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Migrant Labour, Migrating Debt

Migrant labourers of MP are stuck in debt in Maharashtra and also in a system that assures no
health coverage for their hazardous occupation of stone crushing. Jaideep Hardikar recounts
their travails.

June 2004 - Panchgaon (Nagpur): He belongs to Ugrithana village in Seoni district of Madhya
Pradesh. He works as a daily-wage migrant labourer at a stone crusher on the dusty outskirts of
Pachgaoan, about 25 km South of Nagpur and borrows money from a private usurer from
Balaghat district for his household needs. Just about 30, Madan Warkhade, a Gond farmer of
four-acre land, is already a bonded-labourer – to both, the owner of the crusher here and the
private moneylender at Balaghat.

Like many other migrants toiling at the crusher units around, this farmer is bearing the brunt of
an agriculture crisis and unemployment that has ripped apart the countryside for the last decade
or so. And, he’s cursed to face an unending poverty too.

This is just the beginning of his multiple woes. It would take at least two generations of
Warkhade’s family to make a back-breaking attempt to come out of this web of poverty going by
the present wages and government policy for migrant labourers, or rather the lack of it. There’s
no sign that things would improve on the policy front. So, his adolescent son is ready to join him
in what seems a daunting task ahead - earning good money to run the family, repay the debt
and send some savings back home to the village where Warkhade’s parents live. But, the
ferocious grind that the family undergoes everyday to salvage itself has begun taking its toll.
And, there’s no backup.

An intoxicated Madan Warkhade lights a bidi as he sits with his fellow migrants at a stone
crusher unit in Pachgaon near Nagpur.

Warkhade has developed racking body ache and irrepressible pain in both his palms and feet
by working overtime at the crusher, breaking stones in dangerous conditions at a fierce speed
without any protective gear and soaring temperature notwithstanding. Yet, he is convinced that
the country liquor he consumes is better than any medicine. For, one, it works as a soothing
panacea to the pain. Two, it’s cheaper, and much more easily accessible. “Drink it and forget
all your worries,” Warkhade chuckles. “You can eat less to save some money on food but still
get a sound sleep after having a glass or two of this country liquor,” he reasons. Almost every
male migrant labourer here consumes liquor, with things having gone wrong on almost every
front, including health.

Today, however, Warkhade started boozing as soon as he was up from his bed early morning in
his cramped hut. Badly ruptured palms and feet have been giving him a torrid time of late. Fully
drunk, he’d proceed after some time to the stone the crusher for another day’s grind, with the
pain suppressed for the time being. There he would work the whole day without shoes or hand-
gloves to break the stones with the help of a crowbar and a heavy hammer. When he’d have
crushed a tractor-trolley full of stones to pebbles he would end up earning a dismal Rs 40. But
on off days, he gets nothing. The meagre earnings, he says, are still better than having nothing,
even if the work is excruciating and killing.

Says the supervisor: “They can earn more you see, if they work more. On days they can earn
up to Rs 80. That’s a good amount of money.” He does not speak a word about the declining

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health conditions and the fact that crusher owner has not given any protective gears to these
workers, though he is under this obligation. Every labourer at a crusher is entitled to a pair of
shoes, hand-gloves, helmet and mask. But by managing the labour inspectors and the
department bosses, the owner violates the norms, while the poor migrant labourers pay a heavy
price. In case of accidents, there is no insurance cover. The owner pays Rs 500 to the next of
the victim and ends the chapter, as one of them did when a migrant labourer died in an accident
at one of the crushers a few months earlier. Labour Inspectors get a hefty amount though to
“cover up things.”

Meanwhile, before proceeding to work, Warkhade shows his feet that have developed thick and
hard circles of blood clots due to extreme heat and persistent injuries. These would require to
be operated upon, but he has no money for it. His palms have become rough and hard as
coconut. He says it becomes even more difficult for him to bend his fingers after the work.
Without hand and leg gears, his palms and fingers have evidently suffered multiple injuries as
he breaks the stones with a hammer, tirelessly, every day.

By the evening, Warkhade says his pain would aggravate and he would need to consume a
bottle of liquor to get a sound sleep, while the rest of his family would depend on the earnings of
his wife – Rs 20 a day. That is when she and seven other labourers would load eight trolleys
with stones. So, while much of Warkhade’s earnings go into alcohol, the family’s problems
multiply. The dream of earning good money and saving some of it is shattered. The finances go
berserk. And, so does the health of all. The irony is this family can’t afford to take up farming in
its home village, given the fact that there is no irrigation. Having migrated to this place in the
hope of a better life, they can’t afford to take a break from the work since it would mean going to
bed hungry.

