Bhagirathi Khande, 52, takes out three passport-size photographs. That of his son, daughter-in-law and their 18-month-old daughter, the only photographs he has of the three. In early November 2016, the three left Andi village for Deoria in Uttar Pradesh to work in brick kilns. They had taken a loan to build a toilet under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. The money they were supposed to get did not land and Khande’s son and his family left for the kilns, ignoring warnings about what could be in store.
Two months ago, says Khande, son Shobh made the first call, seeking help. He told Khande they were not being paid the promised amount, were being abused, beaten and threatened.
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Migration from these parts of Chhattisgarh for work is not new. But this year, the desperation is worse.
Last year, Malkharoda block was the first in Janjgir Champa to be declared open-defecation free. All 125 houses in Andi village in the block got toilets built, one per ration card holder, because the district administration mounted pressure.
Pressure came in many forms, including officials moving through panchayats early in the morning, naming and shaming people found defecating in the open. Pushpendra Khunte, a local activist and AAP member, talks about the controversy that followed when an official took a photograph of a woman defecating and circulated it.
Several months have since passed, and while villagers have got accustomed to using toilets, they have realised that change has come at a high price.
“I built my toilet using Rs 18,000, including all construction costs. The government said they would pay us Rs 12,000. None of us in Andi has received that amount even after a year. We live hand to mouth. If they had told us that money wouldn’t come, we would have refused to build the toilets. So when the offer came to go to Gorakhpur, the family had no option but to take it,” Khande says.
Behind his home stand three toilets that the extended family built.
Given the focus on the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, officials refuse to speak on record. But a senior officer in Raipur admitted money was a problem. “The government doesn’t pay the costs before a toilet is built. People who need toilets are generally the poorest of the poor, who don’t have money to spare. But because there is this focus on declaring villages, blocks and districts ODF (open defecation free), pressure is built on them to construct regardless.”
“Rs 2,000 is granted initially, but a good toilet costs at least Rs 15,000. The Rs 12,000 they are meant to get is actually a protsahan raashi (encouragement sum), three months after a toilet is built. But given the pace at which toilets are being built, money to distribute is way short of the demand. Money has to come from the Centre to the state, then to the district and then to the panchayat. It is just not coming fast enough. And it is clear debts are rising,” the officer said.
Like the others, Khande, who has no land and works on farms of others for a share of the crop, raised money for his toilet from local moneylenders.
Activist Pushpendra Khunte said, “The interest rate here is 5 per cent per month, and 3 per cent if there is something acceptable to mortgage. If someone takes Rs 20,000 loan for a toilet, they may have to return Rs 32,000. That is a margin that is just unaffordable, and pushes villagers further into migration.”
Only about 30 per cent of Chhattisgarh is irrigated, and most places like Janjgir Champa only see a single crop a year. “For the rest of the year, there is no employment because there are very few industries. People have no choice except leave. People often go as far as Jammu for work, and cases of people being trapped in bonded labour are very common,” Khunte said.
“After November, only those who are in local service-sector jobs, big farmers with excess stock or the elderly stay behind. Forty per cent of villagers in Malkharoda block, for instance, leave,” he said.
Janjgir Champa District Magistrate Dr S Bhartidasan admitted that migration was “widescale”. “It is worse in and around 15 villages. We are looking at ways to mitigate this, such as concentrating on MNREGA for employment, and starting self-help groups that will generate employment. But it is a long-term plan.”
Khande says people in Andi start leaving after the rain, around October. By February, Andi is almost half-empty. Of his large family, only he, his wife and his 15-year-old niece have stayed back this year.
Khande remembers that a local sardar (men who arrange work in other states and facilitate travel) approached the family in October about work being available in Gorakhpur. His family members, like many others in the area, usually go to Jharsuguda in Odisha, 150 km away. “We had never gone to Gorakhpur, but had heard stories that people like us were mistreated there. But the sardar said there was money to be made — Rs 20,000 for each couple, to be paid in advance, plus Rs 550 for making every thousand bricks,” he said.
In late October, Khande’s son, his family, and a dozen-odd relatives, plus four more people from Bade Seepat village left for Deoria. The plan was to return after working there for a few months.
The first distress call home was made by Shriram Khande in December to Khande’s elder brother Acche Ram. Ram’s wife Phulin Bai says Shriram told them the contractor who had taken them to Gorakhpur had escaped with the Rs 3 lakh meant to pay the labourers.
Phulin says, “They never received any money. And now the thekedaar in Gorakhpur is not paying them anything, except a measly amount for food. The men and women are kept separately at night so that nobody escapes for fear of what would happen to their family members. Every day, they get beaten, abused and are told they can’t return. They call up home often, crying, desperate to return.”
Aided by Khunte, the aggrieved families had petitioned the district authorities within days of the first call. At a press conference in Raipur on January 18, they threatened to go on hunger strike, with letters written to Chief Minister Raman Singh.
Janjgir Champa Superintendent of Police Ajay Yadav says a team of officers would be leaving for Deoria in a couple of days. In a letter sent to the Deoria police on December 24, the Janjgir Champa police named the owner of the brick kiln where the villagers were working.
At the Khande home, wife Raat Kumari breaks down talking about her son and his family. “Shobh called a week ago to say that our granddaughter Aditi had taken ill. It is cold in Gorakhpur and the girl can’t bear it. They somehow got her to a hospital but they asked for money to treat her, and there is none. Tell me, do officials not care about us when they make their plans? What do these words sarkar, palayan (migration), Swachh Bharat mean if we die?”