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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Concern: MGNREGS Fails To Stem Odisha Migrant Tide

By Srimoy Kar (Guest Writer)

Odisha scripted yet another dark chapter last month in its continual saga of poverty and exploitation when middlemen  chopped off the hands of two migrant bonded labourers in Kalahandi district in reprisal to their companions’ escape with advance money. The sheer gruesomeness of the crime aside, the incident has laid bare the hollowness of the Naveen Patnaik government’s claims of successful implementation of poverty-alleviation schemes for the poor.

Despite MGNREGS, the `1 a kg rice scheme and the much-vaunted Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput (KBK) Action Plans, the age-old malaise of distress migration still exists in Odisha.
Every year more than two million people from the KBK and Western districts are forced to migrate to other states, exposing themselves to gross abuse and slavery. And, the number is rising every year, thanks to an abject failure of the Odisha government to build up and utilise MGNREGS as a sustainable livelihood source for the vulnerable sections.

More than seven years since MGNREGS implementation, over three quarters of the target population are deprived of the 100-day job guarantee. The statistics for 2012-13 reveal all. In Balangir, barely 11 per cent of the target households could get 100 days work, while in Nuapada and Kalahandi, a mere 5 per cent got that many days of job under the programme. Ironically, in spite of such dismal performance, the government has increased the 100-days work to 150 days in Balangir and Nuapada with the proclaimed objective of arresting migration.

Migration from the backward districts is fed by a vicious cycle of hunger and debt. Lack of employment opportunities forces the landless labourers to borrow money to sustain themselves in the festive seasons like Nuakhai. In exchange, they commit to bonded labour in other states. They mostly work in brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh as well as in other unorganised sectors in Maharashtra and Jammu and Kashmir. When work stops during monsoons, they return to their villages, but again succumb to the cycle of borrowing as they do not find sustainable employment opportunities here.

To make matters worse, this migrant population is also out of the purview of food security programmes like the `1 a kg rice scheme. As most of them head out for work beginning October and return only in June, they cannot participate in the Gram Sabhas and are not covered in BPL surveys. They are excluded from every welfare scheme beneficiary list. Moving out with families as they do, they also fail to avail benefits under public distribution system and their children the mid-day meals. Their womenfolk too are often sexually abused by employers. They live and work in appalling conditions and many die wretched deaths.

MGNREGS could have been a game-changer here if it was implemented properly and made demand-driven to cater to the migrant population. But, thanks to inefficiency, corruption and ill-defined priorities, the scheme has come a cropper. There is more to this than meets the eye. 

The illegal money lending and labour market in the KBK districts is worth more than `90 crore according to estimates. The migrants are exploited not only by local money lenders but also by labour contractors who work hand in glove. Yet their misery seems invisible to the authorities and few of the unlicenced contractors have been penalised. Obviously there is a nexus at work where some people benefit by turning a blind eye. 

Interestingly, the government continues to be oblivious to the disturbing social phenomenon and does not even have any estimates about the migration from the state. With ignorance, callousness and complicity at the top levels, there seems little respite for Odisha’s migrant labourers. 
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