For Ganjam, diamonds are not forever

When global slowdown hit Surat and Orissa’s migrants stopped getting even their low wages, many returned home but there is neither food nor work here so they are taking the train back.

prasanna

Prasanna Mohanty | April 24, 2010


Jobless in an 8 percent growth economy
Jobless in an 8 percent growth economy

If you want to find out what is wrong with Orissa’s Ganjam district, listen to Abhimanyu Badatiya’s travails. One of the hundreds of thousands who migrate out of the district every year to find work, he decided not to go back to Surat a year ago. It was getting tougher to hold on to the job in the textile units he was working with. So when his friends and relatives boarded a train to the Gujarat city at the end of the festival season last year he stayed back.

“I barely manage to scrap through,” he says. At 50, he is not as strong and healthy as he used be and is finding no work in his Khurkundia village in Aska block. “I am not used to hard manual work under the sun. I have always worked in the shade,” he says referring to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) work the local panchayat offers to the jobless.

He does not get the subsidised ration either. “My family was struck off the BPL (Below Poverty Line) list 10 years ago because I did not vote for the then sarpanch. I have been trying to get a BPL card since then.” No BPL card also means that he is not entitled to the state government’s Annapurna Yojana under which a BPL family gets 35 kg of rice at the rate of Rs 2 per kg. The central government-run Antyoday Anna Yojana is of no use to him since the quota fixed under this scheme has not been revised for many years.

So, Badatiya helps neighbours and other villagers in tending their farms in exchange for pulses and food grain, sometimes cash. His wife joins him to earn enough just to survive. He has a handicapped son, who now works in a Surat textile unit as he himself did for 30 years. The son sometimes sends home Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,000 to buy food grain from the open market. Rising prices of food items are gradually eroding the value of that money.
There are pension schemes too, such as Madhusudan Pension Yojana for the disabled and widows and the Indira Gandhi Old Age Pension. Badatiya is not eligible for either as he is not yet 65, nor disabled by the standards laid down.

There are many others like him in his village and in the villages across the district. According to district collector V Karthikeya Pandian, about 4-5 lakh people migrate out of the district every year. Most of them go to work in Surat’s textile mills and some to the diamond polishing units of the same city. Mumbai is another important destination. People of Khurkundia village and nearby Kamgada village say many are now preferring Bangalore, Chennai and Kerala. In a sample survey involving four of the 22 blocks of the district, the collector found that about 8-10 percent were coming back but is not sure how many have returned because of recession. Loknath Misra of the non-governmental agency Aruna, which has been studying the phenomenon, puts the figure of those who have returned because of recession at 50,000. The local economy is not able to absorb them in absence of industrialisation. Pandian says about 50 percent of the unskilled ones are absorbed in NREGS. But that seems doubtful.

Khurkundia has nearly 350 households and about 350 people work outside, mostly in Surat. Bhagwan Swain, 35-year-old neighbour of Badatiya, is one of those. He has stayed on for two-and-half months in the village but found no work other than helping his brother in farming. He would like to avail of NREGS work but doesn’t know how to. “They don’t call me. How do I get work? Besides, not everybody is getting work,” he says.

In fact, 215 people of Khurkundia have job cards. The panchayat has got money too but has not been able to provide work to more than 40 to 50 people at a time. In 2007 and 2008, about 50 people each got jobs for periods much less than 100 days. Four road projects were taken up two months ago, which provided job to 40 people but it was abandoned after 40 days because no wages have been released after the initial payment for seven days. Nobody got the minimum wage of Rs 100 (all of them got Rs 70) because the executive officer of the panchayat, Subhash Chandra Sahu, said none could measure up to the standard fixed (digging up 100 cubic ft of soft soil; rate varies for hard and stony soil).

Collector Pandian says Aska block has one of the worst records in NREGS. “It is a governance issue. There was no BDO (block development officer) for this block for four to five months. Then the one who came is not very efficient man”, he says. As far as unemployment allowance goes, he says only 10 to 15 individuals received it last year. Incidentally, under him, Ganjam has won laurels as the best performing district in the state for two years.

Like Abhimanyu, Bhagwan finds himself out of the BPL list, for a different reason though. The list was last updated in 1997. Pandian says the last attempt to revise the list in 2002 was abandoned because of several anomalies in the survey. “So the list is based on 1997 data.” Bhagwan gets no benefit from the Annapurna Yojana or the AAY for reasons similar to those of Abhimanyu.

A visit to the panchayat office throws up a different picture altogether. Learning about the presence of a media person, villagers crowd around me and tell me about many irregularities. One of them, Pramod Chandra Nayak, accuses the panchyat of cheating the poor by giving 23 kg of rice, instead of 25 kg per BPL card and charging Rs 15 for a kg of sugar while the government has fixed a rate of Rs 13.50. Heated arguments follow. The executive officer then counters: “What do I do? I am getting less than the supply I receive on paper. I have protested to higher-ups. But nobody does anything. I am only helping the villagers by proportionately distributing the ration.” That supply comes once after two months is another thing.

The fracas turns ugly. Former sarpanch Ramesh Chandra Biswal, brings records to show how Pramod got Rs 4,000 in wages a year ago without working even for a day under the NREGS. To this Pramod says he only got Rs 100, the rest were pocketed by the panchayat officials.

Other schemes designed to help the poor meet a similar fate. In Khurkundia village again, as per a survey, 65 old people are eligible for pension. Only half of them actually get it because, as a panchayat official says, they are awaiting sanctions from higher authorities. Under the Indira Awas Yojana, ex-sarpanch Biswal says 140 to 150 people should get the grants but only two got it four years ago. These two families took a loan and built their houses hoping to get Rs 25,000 each. So far they have got only Rs 6,000.

At first look, villages in Ganjam don’t look like any other in the state. Many of the families have pucca houses, built with the “remittance money”, says Loknath Misra of Aruna. He estimates that nearly Rs 500 crore flows in to the district every year, adding that this has come down by 25 percent in the past two years as more and more people got laid off in Surat or found it tough to continue when along with increase in hours of work wages were also cut down. The assessment finds echo in a “tappawala”, who works as a non-formal channel of money remittance to Ganjam’s villages.

Abhimanyu and Bhagwan narrate how the recession has affected working conditions in textile units of Surat, forcing many to return or find employment elsewhere. They say the first thing to go was their lunch break in the 12-hour working shift and the weekly off. The second shock came when wages were cut by 15 to 20 percent. The third unkind cut was when a day’s absence meant someone else getting the job. Biswanaqth Patra, a 55-year-old textile worker of Kamagada village,10 km away in the same block, who returned for good last year, says, “there are no sick leaves, gratuity, pension or provident fund in Surat’s textile units to fall back on post-retirement.”

The traffic to Surat continues unabated though. In fact, in Kamagada village, one can see the daily timing of the Puri-Ahmedabad Express and other trains to Surat prominently painted on a wall near the entry point of the village. In spite of the festival season (the famous Danda Jatra is held in every village of Ganjam in late March that can last up to 21 days), the railway station of Bramhapur, best known town of the district, is witnessing a heavy rush. Thousands are heading daily to Surat. “I have no choice. I have to find work. I am prepared to work for even Rs 75 a day, instead of Rs 200 a day I make in Surat.
“But where is the work?” comments a teenager waiting for his train to Surat.
 

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