Adivasis from the region move to other states for employment, only to find themselves worked to the bone, living in grim conditions and often cheated of their wages or held hostage by employers.
Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh: “I have a wife and five daughters, but there’s no work in the village. Even if you find some, the panchayat takes months to pay us,” said 35-year-old Poonamchand Sitaram Gautam, a resident of Khandwa district in Madhya Pradesh, who recently returned from Koratala in Telangana, where he was employed as a construction worker.
“Under the Public Distribution System, we receive just 5 kg of food grains for each member of the family every month. But these rations barely last a fortnight,” he added, alluding to the food crisis in his tribal-dominated village of Dabhia in the state’s Khalwa region.
Based on a field study conducted in 12 states by Ekta Parishad, Madhya Pradesh is purported to have the highest inter-state migration rate — standing at 32.39%, Khandwa being one of the districts leading. According to estimates by a local body, between 5,000 and 10,000 tribals migrate out of Khalwa every year to work as labourers in other states.
Khalwa is spread over 70 to 100 km from the district headquarters. While many villages of this block are part of the Khandwa-Betul State Highwa, most of Khalwa falls under the jurisdiction of the forest department, with 90% of the population living in remote areas. In fact, when 101Reporters visited Dabhia, we found that at least two members from each house had migrated to other states for work.
Last year, Gautam’s 16-year-old daughter *Garima found work as a labourer to build drains under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). After working eight hours a day for five weeks, *Garima was paid only two weeks’ worth of wages. When her mother Rajni Bai questioned the panchayat, she was told that the money had been transferred to her account, but they have yet to receive it.
Jamna Kallu Chauhan, too, shared her woes.
“In the last two weeks, I carried out digging work for the panchayat eight hours a day. But I was paid only for one week. I approached the panchayat office in Semliya repeatedly, but no one cooperated with me,” the 60-year-old said.
The sarpanch of Semliya panchayat Pyari Bai Ramesh Takher, however, denied any outstanding payments.
“No labourer’s wages are outstanding with the panchayat,” she claimed. “The money has been transferred into their accounts. The villagers often withdraw money and blame us later.”
No logic to the numbers
Kishore Kumar Uike, the CEO of Janpad panchayat, insisted that the district is continually opening up job opportunities for the area’s local residents.
“Janpad panchayat has created employment for 17,000 labourers in the development block,” he said. “I don’t understand why people are migrating for work. Even today, if anyone approaches us for work through the panchayat or district, we will provide them with work.”
According to the MGNREGA website, which currently seems inaccessible, 3,821 days of wages were generated in Khalwa from May 2020 to May 2021, benefiting 644 workers. The work given to labourers included pond construction, canal deepening and dam checks. The website has had no updates since then.
A hunger-induced distress migration
According to Prakash Michael, treasurer of the Spandan Samajseva Samiti, an organisation working to provide nutrition and employment to these tribals, the primary cause for migration is the food crisis in the region, which has increased in the last couple of decades.
“Adivasis have ditched growing traditional crops and turned to cash crops such as soybean. Bajra and other millets such as koda and kutki, once the backbone of their nutrition, are no longer visible in the fields. They use most of the money they earn by selling produce to repay loans. They are left with very little food grains, so this is basically hunger-induced distress migration,” Michael told 101Reporters.
This explanation holds true for 60-year-old Jamna, who now lives alone in her hut. Her husband, Kallu Chauhan, had "taken up a contractual job of harvesting moong in Nahali, Harda district, despite being terribly ill. The family's financial crisis had pushed him to move, and within three days, we lost him to the illness".
One lakh labourers migrate from Nimar
While the administration has no official figures to share, Spandan Samajseva Samiti, which collects data for land surveys, estimates that around 1 lakh people from Khandwa, Khargone, Barwani and Burhanpur of Nimar district migrate to Maharashtra, Telangana, Karnataka, Goa and Andhra Pradesh each year.
