Balangir's distressed migrants

From a resource-rich area to a metaphor for poverty, the Balangir district of Orissa has covered a long distance. Plausibly, it is this journey that is driving its inhabitants to go away from their roots -- a fact apparent during a public hearing on 'distress migration' held in the Kantabanji subdivision of the district on May 1, 2003. During the gathering, around 800 migrants recounted their woes before a five-member jury

 
By Ranjan Panda
Published: Tuesday 15 July 2003

Balangir's distressed migrants

-- From a resource-rich area to a metaphor for poverty, the Balangir district of Orissa has covered a long distance. Plausibly, it is this journey that is driving its inhabitants to go away from their roots -- a fact apparent during a public hearing on 'distress migration' held in the Kantabanji subdivision of the district on May 1, 2003. During the gathering, around 800 migrants recounted their woes before a five-member jury. Reeling under a chronic drought since 1965, the district witnesses 'distress migration' by thousands of people every year. This year around one lakh people have migrated till now.

Left without any means to survive, the residents are forced to work as labourers. Most migrate to Hyderabad to work in bricks kilns. The district has metamorphosed into an auction ground for cheap labour, with contractors trying their level best to exploit the poor people's desperation. What's more, long-distance travel without adequate supply of food and water proves fatal for some. "When we leave our homes for a livelihood, we feel less human," says Dularam Jani, a 52-year-old migrant.

The public hearing, probably first of its kind, was organised by Vikalp, a local non-governmental organisation. "Its aim was to make the government aware of the reality," says S K Patnaik of Vikalp. It was organised like a village panchayat and every migrant was allowed to relate his problems and discuss probable solutions. The jury in its 'public judgement' termed the mass migration from any village or area of the country as "disturbing". It also criticised the state government's lax attitude, and asked the authorities to immediately enact laws to protect the poor people's rights. The judges felt that a common law should safeguard all the displaced labourers irrespective of whether they were migrating in or out of the state. For this purpose, the jury recommended the amendment of Orissa's Inter State Migrant Workman Act of 1979.

It also asked the government to run special trains from Balangir to Hyderabad during the migration period of October-March. Creation of local employment through water conservation and forest protection, however, was regarded as the ultimate step to stop people from leaving their homes. Migrants like Jani once enjoyed a self-sufficient life. But environmental degradation in the district made them reluctant nomads. Hopefully, the authorities would no longer turn a deaf ear to their plight.

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