In the middle of December 2013, Dialu Niyal (30) and Nilambar Dhangda Majhi (28) of Kalahandi, Odisha, paid an inhuman price for a breach of contract. The labor contractors had paid them (and 10 other villagers) Rs 14,000 ($225) each in advance to recruit them for work in another state. When the time came, the contractors tried to take them to a different place from the one agreed, but the villagers were not willing to go to the new place and escaped, except for these unfortunate two. The contractors detained them for a week trying to collect the debt, and in the end, became violent.
“If you can’t work for us, you can’t work for anyone else. What’d you give: your hand or your leg?” they said to the villagers (according to this article and this report). And then they cut off the right hands of the two victims, one after the other.
This story of extreme violence is hopefully an isolated event, but it may not be. The greedy recruitment agents involved in this case should get the maximum punishment for their crime. The case should be widely publicized to deter such crimes in the future. There should be a vigorous public information campaign to inform workers about their rights and recruiters about their responsibilities.
Beneath its sensational veneer, this story highlights a growing tension between local and national needs for labor. Rural-urban migration is intimately linked to the story of growth and sectoral transformation in India. As economies transform, jobs have to be created, but not necessarily where workers are, necessitating migration (see Shanta’s blog).
Migration to cities has significantly improved incomes in the villages of KBK districts. The evidence is visible: children with shoes, ubiquitous motorbikes, new pukka houses, and disappearance of bullocks and bullock carts.
The improvement in the lives of the rural poor can also be attributed to a significant extent to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA, to provide at least 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in a financial year to every household) and to the 2-rupees-a-kilogram rice program for the below-poverty-line people. During my last visit to the KBK districts in 2009, I felt that there was widespread support for both programs. Everyone credited these two programs, especially the BPL rice program, for the eradication of starvation deaths. During my visit to Kalahandi and Balangir last month, however, I heard a lot of complaints from farmers and businessmen, about labor shortage. “People don’t want to work anymore!”
A direct consequence of rising cost and scarcity of labor has been an increase in the use of machines in agriculture and construction activities. Farmers are using tractors or power tillers instead of ploughs and bullocks. Drills, bulldozers, excavators are not rare any more. More people are using cooking gas rather than firewood. January was harvest season, and I was struck by how much faster harvesting and thrashing of paddy has become because of mechanization - it is now accomplished in a matter of hours instead of days or weeks.
It is sad that violence is lurking behind this apparent good life. As the Indian society gets used to this new way of life, the friction between local needs and national needs for labor will intensify. Preventing further loss of limbs and lives will require a significant tightening of vigilance of labor recruitment practices, especially in the rural areas and small towns.
Postscript: Villagers were complaining about the folly of round tripping that a 2-rupee rice program must entail. This program provides 25 kilograms of rice per month at Rs 2 per kg to people holding a BPL card. Many buy the rice at Rs 2 per kg and sell it to a local trader at around Rs 12 per kg; the trader sells the rice to a wholesaler - usually rice mills - at Rs 13 per kg; and the wholesaler sells it back to the government at over Rs 19 per kg. The market price is closer to Rs 13 per kg.