However, this large workforce is unorganised and unprotected. These labourers are neither insured by their employers, nor are they provided safety equipment for use while working. This often leads to their death, and since there are no official records of migrant labourers, employers shirk their responsibilities by deeming them mere accidents.
Under the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, the employer must provide migrant workers with food, lodging, healthcare and social activities. Labour officials must be kept in the loop to ensure that workers’ rights are not violated. Also, the figures of migrant workers must be displayed on the Migrant Labourer Portal, though no data appears to track this information.
District Labour Officer SS Alawa explained that the act "can be invoked only if the contractors or residents officially inform the department about their migration, which the tribals here fail to do. Hence, they cannot exercise any rights under this law".
Wily contractors, callous employers
Furthermore, contractors here deploy locals to connect them with labourers. These people take advantage of their knowledge of the Korku dialect and lure the tribals by promising large sums of money as wages. They are often paid an advance so they believe it’s a good deal and manage to convince their friends and neighbours, too.
On the appointed day, the contractor’s vehicle arrives at the village to transport the migrants. The journey usually takes place at night, so the workers don’t recognise where they are being taken. They often don’t find out for days and weeks which village, district or state they are working in. The contractor shares his mobile number to placate the families, but the phone is often turned off once they set out with the migrant labourers.
Daji Lofa, a 30-year-old who returned from harvesting sugarcane in Maharashtra, recalls a contractor who had come to the village before Diwali last year and promised everyone cane-cutting work for three months. He had also promised them huge amounts of money, which would enable them to stay home without working for the rest of the year. He had paid an advance of Rs 7,000 to one of the workers. A week after Diwali, the contractor arrived at 11 pm with two mini Eichers and took 40 people with him. But they were refused pay after putting in hours of hard labour.
Such are the kinds of experiences, the tribals of Khandwa attempt to flee.
Babu Mangal, one of the workers from Khalwa held hostage in Pandharpur, Maharashtra, last year, said they were treated worse than animals. He, along with his wife had to continue harvesting sugarcane despite being terribly ill.
“We didn’t get any treatment when we were ill. We had to arrange for our own food and sleep in the open fields or inside warehouses,” the 50-year-old told 101Reporters.
Similarly, when Sunita Kajle from Langoti village went to Maharashtra to work, she found out she was pregnant. But she was still forced to continue working long hours without relief or proper nutrition until the sixth month of her pregnancy. As a result, she gave birth to a malnourished daughter after returning.
In some cases, the tribals bear the consequences of this survival act — the migration — longer than they could have anticipated, at times for life.
Take Munni Bai, for instance. She injured herself while working at a brick kiln and continues to live with it. She had dropped bricks on her feet, which initially caused swelling and later became worse. Munni can no longer work due to her injured leg and has received no compensation from neither the contractor nor the government.
Khandwa district has a population of 13,10,061, of which 80.20% live in villages. The literacy rate of Khalwa is only 43.10% (51% among males and 34% among females). Despite this, the proportion of labour in Khalwa is 17.38%, of which 9.66% is male and 7.72% female. Agriculture is the primary source of income, but the people here barely own any land, 2 acres per family on an average.
The percentage of total agricultural farmers in the tehsil is 14.08% in Khalwa, of which 9.88% are male and 4.20% are female. There’s no focus on employment-oriented education, and the entire sector is dependent on resources from agriculture and forests.
In 2009-2010, the state government had created natural resource-related jobs in Awliya under the Small Forest Produce Association, for the manufacture of incense sticks, perfumes, bamboo furniture and household items. Initially, over a 100 people were employed under this scheme, but they could not grow beyond making incense sticks, which wasn’t financially viable and hence, discontinued.
This story is the first of a three-part series on the mass migration of tribals from Madhya Pradesh's Khandwa district.
*The names of all minors quoted have been changed to protect their identity
Edited by Gia Claudette Fernandes
All photos: Mohammad Asif Siddique
Cover image illustration: Prajwal M
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