Agriculture

The Life and Times of Ghoongha – An Agricultural Labourer

For agricultural labourers from remote villages, hunger is always around the corner and migration in search of work is absolutely necessary for survival.

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Ghoongha working the Jute fibre, separating it from the stem. Credit: Jeff Joseph Paul Kadicheeni

This is the story of Ghoongha, an agricultural labourer. It is also a story of many others like him. I do not know his actual name. I first met Ghoongha when he was working in the jute fields. He was cutting the jute plants with a sickle. I asked him his name, he smiled and turned away from me. That is when a labourer working with him told me that he is a ghoongha – a person impaired of speech and hearing. They all called him Ghoongha. In fact, no one working with him knew his real name. He is a landless agricultural labourer from Idgah Tola, Mynapur, a small hamlet in the Araria district – one of the most backward districts of Bihar.

“Like summer comes after spring, followed by the rains and floods, jute for us is a season – the jute season”, quipped an old man with a greying beard in Urdu. He was squatting by the roadside along with a few others and hadn’t found any work that day.

Jute is grown during a season that coincides with the monsoon. It requires standing waters and good rains to grow and can withstand moderate flooding, which is a regular phenomenon in Mynapur. Its harvest occurs towards the end of the monsoon, in the months of August to October. The jute season lasts a couple of months and being labour intensive, makes for good times for labourers like Ghoongha as it provides reasonably regular work. Those are the better days.

During rhetting – the post-harvest process of extracting the jute fibre, a labourer like Ghoongha is paid one tenth of the fibre he extracts as his wage and not cash. The rest goes to the landowners. For this, he has to remove the fibre, dry it and carry it himself to the jute stocker. This is an everyday affair because otherwise, he cannot meet his daily needs. Ghoongha works in the water till two in the afternoon, starting off at seven. He does this on an empty stomach. After washing enough jute, he carries the extracted fibre to his hut where he puts them to dry and has his first meal of the day. The jute fibre dries out fairly quickly. But if it is rainy or cloudy, the drying gets delayed. On such days, Ghoongha and his family stand the risk of having to go to sleep on an empty stomach if there is nothing left over from the previous day.

Upon selling, he earns anything between rupees 180 to 250. It depends on the quantity of jute he extracts. It is with this, that he meets his daily necessities. He has three kids. This seems to be the norm here, although many have more.

While most of Ghoongha’s fellow labourers claim they don’t know what happens to the fibre that is sold, some say it is taken to Dhalkola, a nearby town in West Bengal and later, taken to Bangladesh, where the factories are. Bangladesh has better and more technologically developed jute mills. Big mills don’t exist in the vicinity of Mynapur. Had some factories been there, they could have gotten regular work, they said.

The old man with the greying beard tells me how he has spent all his life worrying about getting work the next day. During excessive floods, if any crop damage happens, the government compensates the landowners. Labourers like himself and Ghoongha are left high and dry. They cannot find any work, nor do they have any money saved up to travel in search of work. All agricultural activities come to a standstill and hunger is always lurking around the corner. He recollects his worst days, squatted on the roadside in an unemotional tone.

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With the Jute season coming to a close, many agricultural labourers are not able to find work. Migration is the only choice for many. Credit: Jeff Joseph Paul Kadicheeni

Once the harvest and rhetting are over, jute fields make way for rice and wheat. While the rice and wheat grow, there is no need for labour in the fields. This forces labourers to migrate. Many labourers go to nearby towns and cities in search of work. There are no set patterns and they go wherever there is hope of getting work. Ghoongha cannot go alone, so he accompanies a fellow labourer.

Punjab, Haryana, Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh and Gujarat, many places figure in the list of places where the labourers of Mynapur have gone and worked. They mostly find employment under contractors undertaking construction or road work. Some have worked as farm hands in Punjab and Haryana. The wages paid in these places is similar to what they earn here, in Mynapur. But the vital difference is the availability of work. Their migration is not for more money. It is to make the ends meet when there is no work back home, for survival mostly. Most times they take their wives and kids with them – the more the number of hands, the more the income. The labourers say that they always return before the harvest in spring.

