On the journey from Bhubaneswar to Berhampur, one topic is ubiquitous: migration. It’s like everyone is everywhere else in southern Odisha including Naveen Patnaik’s constituency.
The three-hour journey from Bhubaneswar to Berhampur by the Visakha Express is a different sort of journey, quite distinct from the passage through the mining heartland of Odisha up north. This is a dash through the power corridor of the state down to Berhampur, once considered the nerve centre of southern Odisha. It’s a journey through a very different socioeconomic situation and a different moodscape. The passengers are a collection of commuters, day-trippers and vacationers. Apart from this flock, people from across Khurda and Ganjam’s varied economic and social spectrum get on and off at stations along the way.
I hopped on to compartment S5 of the Visakha Express one wintry morning to find it almost full. Hardly anyone was speaking to each other, most of the passengers hiding behind newspapers or glued to cell phones. A few miles out, a young man broke the ice, reading aloud to no one in particular a few lines from his newspaper.
“The chief minister has once again promised to fulfill the promises his party made in the the last Assembly poll. The panchayat elections are around the corner,” he said scoffingly. This was the cue to other passengers to join the conversation.
The young man introduced himself as Sunil Sonar. He’s an MBA grad who works for a finance company. Freshly after his graduation in 2006, he had had to leave Berhampur as he could not find a job locally. So he had to move to Bengaluru to work for a private bank. “Not a single big industry has come up in Ganjam in the last three decades. Which is why young people are migrating to other states,” he said. If Naveen Patnaik really focussed on industrialisation, they wouldn’t have to go,” he said.
As railway journeys go, cribbing about the government is a safe conversation topic and several other passengers joined in. Prafulla Padhi, a high school teacher, said migration was indeed a major problem. “You bump into people from almost all blocks of my district in Surat, Mumbai and Chennai. But who cares? Nobody is bothered,” he said in typical railway passenger fashion.
A trader, Jayant Gupta, pointed out that even people in the CM’s own constituency of Hinjili have had to migrate to Mumbai and Surat.
I had had my introduction to migration as the lingua franca of Odisha’s railway journeys right at Bhubaneswar. In the second class waiting room there, a railway station official had pointed out to me three persons who had come back home after a bitter migration ordeal. The three men from Chikili village in Khallikote block had just returned from Chennai where they gone to work, lured by a labour contractor who promised them wages at the rate of Rs 250 per day plus food and lodging.
“It was my first experience outside Odisha,” said one of them, Madhab Dakua a man of fifty or so and a father of five. “The contractor promised us a regular salary. However, apart from the train fare and weekly allowance of Rs 300, he gave us nothing more. The food was poor.”
The trio landed in Chennai on Dec. 2, and lived through that city’s nightmare fortnight of death, demonetization and cyclone devastation. They couldn’t stand it and decided to leave. “The contractor still owes us. He has assured to pay us on January 10. We have to wait,” said Dakua.
After hearing that snatch of conversation about Naveen Patnaik’s constitutency on the Visakha Express, I decided to hop off the train at Berhampur to take in Hinjili. About 20 km by road is Kanchuru, a town in Hinjili, where I chatted up a betel leaf seller, Kanha Sahu. Migration was on the tip of his tongue too. “My brother left home and has been working in a garment factory in Mumbai for the last 15 years. I too would have left but my father needed me to help him in running the shop.
Elsewhere in the village, people told me there was not a household that did not have members eking out a livelihood elsewhere. More than 200 people from this village and 1,300 from nearby Saru village have migrated. The marriage season is when they come back to visit and then the place looks like its former self again.
Sahu pointed to a house in the locality. It’s the Bijay Mohanty household. All of his four sons work away from Odisha. Two of them, Satyanarayan and Sadananda Mohanty who work on the power looms in Surat,are back visiting. The absent two are in Mumbai and Vijayawada.
Satyanarayan told me it’s a struggle in Surat. He’s been there more than a decade. “We struggle to get work but finding a job there is easier than it is here. We are not matriculates and we don’t have land. That’s why we decided to move out rather than become agricultural workers. We make Rs 12,000-14,000 a month.
The Surat locality in which the brothers live, Satyanarayan said, is called Amruli also known as Mini Odisha.. “Seventy per cent of the people are Odias.”
There are no official figures for migration out of southern Odisha. NGOs put it close to 10 lakh of which Ganjam district accounts for 5.5 lakh alone. On an average, 25,000 to 30,000 workers migrate from Hinjili, Aska (Naveen’s former constituency) and Purusottampur blocks every year.
Satyanarayan Mohanty sees light at the end of the tunnel. “We migrant workers are trained in looming and weaving. So if power looms or apparel industries are set up here, we can return and contribute to the state’s economy,” he added.