Under the gloomy sky over a cluster of brown mud houses, in a village 75 km to the north of Nabarangpur municipality, an aged mother’s tired eyes start to fill with tears as she talks about her son. “Will he ever come back?” she asks, sitting on the edge of a charpoy. The crowd gathered around her is silent — some shuffle their feet, exchange nervous looks.
In Anchala, the village of migrants, somebody leaves every year, somebody waits. “This has been happening for 15 years,” says Narendra Naik, an unofficial spokesman and a former gram samiti member of this Adivasi enclave.
“Every January, after the maize crop is harvested, around 10-15 people leave for work in places like Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and even towns far south in Kerala whose names we can’t pronounce. They return when the monsoon starts in June,” says Naik.
As the others nod their head, Naik estimates at least 200 people from this village of around 300 families have travelled to other states for work over the years. Some return with small wads of cash hidden in their bags, like Roopchand Kamar, 38, who spent six months this year “loading mud on lorries” in Peddapalli, now in Telangana, and pocketed Rs 15,000. Today, his shy, five-year-old daughter Savitri proudly points to the Dish TV antenna on top of their house.
Others return with bitter memories, like Dhaniram Pujari, 50, who was “forced to eat boiled paddy waste” and made to work on a construction site near Hyderabad till his “legs almost broke”. He escaped with just the train fare in his pocket. And then, there are those like 80-year-old Saraswati Mali’s son Udaychand, who don’t return.
As Udaychand’s wife Mangaldei looks on stoically, Saraswati explains through Naik that her son and their neighbour, Dhansingh Bhatra, were detained by their “cruel employer” at a construction site in Bellary, Karnataka.
“Nobody knows why they have been held but this usually happens when the employer wants the worker to stay on for a few months more or doesn’t have money to pay his dues,” says Naik.
“Most people who have worked outside (the state) once don’t go back. They are kept like cattle, never get the promised money and are looted by the agents who take them,” he says.
“But then, a new batch is lured by the agents’ promises and the stories of those like Roopchand,who was lucky to get a good employer. And the tamasha starts all over again. They leave quietly by bus to Visakhapatnam and take the train,” Naik adds.
Mangaldei isn’t surprised her husband left. “We were tired of the daily hardship and wanted to make some money and to repair our house. With my husband stuck now, we survive on whatever I get as a labourer.” “We are so poor, you can’t blame them,” says Naik.
Most of the villagers are unschooled, and Mangaldei has got someone to etch the mobile number of her married daughter in a jagged scrawl on her mud wall — just in case there is news. Asked about government schemes, such as the MNREGA, Naik shakes his head. “We have to wait for months to get our money, and then have to pay cuts to everyone down the line. If we don’t do that, they reject our work, saying you dug four inches, instead of six, and so on,” he says.
The sarpanch of the Sunabeda gram panchayat, which includes Anchala, agrees. “The scheme is good and has helped a lot of people. But there is almost always a delay in getting the money, from six months to a year,” says Nilavati Pujari.
Asked about Anchala, which is part of his constituency, the BJD’s Umerkote MLA, Subash Gond, almost flies into a rage. “Will you please ask them why they keep going to other states again and again? We have told them so many times not to. Kaam ke bahane ghoomne jaate hain (They go sightseeing on the pretext of going for work). Some even get lost. They should send their children to school instead, and get them educated for their lives to improve,” Gond says.
That’s easier said than done though in a district with an average literacy rate of 46.43 per cent at last count, in the 2011 census. “But don’t worry,” adds Gond, “we will do our best to help them.” Meanwhile, a mother waits.