This is the floating population of India. They do not have pleasant memories of their travels. Usually, the journeys are undertaken with only enough money to reach a place. They sit through the journey in crowded compartments, on the floor, by the doors and next to the toilets, sometimes unable to even stretch themselves for days. But this is the easy part. The journeys are undertaken over promises by labour contractors. What they fear the most is getting stranded after reaching an unknown place and not being able to find work. Some of the workers talk about exploitation and being fooled by contractors who back out after promising work. Because of this, they do not prefer going to faraway places. They try and find work in the nearby towns and only when that fails do they take off.

Ghoongha’s fate mostly hangs on fate itself and on help from fellow workers. He cannot read nor speak by himself. But he is a good worker, they all vouch. One of these days, there won’t be any more need for Ghoongha to be in Mynapur and he will leave. For the time being, he seemed to be lost in his work.

As I start to leave, one of the labourers reminds me, “Do write about the factories – that we don’t have any. The netas talk about it before the election and then nothing is heard. If we have some factories, we won’t have to go elsewhere worrying about work.”

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On an average day, Ghoongha stays in the water from seven in the morning to late noon. The separated Jute stems finds use as firewood. Credit: Jeff Joseph Paul Kadicheeni

The story of Ghoongha is not his alone. This is the story of many who were never counted. In his natural setting Ghongha becomes a human being – his feelings get expressed, his emotions find solace, his pain gets shared. He is surrounded by people like him, people going through the same kind of struggles and facing similar problems –  all silenced by circumstances. In the towns and cities, he is just one of the faceless ‘unhygienic’ people making roti at the end of the day, seated on the roadside or under the flyovers. As the BMWs and Audis drive past, he just sits in the dirt and ruins their view, his insignificance glaring at them. He is the eye-sore who brings the literal bad image to a country at the cusp of modernity.

Covered in filth, he is the dirty looking man on the platform you avoid sitting next to as you wait for the train to arrive. He is the one who you see seated on the floors of the train, sometimes sleeping, no matter how crowded or dirty it is. He is the reason why many do not travel in general compartments anymore. He is the one who lays roads in the coldest deserts of Ladakh and also tills the hardest fields that feed the nation. Covered in dirt, he digs through the heat waves and the rains as he lays the underground cables.

He belongs to that India which buys used clothes from the roadside markets, at rates of twenty-five, thirty and fifty, the very existence of which is unknown to many. This is a story of the man who hangs by scaffoldings, constructing those perfect views which will attract the rich of the land to invest in the future of the nation. He belongs to the many who die in mishaps while constructing illegal buildings, the reports of which seldom give a name to the deceased. These deaths do not lead to candle light marches or spark competitive shouts of condemnation and angst on TV.

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What he thinks about his own fate, nobody knows. Credit: Jeff Joseph Paul Kadicheeni

If a profile is to be made for a face to represent India, the face should look similar to Ghoongha, an agricultural labourer who migrates frequently in search of jobs. But his fate is not completely captured by most government statistics. To understand his world one has to understand the India inhabited by him.

The bigger picture

The population of India today is 121 crores according to the 2011 Census. Nearly 68% of this population live in rural areas. That the urban population increased to above 30% caused some celebration when the Census figures were released. The total workforce of the country is 48.1 crores. Thirty-four crores of these are rural workers. India, thus, continues to be agrarian and predominantly rural.

The number of workers employed in the rural areas is more than twice the number employed in urban areas, as can be seen in the figures above. But the contribution to the GDP by the rural economy is not proportional to this. More people work in rural areas without producing as much value while trying to feed far too many mouths.

India was once an agricultural country with regard to its contribution towards GDP. Today, even though 54% of the workforce continues to be directly dependent on agriculture for a livelihood, the contribution of agriculture and allied services to the GDP of the nation has reduced considerably from 51.88% in 1950 to 13.94% in 2013. As noted by the Report of the Steering Committee on Urban Development for the Eleventh Five Year Plan, the contribution of the urban sector to India’s GDP presently is 62%-63% and is likely to be 75% by 2021. It is these basic disparities which cause the rural-urban divide, poverty and eventually forced migration.

The worst off: agricultural labourers

An agricultural labourer is a person who works on another person’s land for wages in money or kind or share. Even some former cultivators are being pushed down and forced to become agricultural labourers due to fragmentation of landholdings, or debts, or both. The number of agricultural labourers in the country is 14.43 crores as per the Census 2011, more than one-third of the total workforce. This means, one out of every three working people in India, lives a life similar to Ghoongha. They account for 39% of the rural workforce.

