Kantabanji goes from labour ‘market’ to the Odisha CM’s constituency


In April this year, Gupath Bag, a migrant worker, hurried back from Chennai to Bagbahal village in western Odisha’s Kantabanji, a municipality that is also an Assembly constituency. His father, who was home alone, had a kidney ailment that had flared up. Bag and his wife’s return came with a set of conditions: two of their teenage daughters would stay back at the brick kiln, while their 16-year-old son had to go to Chennai to make up for the work the couple left behind.

Over the decades, the people of Kantabanji have been eroded into submission by middlemen, who subject women to sexual assault and have in the past cut off the hands of labourers demanding wages. Up to 60 workers have died outside the State, as per a reply tabled in the Assembly in February. Every year, about 2.5 lakh to 3 lakh residents of villages in western Odisha leave the State for work. Though there is no official data, this was the approximate number that returned during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bag’s return coincided with the announcement of Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s decision to contest from the Kantabanji Assembly seat, his second, after his traditional Hinjili seat in Ganjam district. The exodus of families had already become the most talked about issue in public discourse, so people were keen to understand what Patnaik’s stand on it was.

On May 12, when Patnaik was scheduled to address his maiden speech as a candidate in Bangamunda town, just 15 km from Bag’s home, the migrant worker rode pillion on a neighbour’s bike to reach the public meeting, buoyed by the hope that the Chief Minister would announce some promises for people like him. He was left disheartened. The speech lasted less than 10 minutes, and simply listed out the flagship welfare schemes in nine sentences.

The term ‘dadan’ (distress migration), an outcome of unavailability of adequate jobs at home, has permeated the speeches of leaders from all other parties, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Blame is squarely laid on the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government, which, after 24 years in power, is yet to mitigate this human suffering.

“We are born to carry heavy loads of bricks, passing the curse on to our children in a perpetual cycle. The burden shifts from one generation to the next,” says Bag, crestfallen. Then, in an understanding of political opportunism, says: “The Odisha CM must have weighed the gains of running for polls from Kantabanji. Amid the noise of elections, the solution to intergenerational struggles gets lost. I will have to go back to Chennai once my father’s health improves.”

India Employment Report 2024: Youth employment, education and skills, brought out by the Institute for Human Development and the International Labour Organization, found that Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh were at the bottom of the seven-parameter employment condition index in 2005, and remained there in 2022.

The Kantabanji economy

Situated in the western district of Balangir, Kantabanji has 2,76,892 voters and holds a strategic position as it is close to four Lok Sabha constituencies. Over the years, it has emerged as a major rural trade hub, with the town’s economy revolving around the varied enterprises of Marwari businessmen, while the local people are primarily engaged as shop-help and cleaners.

Despite stretching just across about 3 km, Kantabanji serves as a significant labour market. Each year, brick kiln operators from the southern States flock here to recruit workers for brick production. The residents, mainly from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, are skilled in brick making, but are lowly paid for their skills.

Drawn from five western Odisha districts — Kalahandi, Balangir, Nuapada, Bargarh, and Subarnapur — these workers receive wage advances of ₹35,000-₹50,000 through intermediaries, known locally as Sardars or Dalals, before leaving for six months of gruelling work in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka. The Kantabanji railway station had been the major exit point for workers. Packed into crammed spaces of general compartments, these labourers — men and women — are accompanied by their infants and children.

Once in a while, the administration cracks down on unlawful and inhuman mobilisation of labour forces. Middlemen find smaller railway stations closer to Kantabanji and even buses to send labourers away. The financial transactions involved in wage advances, travel arrangements, and bribes run into hundreds of crores. Part of Kantabanji’s economy thrives from the outturn of labour mobilisation, say local NGOs.

The Kalahandi-Balangir-Koraput (KBK) region, across about 100 km, is one of the poorest in the country, with reports of starvation deaths and child sales regularly making headlines in the 80s and 90s. Bangamunda block, where the Odisha Chief Minister delivered his speech, was infamous for starvation deaths.

In 2010, the National Human Rights Commission took cognisance of media reports that talked about 50 starvation deaths that left 300 children orphaned in Khaprakhol, Belpada, Tureikela, Bangamunda, and Muribahal blocks of Balangir district. Three of these blocks — Muribahal, Tureikela, and Bangamunda — form Kantabanji.

The land distribution is highly skewed with ownership remaining with a small segment of the population. Most people here are marginal or landless farmers. Lands belonging to the marginalised are often upland and unproductive.

Villagers often take loans from local moneylenders at a monthly compounding interest of 5% to meet health expenses, and for weddings and rituals associated with death. Loan transactions spike in August and September when people observe nuakhai, a harvest festival, celebrated in the region. People buy new clothes, there’s celebratory food, and merry-making.

This is when labour intermediaries chip in, distributing festival advances among villagers, who are potential labourers. Around this time, hotels in Kantabanji are occupied with brick kiln manufacturers from southern India, who carry cash for labour recruitment. In November, people begin to move out of town.

