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It's been a hard day's night

By P Sainath

In a process of reverse migration, hundreds of women in Maharashtra's Gondia district travel from small towns to the villages, staying away from home for 20 hours a day, to earn a daily wage of around Rs 30. The beedi industry has closed down in their hometowns and there are no jobs

Revantabai Kamble has not spoken to her six-year-old son for months. They live in the same house in Tiroda, of course. It's the same with Buribai Nagpure -- though she might sometimes see her older boy if he's awake. Both women are among hundreds in this part of Maharashtra 's Gondia district who spend just four hours a day at home, and travel over 1,000 km each week -- to earn Rs 30 daily.

It's 6 am when we accompany the women from their homes to the railway station. Most have been up for two hours already. “I've finished the cooking, washing, sweeping and cleaning,” says Buribai cheerfully. “So now we can talk.” No other member of her household is awake when we arrive. “Poor things,” she says, “they're tired out.” Isn't Buribai tired out too? “Yes, but what to do? We have no options.”

At the station there are many other women without options. They are also unusual in one sense: these are not migrants from village to city. They are footloose workers from an urban setting seeking work in the villages. This search takes them from mofussil towns -- Tiroda is a tehsil headquarters -- to toil as agricultural labour in the villages, almost every day of their lives. They spend up to 20 hours away from home every day. There are no weekends off and no jobs in Tiroda. “After the bidi industry went,” says Mahendra Walde, “it is impossible for them to find work here.” Walde is district secretary of the Kisan Sabha in Gondia.

Many of the women live five or more kilometres from the railway station. “So we have to be up by 4 am,” says Buribai. “We finish all our work and walk to the station by seven.” That's when the train comes in and we clamber on with the group that will go to Salwa in rural Nagpur . The 76 km journey takes two hours. On the platform and in the train are more women, weary-eyed, hungry, half asleep. Most sit on the floor of the crowded train, leaning against the carriage wall, trying to snatch some sleep before their station arrives.

“We will reach home at 11 pm,” says Revantabai. “We sleep by midnight. And start all over again at 4 am the next morning. I have not seen my six-year-old awake in a long time.” Then she laughs: “Some of the much younger children may not recognise their mothers when they do see them.” Their children have either dropped out of school because they cannot afford it. Or they perform poorly there. “There is no one at home to watch or help,” points out Buribai. And some of the youngsters are themselves doing any work they can find.

“Naturally, they do badly at school,” says Lata Papankar, a teacher based in Tiroda. “Who can blame them?” It appears the government of Maharashtra can. The performance of these children is held against the schools, which could lose funds. And against teachers trying to help them, who might be penalised for poor results. An approach that will further erode their chances of going to school.

Seated on the rocking floor of the train, Shakuntalabai Agashe says she has been doing this for 15 years. The only breaks come during festivals or the monsoon. “For some kinds of work,” she says, “we may be paid Rs 50. But that's rare. Mostly it's Rs 25-30.” There are no jobs in their towns, say the women.

The money there has flown to the cities. The industries that existed have closed down. The mofussil towns are in decay. Almost all these women found work with the bidi industry in the past. “When that went, we were finished,” says Buribai. “ Bidi is a footloose industry, ever in search of cheaper labour,” says K Nagaraj of the Madras Institute of Development Studies who has worked on the sector. “It shifts base quite quickly. The human consequences of such shifts are devastating. And have gone up these past 15 years.” A lot of bidi work “has gone off from Gondia to Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh,” says Pradeep Papankar of the Kisan Sabha.

“Of course, we do not buy tickets to travel on the train,” the women say. “A round ticket would cost more than the Rs 30 we earn. Our system is simple: if we get caught, we pay the checker a bribe of Rs 5.” Ticket revenue has been privatised. “They extort it from us knowing we can't afford it.”

“My older boy drops me at the station on his cycle sometimes,” says Buribai. “Then he stays there looking for any work, whatever the pay. My daughter cooks at home. And my second boy takes the meal to his brother.” In short, says Walde, “three people are working for the wage of one.” But all five family members together, including her husband, often make much less than Rs 100 a day. Some days, just two of them may have earned anything at all. They do not have a BPL (below the poverty line) ration card.

At stations along the way are labour contractors, waiting to pick up workers on the cheap.

Reaching Salwa around 9 am, we set out a kilometre to the village and a further 3 km into the fields. Buribai does that last stretch with a huge vessel of water perched on her head, yet outpaces all of us.

Those on whose fields they labour for a pittance are also in trouble. The agrarian crisis has hit landowner Prabhakar Vanjare badly. He owns 3 acres and has taken 10 on lease. “Prices are terrible, we earn almost nothing,” he complains. And resident labour in the village has migrated elsewhere in despair. Hence, the coming of these women.

This is eastern Vidarbha, away from the troubled cotton belt. Vanjare grows paddy, chillies, and other items. Right now, he just requires the women for weeding work. They work till about 5.30 pm and get back to the station an hour later.

“But the train only comes in by 8 pm,” Buribai points out. “So we will reach Tiroda only around 10 pm.” Their families are asleep when the women get home. And asleep when they leave in the mornings. “What family life can there be,” asks Revantabai.

By the time they get home, they have travelled over 170 km. And will do that every day of the week -- to earn Rs 30. “We'll be home by 11 pm,” says Buribai, “to eat and sleep.” Until four hours later, when they have to get up and do it all over again.

Courtesy: The Hindu

(P Sainath, who recently won the Magsaysay award, is author of 'Everybody Loves a Good Drought' and Rural Affairs Editor of 'The Hindu')

InfoChange News & Features, September 2007