It is the most prominent occupation among scheduled castes households in almost all the states. The reason behind this is the lopsided land holding pattern. The trend has shown consistent growth since 1961, the same time during which the share of GDP for agriculture declined drastically. The agricultural labourers have been growing poorer while the nation has been growing richer, a contradiction which is all the more glaring considering that these are the poorest lot.

The movements of agricultural labourers are of a distressed nature. Like Ghoongha, they move out when out of work and rarely make the cut to move to a regular paying job. The construction industry or road contractors employ them as labourers in towns and cities while they also find jobs as agricultural labourers in other rural areas. Notwithstanding the many difficulties faced by all migrant labourers in general, the situation for agricultural labourers is far worse. They are the poorest of the poor. Migrants who were previously cultivators enjoy higher mobility owing to caste, better contacts and their level of skill. The agricultural labourers do hard physical jobs such as digging pits or construction work. They live by the roadside in tents or in the buildings they help construct, amidst the construction material. In some places, they are provided makeshift arrangements made of tin sheets by the construction firms. Their migrations show a bias towards rural-rural movements as well as a tendency to keep it intra-state owing to their low skills and mobility. This is changing today though because of the growing number of agents and labour contractors. This, at times, results in exploitation and abandonment, needless to say, and adds to their woes.

Migrant labourers constitute the floating population of India. They can be found one summer in Kerala cutting grass by the roadside and a few months later they might be doing roadwork in the treacherous slopes of the Arunachal Himalayas. One season they are the helping hands in the farms of Punjab and Haryana, the next they build malls and superstructures for India to flaunt its modernity. The issue with looking into figures about the migrations of agricultural labourers is that none is actually available. According to the meta data provided for Census 2011, the concept of mobility or migration involves a sustained or permanent residence in the place of destination. By definition, a large part of them are kept out of the Census figures. They come and go based on the vagaries of available work. They do not migrate and permanently stay put. They don’t necessarily return to the same place that they migrated to the previous year. The only thing certain about them is that come the day when there is no more work, they will move.

 The population equation

According to the National Commission on Population, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the projected population for the country by March 2026 will be 139.98 crores. The said projection also predicts a population of at least 24.8 crores for Uttar Pradesh and 11.3 crores for Bihar in 2026. Bihar and Uttar Pradesh incidentally, contribute the most to the migrant population and hence holds the key to the future.

An analysis of the out-migration patterns from the migration tables of the 2001 Census reveals that the unmistakable origin of most migrant labourers is Uttar Pradesh (26 lakhs) and Bihar (17 lakhs). This is owing to the generally high population in these states and the high proportion of dependent agricultural labourers and marginal workers.

Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are only beginning to embark on the path of urbanisation and hence it will be some time before things even out unless something drastic reduces the push and pull factors. This makes it clear that going forward, the migrant population will only rise. The already fragmented landholdings will fragment further, thereby altering the lives of many more cultivators and forcing them to become agricultural labourers. With time, the crowding in into the nearby towns and cities will increase. More and more people will be on the lookout for jobs. Ghoongha and fellow labourers like him will be travelling farther and farther away each season.

Indian policies and visions have been urban centric. That this should be so in a country which is predominantly rural is ironic. Today the shift is towards the smaller cities. The many smart cities coming along in plans are a sign that we have accepted urbanisation as the only way forward. The neglect of the rural areas means we could be staring at a future where the poor just shift their base from rural to urban, yet remain poor. Interventions in the rural set-up are needed alongside if we are to nip the problem in the bud. An overhaul of the rural economic scenario is the only possibility which can stem migration and at the same time improve the conditions of rural India.

Another way to look at all of this is to consider the migrant labourers as a cheap product. They are selling themselves for their betterment and the country is using them where needed. The demand and supply games are getting played and in one or two generations, things will stabilise. Any damage is collateral. Such an approach will remove all discomforts at one go. It certainly is the easy way and the most likely one to be followed too.

Jeff Joseph Paul Kadicheeni is a former government servant who quit the bureaucracy recently to take up journalism.