PUBLISHED IN THE INDIAN EXPRESS
A December night two desperate men, held captive by a labour contractor, were asked this, and had to make a choice. DEBABRATA MOHANTY reports on the latest victims of Orissa’s vicious migration cycle
It had been a fortnight that Dialu Niyal and Nilambar Dhangdamajhi had been held captive and subjected to physical and verbal abuse. Nothing though had prepared them for what happened on December 15 night deep in a forest of Bolangir district. Labour contractor Parvesh Duni and his accomplices dragged them there and Duni, the two say, asked them which of their limbs they would rather lose: a leg or a hand.
“For a moment I was bewildered. Then Nilambar muttered to the contractor that if we have legs at least, we could walk for the rest of our lives. We told the contractor he could take our hands,” says Niyal, speaking over the phone from his bed in VSS Medical College and Hospital in Burla, Sambalpur district. “They were arguing whether to kill us or leave us maimed. They concluded that they would chop the hand with which we had taken the advance for working in a kiln. First they chopped off Nilambar’s right palm with an axe. As he was howling in pain, they held my right hand and someone landed a blow. Both of us passed out.”
As soon as they came to, they hurried to a nearby hillock and hid. “Despite profusely bleeding, the two walked up the hill and climbed down to a farmer’s barn the next morning. The farmer, after hearing their story, took them to the bus stop. A villager offered them a cheap plastic bag to cover their wounds. They took a bus to reach Bhawanipatna town of Kalahandi, where the locals took them to a hospital,” says Kirtan Nayak, a journalist.
As the news spread, the Kalahandi district administration cracked down. Three days after they had allegedly left Niyal and Dhangdamajhi to die, Duni and his aides — Bana Majhi, Baikuntha Rout, Arjun Bhoi and Gangadhar Dash — were arrested from Nuapara district.
Lying on adjacent beds, Niyal, a 22-year-old illiterate and landless Dalit youth from Pipalguda village, and Dhangdamajhi, a 32-year-old tribal farmer and father of two from Nuaguda village — both from Kalahandi district — say they met for the first time on November 30, when with 10 other villagers from Jaipatna block of Kalahandi district, they set off with Duni’s men for work in Chhattisgarh. Midway they came to know that they would be sent to brick kilns of Andhra Pradesh instead. The 10 others managed to flee, Niyal and Dhangdamajhi paid the price. Duni allegedly took out his anger on them as he had paid the 12 of them Rs 14,000 each, in advance, to work at a brick kiln.
Thousands of villagers like them from the impoverished Koraput, Bolangir and Kalahandi travel to Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra every year to work in brick kilns.
In Jaipatna, even the rise in agriculture productivity has done nothing for the likes of Niyal and Dhangdamajhi. Schemes like NREGA which the government hoped would prevent migration have been an unqualified disaster in Kalahandi. In 2012-13, out of 74,599 households in the district which got NREGA work, 3,695 housesholds, or less than 5 per cent, got 100 days of work. This year less than 1 per cent of the 63,217 households which got NREGA work have got 100 days’ work. In such a situation, says B K Upadhyay, the district collector, “People fall for the advance from contractors.”
Though officially in the Above Poverty Line category, Niyal’s family of five scrounges for a living. The family of Dhangdamajhi, which has a house under the Indira Awas Yojana and 3 acres of land, lives by selling kendu leaves. “Having two square meals for my sons is a dream,” says Dhangdamajhi.
In November, Duni, through his agent Baikuntha Rout, came offering Rs 14,000 each to the 12 villagers. They left Kalahandi with the 12, including four children, first heading for Khariar road in Nuapada district, from where Duni arranged a bus for them to Raipur. After they reached Raipur on December 5, Duni allegedly told them that they would have to go to Hyderabad. “This led to arguments with Duni and his agents, who insisted that the villagers would have to go to Hyderabad as they had been paid in advance,” says Kalahandi SP Sarthak Sarangi.
Though the 12 villagers boarded a train to Hyderabad, six slipped away between Raipur and Gondia. “The other six were caught by the agents at Raipur station on December 6. Of them, two husband-wife couples escaped after Railway Protection Force men intervened. Niyal and Dhangadamajhi were unlucky,” adds the SP. According to the two, the next day, they were taken to Duni’s village Kotmal, kept under house arrest and made to work in his fields. “Duni and his men kept asking us to get Rs 2 lakh, saying they had paid
Rs 1.68 lakh for the 12 of us. They contacted our families, threatening to kill us if the money was not paid. We told them we could never pay them,” says Niyal.
On December 15 evening, the two were taken in an SUV to Belpada forest in Bolangir, where their hands were cut. Duni and his men allegedly threw the severed palms into a pond nearby and left the two bleeding on the forest road, thinking they would die.
While Orissa Labour Department officials say that 1.18 lakh people migrate every year from the state for work, it has done no survey to determine that figure. According to Umi Daniel, head of Migration Thematic Unit of Aide et Action South Asia, “The numbers could be more than a million. Almost every year KBK (Koraput-Bolangir-Kalahandi) districts face drought-like situation which results in mass migration. The labour contractors come to villages before winter and pay advances for work in brick kilns. The money helps people pay off their debt. The next year is the same story. It’s a business of at least Rs 100 crore, which keeps local politicians, sarpanchs, labour contractors and policemen enriched.”
Existing laws have proved ineffective. As per the Inter State Migrant Workman Act, 1979, each job contractor who hires at least five labourers for work outside the state is supposed to register himself with the District Labour Officer. But the threat of Rs 1,000 fine and three-month imprisonment is hardly a deterrent for defaulting contractors. Last year, the Orissa government signed an MoU with Andhra Pradesh for reducing vulnerabilities of migrant workers. Orissa is supposed to get job contractors and their list of labourers registered with the district labour office. In Kalahandi, only three contractors have registered. The contractor taking villagers from Jaipatna block was unregistered.
While the state government has announced relief measures for Niyal and Dhangdamajhi, including assistance for an artificial limb, NREGS job card, disability pension and monetary assistance of Rs 4 lakh, Niyal wonders why they had to lose their hands for the government to take note of their plight.
This attention too will last only briefly. P K Baliarsingh, Assistant Labour Commissioner, blames the problem on the labourers, saying “these people are so greedy they fall for the advance given by contractors”. “Do you think we have the necessary staff to deal with all this?” he adds.