Sisters’ deaths brings focus back on distress migration from western Odisha

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Cousins Pramila Chandi (23) and Madnabati Chandi (18) from Manjiri village of Odisha’s Kalahandi district had travelled 1,000 km to Tamil Nadu with dreams of finding a new future. They toiled for eight months, earning wages to be able to help their families and fund their own marriages. But at 8 a.m. on June 3, a stack of bricks fell upon them as they were loading a lorry at a kiln in Tiruvallur district, killing them on the spot.

Also read: Odisha migrants face a double whammy on journey back home

“My mother and two sisters along with my aunt and cousin sister had gone to work in a brick kiln in Tamil Nadu. The meagre income from daily labour in the village was not enough to meet requirements beyond food here. We were hopeful that one of them would marry next year,” said Aswini Chandi, the victims’ brother, over phone.

“I, with my mother and sister, had taken advance wages of ₹90,000 while my aunt and cousin sister were paid ₹60,000. We would have had substantial income after two years of back-to-back migration to the brick kiln. However, fate had different plans,” said Kuni Chandi (21), who was returning to Odisha after cremating her sisters in Tamil Nadu.

Annual distress migration

The death of the two sisters has returned the focus to the annual distress migration taking place from poverty-stricken western Odisha districts.

As many as 611 migrant labourers from Manjiri panchayat in Kalahandi have registered with the State government’s COVID-19 portal for return to their villages. Of them, 200 have migrated outside the State from Manjiri village alone.

“Not much work is available here except under the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme). As people are not paid wages under the rural jobs scheme in time, they are forced to migrate to other States,” said Giridhari Teji, Sarpanch of Manjiri.

Without much bargaining power, women, adolescent girls and children move out to work in other States in distressing circumstances.

Lack of options

“They migrate under semi-bonded conditions due to a total lack of sustainable livelihood options in their native soil. Exploitative moneylenders take advantage of the situation and charge high rates of interest,” Umi Daniel, director, Migration Information and Resource Centre, Aide et Action, an international NGO.

“This never-ending cycle of debt forces labourers to accept the meagre advances given by sardars (middlemen) in connivance with brick-kilns owners in other States,” said Mr. Daniel.

A three-member labour group takes about ₹1.2 lakh as advance wage, which is usually spent on repaying of old loans, buying new clothes on the occasion of the ‘Nuakhai’ festival, or meeting medical expenses.

They work 14 hours daily to mould close to 3 lakh bricks in six months. They are paid ₹500 for every 1,000 bricks made. At the end of season, they earn ₹1.5 lakh but they return without any additional income as brick kiln owners charge them for travel, food and medical expenses.

In this time, the labourers live in dingy, cramped makeshift brick kiln campuses.

‘Safety audit’

The deaths of the Chandi sisters has caught the attention of the administration. “There are around 300 brick kilns in the district. Safety audit of brick manufacturing units will be carried out,” said an officer in the Tiruvallur district.

“Labourers are supposed to be registered under the Interstate Migrant Workmen Act, 1979. However, the process is not followed, leading to exploitation at brick kilns,” said S. M. Santosh, who works with the International Justice Mission.

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