Group President, Group Managing Director & Editor In Chief: Dr.Shelly Ahmed

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bonded Labours: Born To Be Bonded?

Dearth of work is forcing lakhs of families to seasonally migrate to other states in search of their livelihood. Here their children are forced to work as bonded labourers in the brick kilns, depriving them of their childhood, while the administration turns a blind eye.

Poverty entails sacrifice. When resource availability is scarce, one has to sacrifice for others. Poor migrant labourers from the remote villages of Odisha face this predicament daily.

Kamalini Bangula, 18 dropped out of school just after she passed class 5. Marginal farmers Tapi and Tulusa Bangula, parents of Kamalini and two more children, could hardly provide two square meals to the whole family, forcing them to migrate out of the state to Hyderabad, Tirupati, Visakhapatnam and other places to work in brick kilns. Ten years back, when the family first migrated, Kamalini had no choice but to stay with her family to help with brick making. Her sacrifice however did not go in vain. Now she is paying for her younger sibling’s education, who study in class ten and three, out of her income. When the family moves out, these children would stay with their uncle (elder brother of Tapi) to continuing schooling. “Let my sister’s dream of becoming a teacher come true!” says Kamalini wishing all the success to her younger sister. This time they have taken 35,000 rupees from a middleman to work in a brick kiln in the Cuttack district of Odisha.

Hundreds of thousands of families from drought prone western part of the state seasonally migrate to other states in search of work, through a well entrenched and exploitative middlemen system, characterised by hefty advance payment and tacit bondage of labour. Dearth of work in villages forces them out. Child labour is implicit in brick kiln industries where most of these families work. This is how Urban India, that demands more bricks for its real estate boom, thrives at the cost of poor children from rural areas. Laws to ban child labour in hazardous industries and to ensure primary education to children between 6-14 years have hardly produced the desired impact. Child labour continues unabated. 

A study by International Labour Organisation (ILO) conducted with Aide Et Action India (AEAI) in 2011-12 in Balangir, Nuapada and Kalahandi districts of Odisha, finds that as many as 11 percent of the total migrants are children in the age group of 6-14, whose education has been guaranteed by the Right to Education Law, 2009. Estimates from various sources put the number of migrant workers at around 2.5 to 3 hundred thousand from the western Odisha districts alone, about 85 percent of whom migrate to other states (Source: ILO study, 2011-12). So the number of children in this age group could well be between 25,000 to 30,000. Has the state done enough to protect their right to education?

Initiatives have been taken jointly by the government and the civil societies to work out two models for the education of migrant children. One is to open seasonal hostels in the villages to house the children of migrating families when their parents are away and the other is to run work-site schools in the host states and teach children in their native language. The latter entails a strong inter-state arrangement where Odia teachers and text books are to be sent to Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, the states with the maximum influx of migrant Odia labourers. Although last year was a disaster for the state in opening such hostels, for the year 2012-13 it has allocated funds for retaining 5389 students. 

During my recent tour of the villages in Belpada block of Balangir district, I found some of the hostels doing reasonably well. But in many cases the hostels have simply not come though and several children have migrated from their villages. While in some cases they were opened quite late after several families had already migrated. Babejori village of Gudhighat panchayat under Muribahal block is a case in point. November to January is the peak season of migration. Hostels should have opened by the first week of November to retain children of migrant workers.

On the other hand, Andhra Pradesh, which has taken a giant leap in providing education to the migrant children, claims that it taught 6453 Odia migrant children in the year 2011-12. However due to a lack of proper coordination between the education departments of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, the children could not get adequate Odia text books, although Odia teachers were made available. Sridhar Mether of Aide Et Action India, the NGO that partnered with the AP government in teaching migrant children says “We need to have different type of curriculum, which is more activity based, to keep the children involved.” 

The training of the migrant teachers and the quality of education remain a grey area. A willing Commissioner-cum-Secretary of Mass Education Department of Government of Odisha Ms Usha Padhee says “I understand that current inter-state arrangement to provide education to the Odia migrant children in other states is adhoc. We have made arrangements this time for timely delivery of text books in Andhra, Tamil Nadu and other states. They are our children. We are seriously pondering on having long term plans to ensure basic education of migrant children.”

Performance of the much hyped Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme (MGNREGA) in these districts, aimed to check distress migration, can well be an example of how a well designed law can get off-track when it is implemented, if the politicians and bureaucrats lack the will. During the current financial year (April 2012 to January 2013), in Balangir district an average of 28 days of work has been provided to 61,500 families, which is one fourth of the total families having Job Cards in the district. In Nuapada district, 30 days of work has been provided to 27,600 families, which is one fourth of the total Job card holders. In financial terms, the families have got about 3600 rupees as wages under MGNREGA. The government expects to check the migration of these families by providing them with such paltry wages and that too with exorbitant delay in payment. 

On the other hand middlemen offer a sum of 35,000 rupees at a time to a single family before migration. Recently the state government has decided to provide 150 days of work under MGNREGA against the minimum limit of 100 days in these two districts. One wonders what difference it would make to the schemes performance. “Till the basic issues of providing employment in time of need and timely payment remain unaddressed, only increasing the number of days will not curb distressed migration” opines Rajkishor Mishra, the Odisha Advisor to Right to Food Commission of Supreme Court.

Brick kilns in the country are one of the biggest employers of child labour apart from cotton geneing, carpet industries, jari work, diamond polishing etc. Even though they are being educated, the children continue to work in the kilns at night. The labour department officials in AP remain tight-lipped on the issue of child labour in brick kilns. Umi Daniel, who has done pioneering work on the education of migrant children, says “One way to prevent child labour is to check the children at the source area. Strict enforcement of the anti-child labour laws in the worksites is a must to stop the menace.”
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