Women, like Warkhade’s wife and his two daughters, are suffering too – In more than one way.
Their food intake is less; these people eat only rice of degraded quality and some vegetable,
while the amount of energy they put into work and running their households is huge. “Even
during pregnancy,” says Bayatrabai, a female migrant labourer, “we don’t get to eat good food.”
Most of them therefore are anemic. As Bayatrabai herself is. So are Dukhli, Sujoti and other
women. Yet, compulsion is such that they can’t stop working.

A peep into the shoddy living conditions of the migrant labourers at over 200 crushers in this
area begs only one question. Why do these people desert their villages to become the Beasts of
Burden at a new place? “There’s no work for nine months in our villages. There’s no irrigation
for even one crop we take; we have to rely on monsoon. For the last five years, rains have been
playing truant, and the paddy crop has taken a stick. The state government does not open up
any work for us. We don’t get any credit since all of us are already defaulters of banks,” explains
Channuram Shirsate, a migrant labourer at another crusher at Surgaon. Channuram migrated
five years ago from Maneri village in Rajnandgaon with his entire family. Here he and his better
half work the whole day to earn something like Rs 90 a day. They can save Rs 40 a day, they
say.

The reasons for migration remain the same for almost every family. The rate of migration
however got impetus after the old migrants found the work quite lucrative by their standards.
Over the years, they helped the other villagers to find work here. In the mid 90s, unfortunately,
the fast increasing rate of migration brought in a crash in wages. Thankfully, says Channuram,
the local villagers and farm-labourers don’t seek work at crushers. Which means the migrants
would get all the work, albeit at cheap wages.

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These conditions and many other factors have set the ground for the emergence of private
moneylenders in this part. Interestingly, the usurers are not locals. They hail either from the
neighbouring districts of Madhya Pradesh like Balaghat or Chhattisgarh like Rajnandgaon. So,
since the money is lent in that district, the government machinery of Maharashtra can do
nothing. But the Madhya Pradesh government has to play a vital role in checking the illegal
lending by the private usurers. They are to be brought in the ambit of the financial regulations.
According to the migrants, the lenders don't have license to give loans. In what is essentially an
off-market operation, lenders clandestinely get the borrowers to hypothecate either land or
homes in many cases. Migrants stand to lose their holding in the case of default. The MP
government can nip these practices in the bud by asking the police, the labour machinery and
the revenue officials to take cognizance of complaints and zero-in on such usurers suo-moto.

On its part, the Government of Maharashtra can ensure that the migrants get their legitimate
wages and facilities at the workplace through its labour department. But the labour department
never comes to know about the deals, in part because the borrower does not hail from the state.
It’s construed as if the labourers are borrowing money on their own volition. The chain operates
through the migrant labourers only. The accounts appear well maintained.

Such is the faith that though the deals are between the usurer and labourer, the latter repays
the debt honestly because then he gets a loan from the usurer again. The money-lender slaps
an interest of three per cent over the capital per month. So when Warkhade borrowed Rs 2000
from the money-lender, he paid the high interest of 36 per cent over the capital in a year,
without understanding the exploitation he was subjected to by the usurer.

Warkhade, sadly, is hugely indebted to his exploiter. “The Sahukar was very kind to us,” he
says, “he gave us money when we were in trouble.” His family purchased clothes and sent
some money to his old parents in the village. What if the money is not repaid to the Sahukar?
“We may be put into jail and we won’t get the loan again.” While this family lands in a debt trap,
another spiral engulfs it in the meantime. The family works overtime, pushing itself beyond
physical limits in extremely trying conditions, to earn an extra pie at the crusher. Warkhade’s
wife looks pale and weak. She takes care of her household chores and fills up at least 10
trolleys with boulders in a day. There is no respite, barring a couple of occasions in a year when
the family visits its home village and spends some time in its own land. Then again, the petulant
noise of crushers recalls the family. Warkhade, his wife and their son again get ready and leave
their village for another long and tiresome grind. For a fresh attempt to be rid of bondage.

Jaideep Hardikar
June 2004

Jaideep Hardikar is a Nagpur based journalist. He has been a recipient of several national media
fellowships and was the winner of the 2003 Sanskriti award from Sanskriti Foundation, New Delhi. This
article is a part of an ongoing study under the NFI Fellowship Programme. The author visited the region
first in 2003 and much of the information was obtained then. In early June 2004, the author visited the
labourers again and found no change in the situation.