Chetan Hans remembers people migrating to work in the brick kilns when he was eight-year-old kid.
Chetan is a resident of Dabri, a village in Odisha’s Nuapada district. When he was a child, Chetan says, the migration to the kilns was barely a trickle, a handful of people who ventured outside the village looking for work. A majority of people subsisted by working as daily wage labourers or by cultivating paddy in small plots of land, like his own family did.
Two decades later, 32-year old Chetan’s own family is just one of 470 migrant worker families from the Gram Panchayat to leave their homes every season to work in the brick kilns in neighbouring states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana; the small trickle of migrants now a virtual deluge.
Ask around in any of the villages in Nuapada or the other districts of Western Odisha and you are likely to hear a version of Chetan’s story: entire families forced to migrate outside the state by years of persistent drought and a lack of viable livelihoods.
Chetan has been migrating continuously to the brick kilns for the past four years. When he decided to migrate again this season, he enrolled in a pilot program for migrant workers run by the Livolink Foundation, Tata Trusts and Rang De in the two districts of Western Odisha.
Financial inclusion for migrant workers
Under the program, Chetan did not take an advance from a labour contractor, as he usually did; instead, he received a low-cost loan from Rang De. This time, before he migrated, one of his children was also enrolled in a seasonal hostel in Odisha.
At the work site in the destination, a meticulous record in the form of a labour dairy was maintained; the workers were paid pro-rata wages for their work, instead of the lump sum they received earlier; the wages were directly transferred into the bank account created for the workers; a crèche for the children and education for the children was set up, as were regular health check – ups for the labourers.
Chetan’s wife, Hiradayi Hans, who has been accompanying him to the kilns for the past four years, felt that things were much better this time around. “We got some relaxation, there was no pressure. Earlier when we used to go through the contractor, the sardar used to make us work a lot,” she says.
The one thing she regrets, though, is the lack of consistency in the work. “I am very satisfied. But the employer was not able to give us work on time,” she says. Because they were working on piece rates, and not an hourly wage, the lack of work meant that families missed out on potential earning because they were sitting around idle.
Over the past five years, migration to the kilns from the village has only increased and shows no sign of slowing down.
The way ahead
One thing that the family, especially Hiradayi, is happy about is her children are receiving an education but she doesn’t know what the future holds. Srikanta Routa, a district project officer with the Tata Trusts, believes that many people in the region lack confidence in a child’s education. “The thinking goes, ‘Why is he studying, if he doesn’t get work or a job?’ They haven’t seen life changing because of education,” he says.
Srikanta believes that there has to be a generation that uplifts itself, where people are working in “white collar jobs.”
Even though the conditions under which Chetan Hans and his family migrated were marginally better, overall, the rate of migration to the brick kilns from the village shows no signs of slowing down. Asked if the family would migrate again to the kilns next season, Chetan says, “If there the harvest is good this time, and if the demand [for brick kiln workers] is present even after the harvest season and other people in the village are going, we will go too”
Would Hiradayi send her children to the kilns in the near future?
“If the situation arises they will,” she says. “We will try our best to educate them. But they might go outside to work.”
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The pilot program by Tata Trusts, Livolink foundation and Rang De helped ensure that workers migrating to work in brick kilns did not do so under debt and distress. The NGOs also ensured that the workers were provided with better facilities at the work site.