A recent study, “Bhil Migration to South Gujarat”, coordinated by Rahul Banerjee and sponsored by two Madhya Pradesh-based NGOs, Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra and Khet Mazdoor Chetna Sangath, has revealed “solid evidence of the sorry situation of the Bhil tribal migrants in South Gujarat and especially the women and the neglect of their rights by the governments of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh”. In fact, the economic evaluation of the tribals, who mainly hail from Madhya Pradesh, “shows that despite the appalling working and living conditions the migrants are able to take back with them a net income which would not be possible if they stayed back and this is why there is so much migration”.
The study suggests how socially insecure these tribals are by giving a symbolic example. Chovria Pirla, a Bhilala tribal resident of Darkali Village in Sondwa Block of Alirajpur district of Madhya Pradesh fell from the fifth storey of a building under construction in Navsari town in South Gujarat and died immediately on October 12, 2009. A case of accidental death was registered at the Police Station and the contractor paid his family only the transportation money to take the dead body home.
“This is the stark reality of the insecurity under which the lakhs of migrants from Alirajpur district work in various destination areas in Gujarat”, the study says, adding, “The need to migrate arises from the fact that the average landholding per household in Alirajpur district is less than 1 hectare and the land also is mostly of low quality. Forests too have been decimated drastically reducing the supplementary incomes from minor forest produce and animal husbandry. Development schemes are not implemented properly and are mostly riddled with corruption and have been so for the past few decades. Literacy levels are low and so there is little scope of skill upgradation. Thus, the tribals have perforce to migrate seasonally to make ends meet”.
No doubt, the heavy ongoing economic development in Surat and around has generated a tremendous amount of building and road construction work. But despite mechanisation this is the industry where the demand for unskilled workers to do hard physical labour is at the highest. “This is primarily the sector where migrant Bhil tribals from Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra work. Apart from this they also work in rice and sugarcane cultivation which are two agricultural activities that require hard unskilled labour”, the study points out, regretting, “There are no reliable estimates based on detailed sample surveys of the number of people involved in circular migration.”
Thus, of the 809 tribal migrants who who were interviewed in South Gujarat, 60.7 came Madhya Pradesh’s neighbouring districts, mainly Alirajpur, followed by 20.1 per cent, mostly from Gujarat’s tribal areas of Dahod and Tapi. Rest of the migrant workers came from tribal areas of Rajasthan and Maharashtra. The survey — which was based on focused group discussions with tribal migrants — found that the plight of the women workers is particularly appalling.
The study says, “The high proportion of adult female workers almost on par with adult male workers is notable. In fact adolescent females are more in number than adolescent males. The proportion of children and infants together too is quite high at 17.7 per cent and as many as 322 of the focus groups or 39.8 per cent had children or infants with them making things difficult for them as will become clear later. Children and infants in fact outnumber adolescents. The proportion of infants and children are comparatively less as compared to migrants in the brick kiln industry because here the migration is mostly of a short duration of about a month or so.”
Poverty reason for migration: Poverty, clearly, is the main reason for migration. The migrants from Madhya Pradesh back home “have an average household landholding of close to 2 hectares which is the upper limit for the small farmer otherwise all the other categories have landholdings less than 1 hectare which is the upper limit for the marginal farmer.” As for Gujarat’s tribal migrants, who are mainly Dublas from Tapi district, they are mostly landless. “Overall 20 per cent of the families are landless. Among the rest of the landed households as high a proportion as 85 per cent reported having bad quality lands”, the study says, adding, “The average debt burden is Rs 10,242 sourced mainly from moneylenders who served 65 per cent of the respondents and only 10 per cent of households took loans from banks and cooperatives.”
The overall literacy rate is about 7 per cent “and this precludes most of these migrants from doing skilled work and they have to do unskilled labour only”. The study says, “The overwhelming majority of workers are employed from the informal labour markets called Naka. Many workers also find work by themselves by visiting the work sites. A small proportion of workers have found work through their relatives who are already working in the destination areas. Some workers are recruited from their homes by the land owners or contractors who have their mobile phone numbers and vice versa. Cell phones in fact are an indispensable accessory for migrant workers as they keep in touch with their villages as well through these. This helps to keep continuity both at the work place and also at the temporary shelters that they reside in. ”
The study finds “tremendous demand for unskilled labour in Surat and Navsari”, which it says “is revealed by the fact that 95.4 per cent of the migrants work for five days or more a week.” Poor health conditions are widespread among them. “Except for a handful most workers complained that the work was hard and they frequently fell ill as a result. An overwhelming 64.6 per cent of the migrants reside in the open and another 25 per cent in polythene tents. Only some of the groups having masons mostly are able to hire rooms. Thus, along with the hard work this lack of a proper shelter is also a major contributing factor to the migrants being prone to illnesses”, the study reveals.
Poor water, sanitary conditions: Pointing out that sourcing of water is a big problem for the migrants, the study says, “Often the public sources like handpumps, standpipes and wells from which most people get their drinking water are situated at a distance from their place of stay and so considerable amount of time has to be expended in getting water. A very high 30.2 per cent of the migrants have to borrow their water from neighbours and this is an uncertain situation as they have to go to different neighbours every few days given the general under supply of water that affects all poor urban residents.” It adds, “What is of greatest concern is that 9.5 per cent of the respondent groups had to buy water sometimes at as high a price as a rupee a litre. Under the circumstances both the quality and quantity of drinking water supply is very poor and this too affects the health of the migrants.”
