Centre stage

Home is where the hearth is

Minimising the woes of migrant workers is the prime objective of a pilot project in Odisha that takes a multi-pronged approach in dealing with a humanitarian problem

Idid my penance for seven years and I couldn’t do it anymore,” says 50-year-old Lakhan Majhi as he describes his experience of migrating every year from Odisha to Uttar Pradesh to work as seasonal labour in the brickkiln industry. Till a year ago, Mr Majhi, who hails from Chindpani village in Odisha’s Nuapada district, was among the hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers from the state who travel far from their homes to earn a living in the brickkilns of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in the south and Uttar Pradesh in the north.

Backbreaking toil in inhumane conditions led Mr Majhi to give up the kilns, and his life has taken a turn for the better ever since. Thanks to a Tata Trusts initiative, he now cultivates a variety of vegetables on his 2.5-acre patch of land. The hardworking Mr Majhi earned a good 75,000 last year without leaving home.

Livelihood interventions under the Trusts’ Odisha migration programme have been the key in transforming the lives of Mr Majhi and thousands like him, people driven by desperation in their search for employment. They are part of the target group the Trusts had in mind when they began working on migration as an issue in 2006. In the years since, the initiative has grown to cover economically stressed states such as Rajasthan, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh, which account for a disproportionately large number of migrants.

Odisha is a focus area for the Trusts, and with good reason. It ranks among the poorest states of India, has a monthly per capita income of 4,976 against the national average of 6,426 in 2012-13 agriculture year as per the survey of the National Sample Survey Organisation. With agriculture, mainly rain-fed paddy cultivation, becoming unprofitable and other means of livelihood limited or nonexistent, the rural population is forced to find work outside their state.

Rajeev Kumar
Livelihood interventions have helped farmers like Samari Bariha from Karla Khutna in Odisha’s Bolangir district to break free from the annual cycle of migration

Stark numbers

Migration numbers among Odisha’s rural population have been increasing steadily over the years, with landless labourers constituting the bulk of these unfortunates. The problem has deepened down the years, with 11 of the state’s 30 districts now classified as migration-prone. The worst of these are Balangir and Nuapada: a 2016 survey mapping 38,000 households across 30 gram panchayats (village councils) in the two districts revealed that about 36% of the population left Odisha in search of work.

Government figures do not capture the complete picture. In 2015, only about 146,000 people officially migrated out of Odisha, a three-fold increase over the 55,000 who left in 2007. The actual numbers could be much higher. “Individuals who wish to migrate are required to register themselves with the state government to qualify for the government’s welfare schemes,” explains Poma Tudu, the district collector of Nuapada. “However, there is widespread belief among the rural populace that if they register the government will forcibly bring them back.”

Such misconceptions and fears about governmental interventions to prevent distress migration are common. As a result, thousands of families are unable to access government welfare schemes set up specifically to help migrants. “The workers, along with their families, often migrate for paltry gains,” says Arindam Dakua, the collector of Balangir. “What is perplexing is the fact that these people migrate in spite of the state providing for their primary needs.”

It’s no secret that the lot of migrant labour is terrible. In addition to working long hours in conditions bordering on bondage, these workers are often cheated out of what are their rightful dues. Many are forced into debt and even more dire straits. “We had to live in huts at the worksites and the conditions were filthy,” says Goura Bariah from Karla Khutna village in Balangir. “Each one of us had to make 1,500 bricks daily. I managed to earn just 5000 a month for all the hard labour.”

Our interventions are aimed at improving the quality of life of the migrant families — in both the source and destination states.”

Mary Surin, area manager, Tata Trusts

Improved access to and quality of education have helped students of Dhanora school in Odisha’s Nuapada district

Schooling for a better tomorrow

The Dhanora upper primary school in Nuapada district, situated about 440 km west of Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar, does not have any benches or desks for its students. Instead, the children have to make do with iron cots. Reason: the school functions as a seasonal hostel between November and June, when a sizeable number of Nuapada’s population migrates out of the state for work.

These seasonal hostels, which cater to children aged 6 to 14, have been set up to prevent the kids from migrating along with their families and dropping out of school. The seasonal hostels were conceived and implemented by the state government.

However, the ‘gram panchayat resource centres’ (GPRCs), set up as part of the Odisha migration initiative, have played a major role in strengthening the system.

