'We will face exploitation, but not hunger'
BHUBANESWAR: They are paid four times below the rates fixed by the government. They are undernourished, live in abject poverty, and sometimes their wives are held as mortgage for loans they cannot repay.
Thousands of villagers from interior Orissa have no choice but to keep working in such conditions, under the iron heels of greedy and well-connected contractors and builders.
In their own villages they would die of starvation. Seasons of scanty rainfall have led to a crippling drought in the villages, and with most of the crop gone, hunger and death loom constantly before the villagers.
So they migrate. To cities and towns, where the only work they most often find is the backbreaking labor at construction sites.
Like Indrajit Sendria, 35, of Naikenpali village of western Orissa's Subarnapur district, who fled from his home of 200 people, starvation at his heels, to work at a construction site here.
The government says he should be paid Rs.56 a day, but he gets just Rs.13. He knows he is being cheated, but he cannot go back. Back in their villages, there is just hunger and death.
Or Jata Dharua and his wife Jamuna, both of who left Pipalkhunta village in Bargarh district, 460 km from Bhubaneswar, to work in a brick kiln in a nearby district.
They took a loan of Rs.2,000 from their contractor, but could not pay back the money. Now the contractor is holding Jamuna hostage, while her husband hunts for the money and does the rounds of the labor court to free his wife. In the last three months, thousands of people have migrated to the neighboring states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Bihar, said social activist Gurmit Singh.
"You go to any village in the non-irrigated regions, you will find at least 30 to 40 of the population have migrated," Singh told IANS.
Twenty-eight of Orissa's 30 districts are reeling under drought, which has destroyed 75 percent of crops in non-irrigated areas and 50 percent in irrigated areas, according to a government report. Orissa Labor Minister Bimbadhar Kuanar says more than 50,000 people have migrated from the districts.
Social activists peg the numbers even higher. "You take any single village the migration would be more then the total government figure," said another activist Rajashree Debi.
The government claims 2.37 million adults in the poverty-stricken areas have been given employment under drought-related schemes. It says 34,463 tons of foodgrain have been distributed in these areas. "Nobody has died of starvation during the last few months," said Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik.
But activists beg to differ. "If the government has provided work and food to the poor, why have more than a dozen cases of starvation been reported from these areas? Why are there incidents of parents selling children?" asked Debi.
One Orissa non-governmental organization (NGO) said the number of people migrating due to drought could cross 600,000, if immediate measures were not taken.