The Migration Mess: Workers from Madhya Pradesh's Khandwa recall distressing tales of bonded labour

The Migration Mess: Workers from Madhya Pradesh's Khandwa recall distressing tales of bonded labour

The Migration Mess: Workers from Madhya Pradesh's Khandwa recall distressing tales of bonded labour

Seasonal migrants from Khalwa block often get trapped into bonded labour, ill-treated and left without wages, with attempts to escape inviting retribution and violence

Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh: “They kept us like bonded labourers. They neither gave us any food to eat, nor any days off when we were sick. One night, we somehow managed to escape and hide in the sugarcane farm, but someone informed the employer, and he set fire to it. Two women ran out of hiding in fear. The employer dragged them by their hair, gave blows to their mouth, and beat them up with sugarcane sticks. I was livid at the sight and went after him with a rock. That is when he released them.”

This was Babu Mangal, a 50-year-old man from the primarily adivasi village of Dabhia in Khandwa district, recounting his nightmarish experience as a labourer in Maharashtra.

The fire, Mangal said, forced the rest of the group to also come out in the open. The employer then got the men and the women lined up and beaten up by hired goons. For three days, they remained locked up and hungry, while being continuously beaten. On the fourth day, the entire lot were taken to another village where they were made to work for three months.

“Once all the harvesting was done, we were dumped in Pandharpur. It was with the help of local folk and the police that we could ultimately return home.”

All of this, only to return home penniless after five months of hard, abusive labour in Maharashtra.

Babu Mangal and his group of 19 labourers from the Madhya Pradesh village had been lured by a contractor’s middleman to work in Ganeshwadi near Pandharpur. They were promised Rs 800 for every 150kg of sugarcane harvested, working eight hours per day. But once there, they were made to work from 5am until 10pm every day.

Unfortunately, this is an all too familiar story in these parts...

Rescue operations to free bonded labour

On January 4, 2022, Khandwa Police collaborated with Karnataka's Bijapur Police to rescue 16 adivasi labourers from the clutches of sugarcane farmers. The group belonged to Khandwa's Devalikala village. Local labour contractor Laxman had manipulated them to Karnataka with the promise of well-paid jaggery packing jobs. On reaching, they were pushed into harvesting sugarcane without wages. Getting in touch with Jan Saahas a community-centric organisation involved with safe migration and workers’ protection, they managed to get their kin to complain to local District Magistrate Anoop Singh. The labourers were ultimately freed, with the Bijapur administration and police working in tandem with Khandwa administrators.

In February 2022, around 39 labourers, including nine women from Damjipura village in Betul district, were whisked away to Vijaywada after being promised jobs in Maharashtra. The labourers were neither given their wages, nor allowed to return home. Instead, they were beaten and threatened with murder. When they ultimately refused to work, the men were told to go, leaving behind their women. They somehow managed to get word through to their kin back home. With the help of Karunashankar Shukla of Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad of Harda and Supreme Court lawyer and adviser to the Madhya Pradesh Tribal Cell Vikrant Kumre, who got in touch with Karnataka Police, the labourers could finally return home.

On March 28, 2022, a group of 25 men and 10 women from Jamunapur and Udayapur villages of Khalwa block handed a memorandum to the governor about having been cheated to work in Maharashtra by two labour contractors in November 2021. They were made to work 15 hours daily, with no time off for either meals or rest. They had not been paid Rs 3.37 lakh in pending wages.

Compensation rarely comes their way

Shersingh Soma, a 25-year old labourer from Dagadkot village in Khalwa district, had gone to work in Aurangabad in October 2021. Two months after he joined work, he was killed in a road accident when attending to some job for his contractor. Although his wages were paid, there was no compensation given.

Durgesh Ramjeevan, a 20-year old from Matapur village, had migrated to Kandhar in Nanded to work on a road project. He died there on December 2021. The family had a tough time retrieving his body, since the contractor was trying to dispose it of. The family neither received his wages of four months, nor any compensation.

Kullu Chauhan, a 55-year old from Chabutara village, took up a job to harvest moong in Nahali village of Harda district. Already sick, Chauhan’s health deteriorated further, and he died on May 18, 2021. Till date, no compensation has been given.

Eight young men from Junapani in Khalwa block had gone to Karnataka to work. One of them, Kindra Babulal, died on April 13, 2021. Although the employer informed his family, the body was disposed of before anyone could reach there. In the absence of a police complaint, there was no investigation.

The harrowing accounts of bonded labour and abuse continue, only to worsen with cases where parents had no choice but to push their children into the same sorry state of affairs.

On August 23, 2019, ChildLine volunteers in Khargone helped free 10 minors from a group of Rajasthani shepherds. The children revealed that their parents had entered into a business deal with the shepherds for Rs 10,000, wherein the children were to work for the shepherds for a year. ChildLine ultimately rescued them with the help of the police.

What drives people to migrate?

One of the major reasons behind migration from Madhya Pradesh's Khandwa district is the that workers in the state get the least amount in wages under MNREGA. As against  Rs 331 in Haryana, Rs 315 in Goa, Rs 311 in Kerala, and Rs 309 in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh pays just Rs 204 per day.

Four years ago, in 2019-20, it was Rs 176 per day. In 2020-21, it was Rs 190 per day, and in 2021-22, it was Rs 193 per day. Compare this with Bihar and Jharkhand, which currently pay Rs 210 per day. These low wages offered by the government seemingly sets the precedent for merchants and big farmers.

Furthermore, even as the state refuses to accept the high rate of migration from Khandwa's Khalwa block, civil society organisations working here tell us a different story. According to a survey by Caritas India under its Sabal project, 30% of the Khalwa's residents migrate from the block every year.

Elaborating on the Sabal project, coordinator Rakesh Karole told 101Reporters, “We've taken several initiatives to check migration. Labourers rendered unemployed during the pandemic were engaged in water conservation schemes; we also arranged for 7,200 days of employment for 832 persons here, besides getting them involved in organic farming."

Addressing bonded labour, punishing the guilty

Bonded labour was abolished in India under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act in 1976. Cancelling all debt against bonded labourers, the legislation declared the practice punishable. However, due to a number of reasons , the implementation of the law has been weak. The foremost being the lack of any formal documentation of the migrating residents. For instance, Khandwa has been leading in Madhya Pradesh to record seasonal migration, but there is no registered data. Additionally, the distressed labourers often don't pursue cases against their employers or are mostly unaware of the laws framed around it.

Discussing the issues involved, District Superintendent of Police Vivek Singh told 101Reporters: “There were three instances when we rescued migrants forced into bonded labour this year. But these workers never alert the police when trapped in such a situation. It's only social workers who approach us. Unless bonded labourers themselves come forth and complain, we cannot take action.”

Referring to the rescue effected at Bijapur in Karnataka, Singh said, “Although we could rescue the labourers, we could not trace the employer. Neither could the labourers furnish details of the employer who had harassed them; as a result, he got away."

This story is the last of a three-part series on the mass migration of tribals from Madhya Pradesh's Khandwa district. You can also read Part-I and Part-II.

Edited by Rina Mukherji

All Photos: Mohammad Asif Siddiqui

Cover Page Illustration: Prajwal M


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