Kolhapur/Karad: “Did you attend school today?” “No.”
“Last week?” “No.”
“Last month?” “No.”
“Do you remember when you went to school last?” “Maybe sometime around Diwali, I am not sure,” replies eight-year-old Arjun Rajput sheepishly.
Arjun left his village Mudeshwadgaon in Aurangabad’s Gangapur Taluka in November last year to accompany his parents who work at a brick kiln in Kolhapur’s Shirole village, over 450 kilometres away. Arjun and his four other siblings, all of a school going age, will be out of school for as long as the family stays at the brick kiln.
That time period could be anywhere between six and nine months. “We came here in November and might stay here until rains. Since this area gets flooded in monsoon, we will move back to our villages and return again after Diwali,” explains 40- something Abbasaheb Rajput.
The Rajputs belong to the socially and economically marginalised Adivasi community Bhil and are one of the several lakh landless Adivasi, Dalit and other backward castes that migrate to Kolhapur and other neighbouring districts in western Maharashtra every year.
This is the case with almost over 100 children who have migrated along with their parents from Gangapur Taluka and are living along with Arjun’s family at the brick kiln in Shirole village. Most of them come from drought-affected districts like Beed, Osmanabad, Aurangabad, Nanded and Jalna.
In Kolhapur alone, there are at least 700 big and small registered brick kilns, informs Satapa Mohite, a project coordinator with Avani Sansthan – an NGO that works with children and women in need of care and support. “Since the parents have no support system back home and their children are too young to stay in the village all by themselves, they come along,” Mohite adds.
Arjun is enrolled in a school back home and also at the Zilla Parishad school in Kolhapur as a migrant labourer’s child. Enrolment at two places doesn’t ensure better schooling but only leads to a chaotic situation where neither of the two schools take the students responsibility. “The school (in Kolhapur) is far away and we can’t take leave from work to drop our children to school. Neither are they grown up enough to travel alone,” says Arjun’s mother Suman.
Social organisations like Avani, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and social activists from Beed have put this migration figure at around 10-15 lakh. There is no way to corroborate or dispute this figure. While the labour and education department claim that the migration is “just a few thousands”, those working closely along with the unorganised sector labourers claim it is like a “mass exodus” occurring once every year.
This migration is not a recent phenomenon. Marathwada saw its worst drought in the late 19th and early 20th century. And the most recent spate began in 1972, when the region faced its worst food and fodder crisis. Since then, the region has seen steady migration with a large number of families moving to work as brick kiln workers and labourers at the sugarcane mills in western Maharashtra or at the construction sites in one and two-tier cities like Mumbai, Pune, Nashik or Kolhapur. Most of these migrating families are landless or have meagre land-holdings.
Inadequate government measures, neglect by local politicians and exploitative work environment have left both labourers, and their children, extremely vulnerable. The Kolhapur education department says around 1200 children were enrolled in the school this year. The enrolment of students doesn’t ensure regularity in the school.
Both at sugar mills and brick kilns, several NGOs have intervened and arranged Aanganwadi centres for younger children between 0- 6 years of age. These centres are mostly makeshift setups built in lieu of state-run Aanganwadi programmes.
“It is a challenge to get the mill and kiln owners to allow us in that space and run these shaalas (schools). Government bodies fail to pay attention at these young children and their most crucial formative years go completely ignored,” explains Anuradha Bhosale, founder or Avani Sansthan.
The migrant woes
An average work hour for a labourer at the brick kiln ranges between 14-16 hours every day. They begin as early as at 4 am, going on till late night hacking at clay in a wet pit, then moulding bricks of varied shapes, baking them and then finally stacking them in huge mountainous rows before they are sent out to contractors.
For all this laborious, back-breaking work, the family is paid around Rs 1300 every 1000 bricks. A couple, with a lot of difficulties, manage to bake around 400, making anywhere between Rs. 500- 600 per day. It is not an individual person’s work but a family’s work that is counted. The earnings are much lesser than stipulated under the minimum wages in the state.
Nimesh, an outreach worker at Avani says although children are not the primary employees, they are seen working alongside their parents very often. “Do you then call them as children of daily wage workers or child labourers themselves is the question,” he adds.
The Wire spoke to several families working at the brick kiln in and around Kolhapur district and found out most of them have been living in an abysmally poor condition. They live in temporary houses built using flimsy tarpaulin sheets and spare bricks lying at the workshop. There are no drinking water or toilet facilities available for these families and they are forced to use the same water used to knead the mud used to build bricks.
