The Great Odisha ‘Rescue’ Act

By Tapan K Padhi 

Over 500 migrant labourers rescued/ Nuapada, December 19

31 more workers rescued from traffickers, Boden (Nuapada), December 22

51 more migrant workers ‘rescued’, Patnagarh (Bolangir), December 30

11 minor girls rescued, two brokers held, Ghantikhal/Athgarh (Cuttack), Jan 8

migration 1These are only some of the headlines from the newspapers in the last few days. Only the numbers change. But the word ‘rescue’ keeps recurring in newspaper headline after newspaper headline with a monotonous regularity.

Rescue is a long, unfolding story in Odisha these days. The trigger for this deluge, of course, was provided by the Big Story about the chopping off of the palms of two migrant labourers from Kalahandi district by ruthless middlemen on December 15 last year – a story so mind-numbing in its gruesomeness that it made international headlines.

The Great Odisha Rescue Act that began in its wake, however, looks like slowly petering out into insignificance. Once front page stuff, rescue stories have now shifted to the inner pages. And soon, these double/triple column stories will shed weight to fit into single column ones. Before the great rescue act fades away completely from public memory, it needs a foot note.

Rescue. The dictionary reads rescue (V) save (someone) from a dangerous or difficult situation. What exactly is the ‘dangerous or difficult situation’ that the migrant labourers are being rescued from? The rescuers would have us believe that they are being rescued from being trafficked, from working in some brick kiln or other places in difficult situations, from confinement and torture by the employers, from economic exploitation, from their hands and legs being chopped off.

On the face of it, the intention certainly looks unexceptionable. No one can possibly quarrel with the state government on this noble and pious act. But there is just one catch. When someone is saved from a dangerous or difficult situation, it inevitably implies that he/she is being taken to a safer and easier – or at least less difficult – situation. But what is the situation these workers, who were on their way to some distant, hostile place to work, are led back to? No doubt they are being led to their own villages, from where they had set out. What awaits these rescued migrant workers back home? They have no work in the village to pursue (precisely the reason for which they were migrating out in the first place). They also have no money to feed themselves. Over and above this, they have the money lender, dalal, sardar or whatever you call them, to pester them to return the money that they had taken as advance. Now that it has become difficult for them to take the labourers out of the state for no fault of theirs, it is only to be expected that the ‘dalals’ would ask for their pound of flesh. Was not this the same pound of flesh demanded by the dalals that led to palm chopping? With a suddenly vigilant administration and the village situation, the aggression of the dalals will perhaps be muted. But nevertheless it will be there to make the labourers, whose bid to migrate out failed, feel jittery. In the changed situation, labour may no more be a commodity to be bought cheap. But it could well be the small pieces of land belonging to them that may go under the hammer of the dalals. After being rescued, where are all these labourers taken to – unemployment, hunger, distress sale and the fear of the dalals?

In the great rush to rescue migrant labourers, what has been forgotten is the reasons that force these people tp migrate? It is not as if they do not know the risks or dangers of migrating out in the manner they do. But still, even after the hand chopping incident, thousands of people have been desperately trying to sneak out of the state so that they can fulfill their part of the bargain under the agreement they had struck with the contractor – or dalals – while taking the advance. A population of no less than ten lakhs is compelled to move out of the state to earn a few bucks to see them through the rest of the year. What else can they possibly do?

The much touted Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) that has an assurance of 100 days of work per family per year does not provide any guarantee of employment back home. It is ironical that a much vaunted scheme that is designed to arrest distress migration by providing jobs at the doorsteps of the needy has failed in a region that see the maximum number of people migrating out of the state in search of work. Even more ironical is the fact that while millions migrate for wages much less than 80 rupees per day, the administration takes the plea that they do not get enough job seekers to run this employment guarantee scheme.

With so many welfare schemes in place, including a special program for the KBK region, it is pertinent to ask why people are so desperate as to migrate. Has migration got into their blood? Or may be their genes? That is why despite all the difficulty, exploitation, torture, chopping of limbs etc. they still insist on migrating out of the state with the help of the dalals or sardars.

Or is it that all these schemes have not really made any dent in their desperation to migrate out? If all the schemes starting from MGNREGS to the one rupee rice, from Western Odisha Rural Livelihood and Employment Program to National Rural Livelihood Program have not really made any dent in the socio-economic compulsions of the population of these marginalized households in the state, is it not high time to look at the whole gamut of programs and their implementation afresh? Should not the State government have done a soul searching on why the MGNREGS is proving so ineffective in containing migration? Is the program not remunerative enough, or does it not fit into their scheme of the things? Or it is sheer poor implementation and administrative incompetence that has failed to instill faith in these hapless people that MGNREGS could also be one of the options to be tried?

One thing is for sure, though; the delay in payment for months together has been a major reason for the job seekers not having confidence in MGNREGS as a bailing out option.

But the government is far from making any move to tailor the scheme to the people’s needs. It has not even thought of starting MGNREGA on a war footing to address the present situation. It is simply busy ‘rescuing’ the migrant labourers and sending them back to their villages. How they will survive does not appear to be any of the government’s concerns.

One fails to compare which one is the better option for these rescued migrant labouers – a life of exploitation, torture, risk to life in lieu of some money and food for the family or a life in their villages of unemployment, starvation and fear of the dalals? Till date, there has been no discussion in the media or even in the corridors of power as to how these rescued people are to be employed and managed back home. Rather, the government has been treating migration merely as a law and order problem to be addressed by rescuing the migrants. This rescue has been such mindless that a group of 50/60 labourers on their way to Bhubaneswar were also ‘rescued’. Dear Sarkar, these people were going to work in your state and in the state capital at that. Rather than rescuing them, should not you have actually ensured that they are not exploited?

It is not a law and order problem to be addressed by rescuing the migrant labourers. Migration per se should not be something to frown on if it is not distress migration. And distress compels the workforce to accept exploitation and poor working conditions. The only thing that the government needs to do is to take out the element of distress from such migration. And this can be done by making the migrating workforce less vulnerable (that is work at the village level through generation of livelihoods) or ensuring that the labourers are not exploited (which means enhanced monitoring and surveillance that the state government has a poor record on). Rescue is serving none of the two purposes. It is only ensuring that people do not migrate.

Tapan Padhi is the Director of National Institute for Development (NID), Bhubaneswar

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