. The work in the brick kilns stops with the onset of monsoon. In west Odisha, entire families migrate,” said Umi Daniel, regional head, migration thematic unit, South Asia at Aide et Action, a development organisation.

Experts agree that poverty fuels migration. The state government’s own statistics highlight the grim poverty of Kalahandi, Balangir and Nuapada, the three districts worst affected by the migrant labour traffic. While of the total 3,29,700 households in Balangir, 2,01,310 fall in the below poverty line (BPL) category, the number of BPL households in Kalahandi stands at 1,93,054 against the district’s 4,01,251 families. In Nuapada, with 1,22,601 households, 85,130 have been identified as BPL.

“Lack of employment generation resources and indifferent implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, a flagship poverty alleviation scheme, have made these areas extremely vulnerable to hunger and exploitation by labour touts,” said Raj Kishore Mishra, state advisor to commissioner, Supreme Court on Right to Food.

Significantly, on December 31 last year, Union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh wrote to chief minister Naveen Patnaik, offering his help in putting an end to what he called the “bonded labour” system in the state. He said the Centre would launch a special livelihood project under the National Rural Livelihood Mission to mitigate the plight of bonded labourers.

A major hurdle to find a solution to the problem of migrant labour traffic is the near absence of authentic data with the state government. According to the sketchy statistics available with the labour department, the government issued 3,035 licences to contractors, who sent out a total of 1,20,841 labourers from various parts of the state till November last year.

Civil society activists fighting for rights of the migrant labourers dispute the figures. “West Odisha itself would account for exodus of the labour force on a much larger scale, but the government has no clue as most of the labourers are hired by illegal contractors. The number of unlicensed contractors is actually five to six times more than those with licences,” said Sanjay Kumar Mishra of the Western Odisha Migration Network, a civil society organisation.

State labour commissioner Shalini Pandit admitted that unregistered contractors were a major problem, but she claimed that the state was trying to do its best. “Labour contractors are given licences for one year and at the time of issuing the papers we ask them to provide the number of labourers they will be hiring. In the wake of recent incidents we are also asking them for names,” she said.

As for the official household survey of migrant labourers, the results are available only for Balangir, where 29,496 households have been identified. Labour department sources said though the survey has also been completed in Sonepur, Gajpati, Koraput and Ganjam districts, the figures are yet to be compiled. Rest of the state, however, is yet to be covered.

This despite the fact that Odisha signed an inter-state agreement with Andhra Pradesh in May 2012 to exchange information on migrant workers and ensure that minimum wages and a congenial work environment is made available to them. But Odisha, said sources, was yet to become pro-active about discharging its obligations with regard to agreement.