The GPRCs have zeroed in on children eligible for stay at the hostels, identified new schools for setting up hostels and ensured that they started functioning in time for the migration season. About 75 new seasonal hostels have been opened by the state government in Nuapada alone and about 7,000 students have sought admission to the hostels.

The Tata Trusts have also partnered the state government to set up model seasonal hostels in 11 schools to showcase the best in infrastructure. “Due to lack of information or misconceptions, migrant families are often reluctant to leave their children at the hostels,” says Mary Surin, area manager, Tata Trusts. “By improving the infrastructure and functioning of these hostels, we want to convince them about the advantages of leaving their children at the hostels.”

The hostels are totally free as the government provides for all the essential needs. The Trusts, on their part, have provisioned for solar-powered lights, inverters, safe drinking water, and play and study material. The Trusts have even appointed remedial teachers for the children at the hostels.

For the families of migrant labourers, securing admission in the model schools means a fair chance to change their destinies and break free from the vicious cycle of poverty and indignity. The Trusts have tied up with two state-run industrial training institutes (ITIs) to facilitate skill-training of youth from the underserved communities. A testimony to the success of this initiative is that 11 youngsters from migrant workers’ families in Nuapada have secured admission to the ITIs.

The migration programme kicked off with the Trusts signing an agreement with the state government in April 2017, the objective being to reduce migration from 30 villages of Balangir and Nuapada. Crucial to the success of the initiative is reducing distress migration, where people are forced to move due to poverty, lack of employment opportunities, food insecurity or environmental degradation.

The programme is also aimed at ensuring that migrant labour have safer working conditions and that they are not exploited. Additionally, alternate livelihood means are provided to prevent distress migration. “Our interventions are aimed at improving the quality of life of migrant families – in both the source and destination states – through the elimination of unsafe conditions and the implementation of mechanisms to remove bondage,” says Mary Surin, area manager with the Tata Trusts. “We support them in emergencies and help them fight for their rights.”

There are a host of factors at play in the initiative, from ensuring that government entitlements reach the workers to running livelihood, education and skill-development programmes. ‘Gram panchayat resource centres’ (GPRCs), a pilot project started in partnership with the state government in Nuapada, serves as the fulcrum of the initiative.

“The government provides monetary and other help under 31 different government sponsored social security entitlements and schemes such as scholarships for students, pensions for widows, assistance for people with disabilities and money for funeral expenses, but these benefits often fail to reach those they are intended for,” says Srikanta Kumar Routa, a senior manager with the Trusts. “The primary objective of the GPRCs is to ensure that government entitlements reach the last-mile beneficiaries, the migrant workers and those looking to travel out of the state for work.”

The change blueprint

The GPRCs — there are 45 of them in Nuapada — are located within the respective gram panchayat offices. Each of them has a village-appointed facilitator to coordinate between the locals and the government agencies. The GPRCs are equipped with computers and the facilitators are trained to identify needs and the needy in their areas.

The centres educate the villagers about alternate livelihood models available and the do’s and don’ts for safe migration. They serve as a repository of information for the rural poor. Between November 2017 and November 2018, about 39,000 linkages across 32 schemes and services have been facilitated by the GPRCs, which have been extended across Kalahandi and Rayagada, taking their total number to 61. Some success is already visible. “While the numbers are still small, we see that some families which used to migrate every year have stopped going out of the state for work,” says Mr Routa.

The Trusts have helped the Odisha government start a toll-free helpline which can be accessed from anywhere in India. Meanwhile, help desks for migrant labour have begun functioning in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Delhi. “The helpline and the help desks play a critical role in reaching out to migrant workers during emergencies in coordination with destination state government,” says Dr Tudu.

Realising the limitations of current livelihood interventions and the inevitability of migration, the Trusts are directing their efforts towards ensuring a humanitarian cycle of migration. In addition to the interventions to check migration in source states, the Trusts have launched initiatives at the destination states where the migrants travel for work.

