From Bolangir, the ‘bonded bricks’ of India’s economic revival

Post the COVID pandemic, migration from Odisha’s poverty-stricken western districts has picked up pace

It is 11.15 p.m. in the sleepy town of Kantabanji in Odisha’s Balangir district when the Korba-Visakhapatnam Link Express pulled into the railway station. But even at the late hour, the arrival of the train saw a swarm of people, each with a gunny bag of basic needs, rushing towards the compartments, while one man on the platform shouted to make sure that no one was left behind.

Inside the crowded compartments, each person tried to find a little space as the train left for Visakhapatnam.

As the Indian economy tries to shake off the debilitating impact of the two waves of COVID-19 pandemic, it is these thousands of migrant workers from the remote corners of Balangir who form the unseen building blocks of a revival. Not surprisingly, the Korba-Visakhapatnam Link Express stops at Kantabanji for 10 minutes — its longest halt at a non-junction station.

Adept at making lakhs of bricks in a matter of few weeks, these workers are heading to the major cities of southern India for a livelihood as the promised Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme (MGNREGS) payments get delayed and the expected paddy harvest has fallen short after an erratic monsoon.

Resuming annual migration after a gap of four years, 45-year-old Yudhisthir Tandi with five other family members from Karlabahali village under Khaprakhol block of Balangir is among the many on the Link Express.

A 17-year-old college-going daughter and 15-year-old son, who would have appeared for his matriculation examination this year, have joined Mr. Tandi and his wife on the journey. The youngest member of the labour-team was Surekha, a class IV student, whose service would be required to help in cooking and babysitting at the brick kiln.

So what drove the Tandi family to migrate enmasse?

“The paddy harvest from my one acre land turned out to be below par due to harsh weather condition. I have a large family to look after and wage earned under MGNREGS was not enough to meet our expenses. We are migrating after receiving wage advance of ₹35,000 per person,” said Mr. Tandi. He is contracted to work in a brick-kiln till June next year.

Gurubaru Nag, his wife and their one-year-old baby from Ghagali village in Belpada block were among those who waited at the station for a train to Chennai.

“Income from two-acre land would have proved inadequate to feed all. Hence, we are migrating,” said Mr. Nag, whose wage advance was increased to ₹40,000 this year.

In the kharif season, the rainfall deficit in Balangir scuttled chances of a good harvest forcing hundreds like Mr Nag to throng the Kantabanji station for destinations across the country for survival.

Based on ticket sales, from September 15 and October 14 this year, as many as 5,615 passengers took the train from Kantabanji to Visakhapatnam. In the next 25 days — between October 25 and November 10 — the number of passengers between the two stations jumped to 7,753.

But the Link Express is no exception. In the same period of September 15-October 14, the Bilaspur-Tirupati Express saw 491 persons from Kantabanji travelling to Bitragunta in Andhra Pradesh. The next 25 days saw an almost threefold rise in passengers with 1,381 persons taking the same route to the small town in Andhra Pradesh, considered the gateway to brick manufacturing hubs in Nellore, Guntur and Chennai.

As per a conservative estimate, three passengers travel against each ticket during this time around.

The nascent revival in the economy has resurrected the ₹1000-crore labour market of western Odisha, with labour groups being shepherded from their villages.

“Brick manufacturing in southern India was affected after labourers deserted brick kilns in the first wave of COVID-19. The brick manufactures are running out of bricks and they want to replenish the stock as quickly as possible. So there is huge demand for labourers,” said a Belpada-based sardar (labour contractor), requesting anonymity.

He said, “We are accompanying brick kiln operators from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana from one village to another searching migrant labourers. Odia labourers are preferred over local workers because they work at a stretch without taking festival breaks. Moreover, they demand lower wages.”

At Karuanjhar village under Khaprakhol block, 30 families have already left for southern States for brick-making in the past fortnight. “Out 311 households in the village, 250 families have taken wage advance. It is a matter of time when the whole village would wear a deserted look,” said Harekrushna Banchore, a Karuanjhar resident, who is waiting for his sardar’s green signal to board a train.

In Gundurupali village in Khaprakhol block, Bansidhar Nial, a 30-year-old youth, did not receive his wages of ₹7,000 under the MGNREGS as scheduled caste and scheduled tribe workers were given priority in payment this year. “As I belong to an Other Backward Class community, my payment is delayed. I want to move out for brick kiln work,” said Mr. Nial who is looking for a good bargain to work in brick kiln.

About 75,000 families from poverty-stricken western Odisha districts such as Balangir, Nuapada, Kalahandi, Bargarh and Subarnapur migrate annually to work in brick kilns. Due to acute poverty, these workers take advance wages — a form of ‘debt bondage’ — which ties them to the kilns and the abysmal work conditions for the next six months at the very least.

Despite being virtually bonded and subject to physical and mental torture in the brick kilns, these workers are ready for another season of migration.

“The distress migration is a vicious cycle which never seems to end in this part of country. The underlying reason behind people opting for heartless employment year after year is poverty and lack of meaningful employment back home,” said Umi Daniel, head of the migration unit of Aide et Action, an NGO.

Mr. Daniel said the COVID-19 pandemic has made people poorer and they now require migration, though sometime it is more painful than before.

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