The three-day tedious journey has failed to dampen the spirits of Bidua Majhi and his wife. They feel lucky to be back in their village so that they can participate in the festival of democracy and elect the right kind of people to the legislature on April 18 when Balangir Parliamentary Constituency goes to polls.
Their right to exercise their franchise, though, comes at a tragic human cost. The tribal couple which works in a brick kiln at Mahboobnagar in Telangana had to keep their two adult children, son Champeswar Majhi (22) and daughter Khirmoni Majhi (18) as collateral with the brick kiln operator. That’s the price the democracy extracts from migrants of this region.
In December last year, Bidua, in his mid-fifties, had taken a wage advance of Rs 1.20 lakh from the brick kiln operator. With four members in the family, the per head debt came to 30,000 which meant they have to churn out 3.5 lakh bricks during their seasonal engagement (six months) at the rate of Rs 360 per 1000 bricks.
The daily wage of each family member stands at Rs 160 which is meagre compared to the back-breaking labour they put in at the brick kiln and much less than the minimum wage fixed by the government.
Even food for these migrants does not come free. They foot the food bill. Though they get a weekly advance of 1600 for their ration, the same is adjusted during final settlement of the loan. “We have to do extra labour to clear the backlog and forgo the weekly off to compensate the loss of work incurred during our visit here,” Majhi recounts.
Not many fellow migrants from Kharkhara and nearby villages working in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and other states have the heart that Bidua shows to be present on the voting day.
“Election Commission of India has to think of making the electoral process inclusive and participatory than focusing only on its free and fair character. Necessary arrangements must be made to enable these migrant labourers be a part of the process,” says Umi Daniel, an expert on migration issues.
Despite several development interventions, distress migration continues unabated in at least six blocks of Balangir including Belpada under which Kharkhara falls. Of the 280 families of the village under Sarmuhan gram panchayat, around 120 families opted for the repressive seasonal employment due to recurring crop failures and lack of job opportunities in the region, points out Rajan Gual (60), a village elder.
“We have not been provided assured jobs under the flagship rural employment scheme of MGNREGS for last two years which has aggravated the situation,” Gual alleges.
Owner of 1.5 acres of unirrigated high land, Bidua, the marginal farmer, had no option but to accept debt migration to keep the hearth burning. Left with little livelihood option after recurring droughts and lack of job under NREGS, Bidua and others undertake seasonal migration every year.
The government apathy is stark as Kharkhara - around 70 kms away from the district headquarters town of Balangir - is yet to be connected with an all-weather road. The welfare measures of the government leave out many of the intended beneficiaries of the village since most them remain absent during programme mapping.
As a result, Bidua remains a non-entity for the much-hyped welfare programmes of both the State and the Centre. Though eligible, he does not figure among the beneficiaries who received first installment of Rs 5000 under the KALIA scheme of the Naveen Patnaik Government. His wife is yet to get free cooking gas connection under the Narendra Modi’s flagship Ujjwala scheme. Electricity under the Saubhagya too eludes Bidua’s house.
The indescribable hardships notwithstanding, the couple returns home to vote with the hope that some day, these law-makers will change their lives for good.