One example of this is the Trusts’ attempt to develop ‘model contracts’ between the workers and brickkiln owners in Telangana. About 32 families, comprising 100 adult labourers and 50 children from Nuapada and Balangir, were sent as part of the pilot project launched in November 2017. “The idea was to demonstrate a prototype of alternate financing to prevent bondage and ensure transparency in wage payment,” says Ms Surin. “The migrant workers were provided advances against their wages — a prerequisite for the migrant workers — by a micro-finance company and the wages were credited to the migrants’ bank accounts weekly.”

Improving worksite conditions, raising the quality of life of migrants and preventing their exploitation are key responsibilities in the programme. “We worked with 51 brickkilns in Telangana and engaged with 2,909 migrant families in the November season,” adds Ms Surin. The initiative was launched in Karimnagar in November 2017 and currently planned to be expanded to five other districts in the state.

Crops with short growing seasons, such as chillies, are the mainstay of the livelihood interventions in the migration project

Farming help in staying put

Till about a year ago, Rupdhar Bhoi, a 55-year-old from Karla Khutna in Odisha’s Balangir district, used to migrate to work in brickkilns. Months of dreary toil at the kiln by him and his three family members earned them a meagre 50,000. “We worked from early morning to late in the night and made about 2,000 bricks daily. We lived in pitiable conditions and subsisted on meagre allowances,” says Mr Bhoi.

While Mr Bhoi hopes to transform his life by setting up a goat-rearing unit in his village, 45-year-old Bachulal Naik of Bhoirwadi in Nuapada district is harvesting the benefits of informed choice facilitated by the Tata Trusts.

Farming in drought-prone Nuapada was difficult and for want of options Mr Naik and his family went to work in brickkilns. Now, thanks to the agricultural know-how, seeds and fertilisers provided by the Trusts, he has earned welcome money by growing vegetables and other crops on his 1.5-acre plot.

The Trusts’ livelihood interventions also take in on landless villagers, who form the bulk of the migrant population. A pilot initiative, launched in Mahurandi village in Balangir, has brought together farmers who work on leased land to cultivate on a crop-sharing basis. Several financial models are being tested under this pilot initiative.

“Getting lump sum cash in advance is a psychological need and established cash-flow pattern of the migrant labourers over the years,” says Mary Surin, area manager, Tata Trusts. “Just as they get an advance before going to the kilns, the sharecroppers are also provided cash in advance. In addition, they are also paid weekly for the labour they contribute in the fields. Various models are being tested to select the one that addresses the needs and requirements of the villagers optimally.”

As part of another faming-based intervention, this one in Bhoirwadi in Nuapada, about 100 families across eight villages are reaping the benefits of what is known as the ‘50 cent model’. Marginal farmers with half-an-acre have been provided seeds, fertilisers and pesticides to cultivate their small parcels of land and reap the benefits.

A leg up for children

In Telangana, the programme provides primary education for the young kids who accompany their parents. Brickkiln owners were persuaded to come together to fund schools and crèches for the children. About 310 children across 21 kiln clusters were targeted as part of the pilot project during the last season and crèches for children below the age of six were also opened.

Rajasthan is another focus area as it sees a sizeable inflow of migrant workers, mainly from Uttar Pradesh. Most of these migrants to Rajasthan come along with their family members and work in the kilns for about eight months. And they are not covered under any government scheme.

The Trusts have established migration resource centres in Ajmer, Bhilwara, Rajsamund, Pali, Sri Ganganagar and Nagaur. Like the GPRCs in the villages, the centres facilitate linkages to government entitlements and schemes, legal assistance in wage and worksite-accident cases, and linkages to skill training, employment opportunities and banking services.

It costs about 1.5 million annually to run one such centre in Rajasthan. A membership-based model, where each migrant worker pays an annual fee of 100, ensures coverage for all members of migrant families. The Trusts have also set up a model brickkiln initiative in partnership with brickkiln owners and the Rajasthan government. These function as multipurpose service delivery centres for labour welfare and include preschool education, primary healthcare and public services.

The sustained interventions launched by the Tata Trusts to check migration and ensure livelihood options for migrant workers have succeeded in making a big difference in the lives of the beneficiaries. The success of the efforts offers a beacon of hope for underserved communities in the western districts of Odisha and other parts of the country. Mr Majhi sums up what the intervention has meant for him: “I have regained my paradise.”

With bricklkilns employing a good chunk of migrants from Odisha, ensuring safe work conditions and preventing exploitation is high on the agenda