Empty homes and villages

In Bagbahal, Butu Deep, 70, walks through the deserted lanes of his village, noting the numerous locked homes, which signify that entire families have departed for six months to make bricks. Out of Deep’s three sons, two are employed in Chennai’s brick kilns. “Seven members of my family, including four grandchildren, are already in the brick-making profession, working outside the State due to the lack of suitable jobs here.”

Villagers report that out of the 114 families in Bagbahal, members from 80 families have left. This exodus leaves behind elderly parents and school-age children. A few able-bodied villagers, who have managed to secure odd jobs, have opted to stay back this year.

Migration researcher Jyoti Prakash Brahma, based in Bhubaneswar, says of the cycle of poverty: “What is disturbing is that by the time children reach 14 years, they are ready to enter the brick-making industry. They learn the skills from their parents, producing generation after generation of half-literates.”

Meanwhile, in Pandren village, 3 km away from Bagbahal, 13-year-old Arati Nag returns home for the summer vacation from her hostel to find that her parents, two brothers, and a sister have left for Hyderabad to work in a brick kiln. Aarti is now in charge of a two-room house, making sure it is kept clean and the deities are worshipped. “My elderly grandmother is looking after me. My family plans to return in June,” says the Class 7 student.

In Kharkhara village in neighbouring Belpada block, which comes under the Patnagarh Assembly constituency, the exodus is more discernible. Most homes are left with one or two occupants. A register maintained by a voluntary organisation shows 35 school-going children from Classes 2 to 9 have been left behind by their parents in the village. Most stay with ageing grandparents, who themselves require care. The State government opens seasonal hostels in schools to cater to these children in western Odisha. The number of seasonal hostels, activists lament, is grossly inadequate this year.

Kharkhara does not have such hostel facilities. Children are currently being housed in a seasonal hostel in Ainlabhata village, 2 km away. Their activity in summer is limited to watching television. “I miss my parents; I’m waiting for them to return,” says Chaitanya Kharsel, 14, who, along with his cousin Bikash Kharsel, finds himself stranded in the hostel.

The economics and politics of labour

A group of three — comprising husband, wife, and son or daughter — gets an advance of about ₹1.2 lakh for the season. For every 1,000 bricks baked, the trio is paid ₹700, with a weekly payment of ₹1,000 or so towards food. They shape and bake an average of 3 lakh bricks over the 24 weeks of their stay.

At the time of return, brick kiln owners start deducting wage advances, expenses for medical treatment, and travel costs. In the event of unseasonal rain, brick production gets hampered; so does the income of workers. These labourers generally return home with no additional income in hand from six months of engagement. Labour agents earn commissions of ₹50 for every 1,000 bricks produced.

The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (ISMW) Act, 1979, mandates registration of workers with the Labour Department before movement. However, official registration is low. As per a reply in the State Assembly, only 1,05,915 workers had registered under the ISMW Act to migrate in 2022.

Labourers are often denied wages promised to them. Brick kiln operators force them to work for additional output: they begin work at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. and work until noon, resuming work towards the early evening, and continuing late into the night. Many labourers end up in bondage.

In the past two decades, thousands have been rescued from brick kilns. Around 5,000 labourers have been officially released from States like Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, since 2000. More than half of them are struggling to receive rehabilitation assistance from the State government.

Kantabanji’s politics has revolved around labour. Politicians linked to influential middlemen have won the Assembly seat several times. This election, Laxman Bag, locally known to have links in sending workers to other States, is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate. “I am not involved in exploitation. I am able to give people jobs; that is not wrong. The Naveen Patnaik government must spell out how it wants to give jobs to thousands of families here,” Laxman says.

Santosh Singh Saluja, the Congress candidate and sitting MLA, says resignedly, “Migration has been continuing for decades now. This is not new. Has the State government ever tried to set up industry or skill people? Most people in villages know nothing except making bricks.”

With the election scheduled for May 20, candidates are ready to foot the travel bill of migrant workers, so they come home to vote.

Union Education Minister and senior BJP leader Dharmendra Pradhan, who was in Odisha for campaigning, is scathing in his criticism. “Hinjili, represented by the Odisha Chief Minister for the past 25 years, probably sends more migrant workers to different parts of the country than any other Assembly constituency in the State. Hoping for a miracle from Patnaik’s selection of Kantabanji as his second Assembly seat is a joke,” Pradhan says.

‘No less than human trafficking’

“The way labour migration takes place in western Odisha is no less than human trafficking. There is so much scope for streamlining migration, transforming it into a respectful employment avenue,” says Umi Daniel, who heads the migration unit of Aide et Action, an international NGO.

In 2023, the Odisha government had announced 365 days of work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in 20 migration-prone blocks of Balangir, Nuapada, Kalahandi, and Bargarh districts, but this did not check the exodus.

“Timely payment, job scheduling, and the nature of work significantly influence the decision to accept MGNREGA jobs. Minor adjustments to the scheme could boost job demand and help mitigate distress migration,” says Daniel.

Meanwhile, Bag has intensified his search for a benefactor to help with his father’s treatment. The loan he has taken to meet the medical expenses indicates that he will find it difficult to exit the exploitative occupation of brick-making that builds India’s cities.

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