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The menace of merchant prince and the melancholy of migrant labourer!
The shocking incident of chopping off the palm of two migrant laborers Nilambara Dhangda Majhi, 35 and Pialu Dhangada Majhi, 30 by the middlemen and the array of incidents that followed has exposed the ineffectiveness of the state machinery in enforcing the laws to protect the migrants.

This incidence has raised very pertinent questions whether the labor migrations so rampant in the western Odisha is a coping mechanism of the starving millions or it is the practice of bonded labor in guise that the government has turned a blind eye to.  It is the real life of a menace of merchant prince and the melancholy of migrant labourers’ ménage.

Two laborers, after their right palms were chopped off from their wrists, rushed to the Bhawanipatna hospital in the district Kalahandi. Police was informed about it. According the police, a labor contractor of Jayapana area (kalahandi district) had approached the villagers of Nuaguda in early December to hire them for labor work in Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh.

There was nothing unusual about it as starting from November every year somewhere between 10-15 lakh people from the undivided Bolangir, Nuapada and Kalahandi districts migrate to different parts of the country like Andhra Pradesh, Chhattishgarh, Maharashtra etc to work as laborers in brick kilns, construction work, agriculture and myriad other jobs.

The labor contractor paid Rs 14,000 each to 12 workers as advance. It was agreed that they will go after the harvesting of paddy. The labor contractor reached Nuaguda before the completion of harvesting and despite resistance took away 12 people from the village.

On their way, the laborers came to know that they are being taken to Raipur in Chhattishgarh instead of Hyderabad to work in brick kilns. This was not acceptable to them. So 10 out of the 12 laborers managed to flee from the clutches of the contractor on the way. But, two of them Nilambara and Pialu could not flee along with their fellow villagers.

The contractor was left with two persons in his captivity. The contractor and his henchmen tried to bring these two persons to their village to recover their money that was advanced to the laborers. On their way to Nuaguda village the henchmen pressurizing these two captives as well their family members over mobile to pay back the advance.

Repeated helplessness expressed by the victims and their families infuriated the contractor and his henchmen. They took them to a jungle and chopped off their right palms. “If you are not going to work for us, you will not be able to work for anybody” the henchmen reportedly told them before chopping the palms. Bleeding profusely they were left in the jungle to fend for themselves.

The reverberation of this ghastly act has been felt in Delhi. Members of Solidarity for Bonded Labourers gheraoed Odisha Resident Commissioner, New-Delhi, to press for their demands. They have demanded for immediate strong action against the culprits of the palm chopping incident, the case to be referred to Special Court for SC/ST as per the Act of 1999.

They have alleged that the Odisha government has failed in implementation of Bonded Labour Abolition Act 1976, while on the contrary it has declared that Odisha does not have bonded labour. They also have alleged that Odisha has failed in implementation of the Interstate Migrant Workman’s Act 1979. They have demanded that the Chief Minister of Odisha Mr. Naveen Patnaik should own up responsibility for these failures. The trail of all the cases against the Sardars-the local labour agents in the local parlance, should be expedited.

The National Human Rights Commission has already taken cognizance of the matter and has sought a detailed report from the State government on this case latest by 15th of January.

Torture of the migrant labourers is nothing new in this part of the world. Confinement, non-payment of wages, sexual harassment, thrashing etc are a regular hazard for these migrants. But, chopping of hands of the labourers so that they could not work for any other person, that too for not agreeing to go to a place that was not agreed upon has been a shocker for the Odias. But what is more shocking than the incident is the indifference with which it was treated by the government.

The Labour and Employment minister Bijayshree Routray expressed shock over the incidence and declared that the state government will provide a compensation of Rs 4 lakh each for the two migrant labourers Dhangda and Pialu.

However the victims have identified five of them as involved in the ghastly act. But the police is tight lipped about the culprits in the pretext of investigations. It is a well know fact that the link of exploitation does not end with the labour contractors. They also have their protectors behind them. After all labour trade in the undivided Bolangir and Kalahandi districts is a money spinning venture.

“Providing migrant labours to the different brick kilns and other establishments is a 100 crore business. And a share in this pie goes to politicians, law enforcers and many more. And political big shots who also adorn seats in Odisha Assembly have a stake in this as well. How come there will be justice for these poor people ?” rues Kulamani Mishra a resident of Bhawanipana.

Assistant Labor Commissioner, Kalahandi Duryodhan Sethi said, “Kalahandi had only three authorized labor contractors in this region. This meant the five arrested did not have licences to work as laborer contractors. And seven more in Khariar road also did not have it. And there are many more who do not have it.

In 2013, only 91 workers were taken outside the state from Kalahandi for work. This is not something even a child in Kalahandi can be fooled with as lakhs migrate out every year and most of the migration is through labour contractors or sardars – agents in local language. We don't keep record of labourers who go outside the state on their own. Not seeing the contractor is the easiest way to hoodwink the law.”

Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, meant to provide at least 100 days of employment to each family also has failed miserably to address the issue of migration. The populist schemes of Naveen Patnaik government like free umbrellas to rupees one a kg rice has not been able to at least reduce distress migration.

Then there are a host of welfare programmes like the Backward Region Grant Fund (BRGF), Rastriya Krushi Vikash Yojana (RKVY), Swarnajayanti Gramya Swarojagar Yojana (SGSY), Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS) and more importantly KBK Development Plan etc.

Odisha government has never bothered to explain why people continue to migrate in such large numbers when so many programs are being implemented in the state. One simple explanation of all these failures is that none of the schemes starting from MGNREGS to one rupee rice are being properly implemented on the ground.

As this report is being written newer groups of labours would have been compelled to migrate out in the pretext of the advance that they had taken. The number of raids will reduce as the time passes by or as fresh negotiations are arrived at between the law enforcers and the labour traffickers.

The noise on the palm chopping incident will die down. The two who have lost the palms of their right hand and also their only asset ‘labour’ will be soon forgotten. It has to. After all it is a hundred crore business for the mighty and the powerful of this region!

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