In villages where stone quarrying work is the prime source of income, an influx of machinery has resulted in many residents leaving in search of safer opportunities.
Earlier this year, when we went to report on the state of the miners in the village of Gaurhari in the Mahoba district of rural Bundelkhand, we found ourselves walking through a veritable ghost town. It would seem like an overnight phenomenon – this disappearance of people – but for the trend-mapping we’ve been doing for close to five years. We’ve witnessed up-close an intense migration that has unfolded in real time.
Ninety percent of Gaurhari’s residents do mining and quarrying work, the sole means of livelihood in these parts.
It is not an easy job – not least because this is also where the mining mafia yields and exerts immense power, a nexus with far-reaching tentacles with some of the most prominent and well-known political figures of Mahoba in its firm grip.
And the work is dangerous. Since the labour involves breaking stone and explosions, landslides are only too common – miners are at constant risk of losing their lives and periodically do. In May 2012, when five workers were killed in the Gaura mine, work was ordered to shut down. It was a temporary measure, but since Gaura is one of the largest mines of the area, with a labour force of approximately 200, unemployment hit Gaurhari hard. The families of the miners who lost their lives were compensated by the chief minister after the accident – they were given five lakhs each – but the threat of death that had always been looming large pushed many out of their homes and villages.
Taking into account the danger inherent in the work, the notorious ways in which even muaavza money pans out, coupled with a lack of clarity on plans going ahead, Gaurhari’s residents did not see a sustainable way to live and manage their lives moving forward.
By the time 2015 came around, the crisis had worsened and deepened. Work had resumed since 2012, but so had the accidents and deaths. The omnipresence of mine-owners had created newer fears – miners spoke in hushed tones of threats they had received and wounds that had not healed. Looking around, we noticed a severe lack of youths.
Surendra Narayan Tewari, the former secretary, said as much, “Most of the youth of the village has already fled for better, safer opportunities outside.”
Everywhere locals agreed that since there is no real work in the village except mining, which is too dangerous, it would be best for them to seek their fortunes elsewhere.
But despite the danger acknowledged by most, if not all, the closing down of mines has affected the economy of the entire village for the worse. Besides the workers, it also took away the livelihoods of sculptors and artisans, who carve toys, idols and other objects from the same stone.
Temple idol maker Mahesh Kumar Vishwakarma, said, “I have several orders to make statues but I don’t have any stone. Whatever I have is from my earlier stock and contractors sell all the stone outside now, because they get better prices. If it carries on this way, I will definitely have to shut shop.” He too speaks of moving base, much like others of the same profession.
The issues affect school-going children too – 60% of them have been taken off the roster because their parents simply cannot afford to pay the fee anymore. Jeetendra tells us, “Our parents toil so hard to make ends meet. Studying costs money. How can they pay?” This state of affairs provides another reason for young residents to leave – if staying home cannot guarantee them a basic education to help them earn a living as adults, then it’s wiser to find newer, greener pastures earlier in life. Many of them make their way to Mahoba sheher, scouting for that next big break that’ll take them to Delhi.
The story has similarly macabre and dire echoes in Kabrai too, an hour-and-a-half from Gaurhari by road, where the primary source of employment is “khanan ka kaam”. Our visit this month underlined the exodus that has been a steadily-increasing malaise in these parts, intensified here by the age of machine. The prosperity of the mine-owners is directly proportional to the leasing and buying of machines. One machine, they like to say here, is equal to 100 men.
Lachuman tells us that his comrades have already moved to Delhi and Punjab because of the lack of work here, while Ram Kumar, a contractor, speaks of extreme times. “I went from working myself to contracting labourers, but it’s a catch-22 now. There aren’t enough menfolk to give work to, and there isn’t enough work in the first place.”
Walking through the veeraan nagri, or the desolate town, we also meet the few who haven’t left. These are the ones who cannot afford to turn over a new leaf at this stage of their lives. Rambai, who came to work in Kabrai 40 years ago, is still here, struggling to feed herself, her family, with the scraps of work that come her way. As someone who never got away, her face shows utter isolation, the kind that comes with not having taken that last resort of palayan or migration.
This piece first appeared on Khabar Lahariya. It has been edited to meet style guidelines.
Khabar Lahariya is a rural, video-first digital news organisation with an all-women network of reporters in eight districts of Uttar Pradesh.