The study further says, “The situation with the supply of bathing and washing water is as constrained as that with drinking water and in this case as many as 29.4 per cent of the groups bathe and wash at their workplace itself due to lack of water at their residence places. This, when seen along with the fact that 96 per cent of the respondent groups reported that both women and men bathe and defecate in the open, presents a horrifying picture of the living environment of the migrants. Not surprisingly the level of illness in the groups was very high and only the Dublas were able to access government health services. Among the rest of the migrants, a high proportion of 99 per cent had to rely on private quacks and the per family average cost of medication during one migratory season as reported by the respondents came out to be Rs 415. Some migrants fall seriously ill and have to go back to their homes.”
The study reveals education as a major problem for migrant tribals. Thus, in 76 per cent of cases children remain with their families and there are no facilities for looking after them or educating them so they went along with their guardians to the workplace. During focus group discussions it was found that a few parents “keep their smaller children tied with ropes, tethered like animals, while they worked. Consequently, even if the proportion of children and infants is less due to the fact that there are a number of single males and females in the groups nevertheless for those children the situation is extremely hostile. Not only do they lose out on their education but they also have to bear extreme conditions which almost certainly have a negative psychological effect on their development.”
Among the construction labourers 88.4 per cent did not know the names of their contractors while 98.1 per cent did not know the names of the principal employers. “All the respondents said that they did not have any contact with the police, administration, labour department officials and politicians in the destination areas. A handful of thems said that they were harassed by the police at night in their residence areas. They also said that they had no contact with the police and labour department officials in their own villages. Most people had contacts with their village sarpanches… The most disturbing finding was that none of the migrants surveyed had any knowledge of the laws, policies and institutions that were in place for their protection. This is one of the principal reasons for their not being able to get compensation for loss due to accidents at the workplace that happen quite frequently”, the study comments, adding, “Attempts by the surveyors to interview the lower level officials in Gujarat were fended off by the latter and they were asked to file applications under the Right to Information Act instead. Thus, there is a serious lack of awareness among the migrants and a near total neglect of their rights and entitlements on the part of the government and administration both in the source and the destination areas.”
Status of women workers: During the study “a special set of questions were asked of the women in the focus groups separately by women surveyors relating to problems that were specific to them. All the women said that the lack of privacy was a serious problem especially during menstruation. Nine women reported that they had suffered molestation either by masons or contractors. The women said that they were not at all in touch with government health workers or doctors in the destination areas.” Even back home, “at most they were visited by the Auxiliary Nurse Medic (ANM) once in a while mainly for pulse polio vaccination. They do not receive other support even though the Janani Suraksha Scheme has been running for over five years now. In fact they have to arrange for their own transport to go to hospital for delivery and then pay bribes to the doctor and nurse there. Payments under this scheme were also not made on time and in full to the pregnant mothers. The care of children and cooking are a heavy burden in the destination areas where there is no domestic support. Due to the hard work and unhygienic conditions the women suffer from a variety of reproductive health problems”.
The study says, “The overall proportion of women who have reported having reproductive health problems is 34.9 per cent with the highest being among Gujarat’s Dublas at 60.5 per cent. This is not surprising that innumerable studies have established that there is a strong correlation between poverty and reproductive health problems… The Dublas are economically poorer and earn much less than the other tribals. Studies have also established that women generally under report their problems because in many cases they are not even aware that they have gynaecological problems and even if they are aware the patriarchal taboo against talking about these problems prevents them from expressing themselves freely. Thus, there is a high chance that the actual number of women suffering reproductive health problems is much higher. The women reporting problems have reported ”
The study underlines, “Given the lack of privacy and the unsanitary conditions in which women have to live in the destination areas this is the most serious problem. Apart from this 14 women in Surat have reported that they had to deliver babies in the open. This is an extremely disturbing revelation. Pregnant women in the final months of their pregnancy too are forced to migrate because their is no one to look after them if left behind and then they cannot access the health system in the destination area even in a city like Surat and have to go through labour and parturition in the open. Overall the picture that comes through of the gender situation of the migrants is horrifying to say the least. A detailed reproductive health study of migrant women involving clinical testing will almost certainly provide an even more disturbing picture.”
The study insists that the Government of Gujarat must pro-actively implement the provisions of the Inter State Migrant Workers Act (ISMW), The Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, The Workmen’s Compensation Act. “Mechanisms must be put in place to enable migrants to easily lodge complaints against the rampant violations of these laws that are taking place with impunity at present”, it says, adding, “Under the provisions of the ISMW Act the contractor or principal employer is responsible for providing shelter, water, sanitation and health facilities and creches for their children to the migrant labourers and this has to be strictly implemented through the registration and regulation of all establishments in which migrant labour are employed. This is something that the Government of Gujarat has to ensure as on their own neither the contractors nor the principal employers will do this”.
— Rajiv Shah