In the sweltering April heat, most labourers complain of dehydration and their inability to continue work for such long hours. “But staying away from work even for a day would mean losing out on the days earning,” says Vandana Bhavane, a 20-year- old Bhil tribe woman who has migrated with her husband and six-month-old son to the brick kiln in November. “My son was only a month old when we came here to work. I was bleeding profusely but had to join the work.”
Like brick kilns work, most families from Marathwada also move to the sugarcane cooperative mills in the western region. Kolhapur alone has 27 cooperatives (of the total 173 cooperatives in the state), employing around two-three thousand daily wage workers in each of them.
A bitter harvest
“Mala naak hi pusta yet nhavta tevha pasun mi yetoy ikhde (I have been coming here even before I had learnt how to wipe my nose),” says 65- year old Mahadeo Nagargoji. He recalls his life journey of the past six decades as: “Kevha ikhde tar kevha tikhde (sometimes here and sometimes there).” Nagargoji tells The Wire that he has not spent a single Diwali or Holi festival in his village since he remembers, an indicator of the time spent away from his village working as a sugarcane mill labourer.
An old, muscular man from Beed’s Aholwadi village has been coming to Rethare Budurk in Satara for past five decades, earlier with his parents and now with his wife and five children. For past 6-7 harvest seasons, the family has been working at Yashwantrao Mohite Krishna Sakhar Karkhana, owned by the state’s former finance minister and Congress leader late Yashwantrao Mohite.
Nagarjogi informs us that around 700 people from his village have travelled to work at the sugar mill. “We are all bonded labourers at the mercy of bigger mills, earning just as enough as to survive,” he says.
Most mills hire the labourers to carry out sugar cutting work in couples through a well-oiled network of labour brokers or mukadams. These Mukadams are mostly erstwhile labourers and have learned the trick of the trade on the job. They thrive on the seasonal distress and ensure a few thousand rupees are provided to the families as an advance before they come to work. This amount must be paid back through labour in the harvest season. Entire families – including adults and children – get pulled into the work this way.
The Wire met several young school and college going children who were forced to be with their parents through the harvest month and return to their villages only to take their board exams. Government officials claim there is a dramatic fall in the annual six-month migration. But on the ground, the reality continues to be grim. Thousands of children continue to fall through the cracks, despite the sakhar shalas and Vithbhati shalas along with resident hostels running in the villages.
“It is some kind of neo-slavery that is seen in this work. The entire family is tied down to one employer who has offered them debt at the beginning of the work and the family continues to work for several months without any pay or labour rights and at the end returns home empty handed only to return next season for another round of debts and unpaid labour,” explains Ashok Tangade, a human rights activist, working for over three decades in Beed on the issue.
Nobody’s people, everybody’s vote bank
While those working at the sugarcane mills have slowly begun returning to their respective villages by March end, families at the brick kiln and construction site will stay back for at least a month or two. This means many might miss out on their constitutional right to vote.
The political conversations at the workspace is a lively one. “How does it even matter if we vote or not. Our conditions have neither changed nor are we hopeful about a better tomorrow,” says 30- year old Asha Andhale, when asked whether she would be returning home for elections. “I have been working since I was 15 and I will have to work till I die. This is our life.”
To which another person Bhagwant Patil interjects, “No way we will miss this opportunity to get Pritam Tai (incumbent MP Pritam Munde) back in power.” “I will be heading back home and will ensure Andhale bai returns too,” he adds in jest.
Andhale, Patil and most other families at the mill belong to Vanjari caste, the community that MP Munde belongs to. The community has stayed loyal to their caste leader and has in the past voted for Munde’s father and union cabinet minister late Gopinath Minister until his death in 2014. Now the community, although grudgingly, wants their community representation to stay intact in the parliament. “Ours is a small community with no political or economic standing. For good or for bad, Munde will always be our leader,” says Rukmini Kadam.
“Her father (Gopinath Munde) was a great leader. We voted for Pritam tai with the hope that she will understand our yaatna (pains). As a woman, we hoped she would understand what it means to leave your young children home and not see them for months at end. But she turned out to be like any other politician,” Andhale said.
Political representatives from Marathwada started contacting mukadams (labour brokers) since early this month asking them to arrange for the return of labourers before the polls. Mukadams are local village body representatives in most cases and have complete control over the movement and employment of the labour migrant families.
In the first week of April, most families had slowly started getting their dues cleared, some were even selling their cattle to have enough money to survive the coming challenging months back home.
Whether Munde wins or not, these exhausted labourers will be back again to repay newer debts and face a fresh cycle of hardship and exploitation.
All photos by Sukanya Shantha