Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Labour contractors cunningly count children as part of the family work unit. They are given tasks but without payment or recognition.

Nowhere People: No Address, No Rights

Understanding and dealing with migration stress and distress.

By B G Verghese

Deccan Herald, January 30, 2007

Most people look for a good address for that makes one somebody. An address implies belonging and at least a right to entitlements even if these be denied in practice. Slums and irregular shanty settlements are often neglected; but since their residents render some local service and are potential voters, they get provided for in howsoever limited a measure.

This is not true of vagrants and street children, even pavement dwellers, who lack an address. They miss out on schooling and BPL ration cards and do not find their names on the voters list. Nomads suffer the same handicap, as do itinerant workers and herdsmen who practice transhumance. They are marginalized for lack of a fixed address and are vaguely some others’ responsibility.

Worst of all are those that migrate seasonally seasonal as a coping mechanism in times of drought or crop failure when they must travel long distances in search if work, either on their own or in work gangs marshalled by contractors who feed the labour market from distress areas. There are both push and pull factors. Some leave on their own to seek greener pastures. True distress migrants have few or no assets other than their labour and move for very survival. Occasionally only the men may go, but in a many instances whole families migrate, including children who cannot be left behind without care. Labour contractors cunningly count children as part of the family work unit, helping along. They are given small and then increasingly burdensome tasks on family piecework, without payment or recognition. This cruelly robs them of their childhood. Their work is harsh, often hazardous, and at the cost of their education, health and basic nutritional needs. Women and the girl child suffer extreme deprivation and are subject to sexual abuse.

Distress seasonal migration is widely prevalent but the migrants remains “invisible” as there is none to assume responsibility. The sending villages and local functionaries write off the migrants ignoring their entitlements, as they are not physically present for much of the time. On the other hand, recipient villages see these seasonal migrants as visitors who do not belong and will sooner or later return to their permanent abode. They live dreadful lives in temporary work camps put up by the contractor or “employer”. Their live beyond the law, neglected by State and society.

The American India Foundation (AIF) has been working to mitigate this human disaster through partner NGOs and has put together a moving and compelling volume, brilliantly illustrated, entitled “Locked Homes, Empty Schools: The Impact of Distress Seasonal Migration on the Rural Poor”. (Text by Smita, Photographs by Prashant Panijar”), with a Foreword by Amartya Sen. The starting point is the commitment to universal elementary education, a shamefully delayed goal and national imperative, which comes up against yet another formidable hurdle when families move to become Nowhere People. The Constitution now makes UEE a fundamental right, with the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan a prime instrumentality in its attainment by 2010. There are an estimated 30-40 million distress seasonal migrants of which some nine million are in the under-14 UEE target category. Most of these are expectedly SCs, STs and OBCs “who produce wealth but are excluded from its benefits”.

The migration cycle starts post-monsoon and continues until the next summer, spanning 6-8 months. It is spurred by dire need and made mandatory by debt bondage through cash advances, piece rates in defiance of labour laws and contractual obligations. These “missing citizens” have no rights, no entitlements, no security, only pain, suffering and endless indignity. In the process they lose all sense of identity. They are not enrolled in electoral lists, have no representative and are most often excluded from the Census count, disempowered. Nowhere People are Non-People.

AIF has surveyed four migrant streams: Those that move from Marathwada to sugar mills in Western Maharastra, from Central Gujarat and Saurashtra to salt pans in Kutch, and from Kalahandi and Bolangir in Western Orissa to parts of Andhra Pradesh around Vizag and Hyderabad. Distances traversed extend over several hundred kilometres across linguistic and cultural divides. The contractors determine the destination and specific work site.

AIF and its NGO partners have sought to ameliorate educational deprivation by providing schooling and seasonal hostels at work sites. But then continuity is lost in the next season as families do not necessarily return to the same site and there is no tracking mechanism. The next step has therefore been to provide hostels and schooling at the sending villages so that children can safely be left behind to study and grow in more normal surroundings. The task has just begun and a huge national effort is needed basically to prevent distress migration by providing gainful employment in situ through the National Rural Employment Guarantee programme (100 days work in, now, 200 backward districts) and other means.

All this constitutes just a beginning. But “Locked Schools, Empty Homes” must stir the nation’s conscience and direct attention to the plight of those millions for whom a 10 per cent rate of growth is meaningless if they are excluded.

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