They repay their loan to the labour contractor by working in Gujarat sugarcane fields

It is three in the afternoon. In Nandurbar's Akkalkuwa taluk, Sangubai Wadwi is squatting near a truck, waiting for her family's turn to board it. Her two children, aged three and five, are also braving the October heat. They watch, as their father loads their belongings onto the truck that will take them across the State's border, into Gujarat.

This migration is an annual practice for Sangubai, and many other tribal villagers from Nandurbar district in north Maharashtra, who leave their homes for six months a year, moving to the sugarcane fields of Gujarat, working as farm labourers. Saddled with a loan from the ‘mukadam' (labour contractor), they work for six months, earning barely enough for subsistence, mostly to repay the debt.

“We came here in the morning. The mukadam told us to reach early. But there are no signs of him. Some people are saying he has gone to get the other people from their villages. Hopefully we will leave today,” says Sangubai. Hailing from Chandsaili village in Nandurbar's Dhadgaon taluk, she says most people in her village leave after Dusserah, looking for work. Most of the migrants are tribals: Bhils or Pawras.

Sangubai's is one of the 20 families the mukadam is taking to sugarcane fields attached to Gujarat's Bardoli cooperative sugar factory. There are eight trucks parked behind the Akkalkuwa panchayat office, and one of the drivers confirms that all of them will leave the same day, packed with labourers.

This family has been given a loan of Rs. 6,000 by the mukadam. After the six months of work from October end to April, Sangubai is hopeful of getting Rs. 18,000. But out of this, Rs. 12,000 will go back to the mukadam, which includes the loan amount with an interest rate of 100 per cent. Sangubai owns 0.3 acres of land, the produce of which is not enough for the family. Asked how she can afford paying double the loan amount, she says, “What else can we do? Who will give a loan to the poor?” But the loan comes at a price: bonded labour. The mukadam makes sure that the family comes with him, on the fields he tells them to work on.

Empty village

The same story is repeated by many of the villagers in the district, most of whom are landless. In Akkalkuwa's Khatavni village, 25 families have already left for Gujarat. Fifty more are preparing to leave in the next one week. With entire families migrating, the village will be almost empty. The total population of the village is 2,000, and some families leave behind the old people and young children: only because they are not of any use on the fields.

“Staying back and working in the cotton fields here will get us Rs. 45 a day. Working in Gujarat will get you Rs. 150. It is difficult, but everybody has a stomach to fill,” states Vikram Raoji Wadwi, who is leaving soon.

He explains in detail what life will be like in the fields: “We don't get a house; we live in the open fields. The mukadam does not give us food, we have to cook our own, so we have to take all the commodities with us.”

The total population of Nandurbar district is 16,46,177, according to the 2011 census. Of this, 52.24 per cent are tribals. According to Pratibha Shinde of the Lok Sangharsha Morcha, almost 73 per cent of the tribals migrate for work.

“The official figures are far below that. But the local administration conducts the survey, and it is their responsibility to ensure that the villagers get work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), but they have failed in it,” says Ms. Shinde.

Migration pattern

According to a survey of the migration pattern conducted for the first time in 2010, by the Nandurbar Collectorate, 60,000 people migrated in the last year.

This year, 1,246 works have been sanctioned under the MGNREGS. Official sources told The Hindu that if implemented, this would provide employment to 2,12,000 people in the district. But the administration states that the villagers themselves are not ready to work.

The reason why people choose to migrate, disturbing their family and leaving the land they belong to is the urgency of money needed for survival. Working under the MGNREGS will fetch them money only in the end.

The lack of availability of rural credit, coupled with lack of employment opportunities in the village has forced Kantilal Wadwi to migrate every year, since the last six years, to work on a sugarcane farm. He says, “You have to get up at odd hours, and fill the trucks with sugarcane. You get no sleep, no holidays. You don't even get to eat in peace. But working like this is the only way to ensure that we can get by the months after we return.” Back home, he shares a one acre land with three of his brothers. “We grow jowar and some vegetables, but it barely lasts us for the year,” he says.

Payment of ‘jhagada'

For many of the Adivasis, migrating and earning money is inevitable if they have to get married. The tribal tradition in this region is that of paying bride price. Every year, communities decide the lower limit of the jhagada (bride price). “I got married this year, and now I have to pay my father-in-law Rs. 30,000. So I have to work for it,” states Bhimsen Wadwi of Khatavni. He has borrowed Rs. 10,000 from the mukadam for the first instalment of the jhagada.

The relationship between the mukadam and the labourers is complex, the existence of one is necessary for that of the other. At a night gathering in Khatavni, villagers told this correspondent that a mukadam is like an “essential evil.” Though unhappy, they are not resentful of the mukadam for charging a high interest rate. “At least he gives us money when we need it. He takes a risk, which no bank is ready to take. It is because of him that we get the jobs,” says Sangita Devisingh Wadwi.

All for commission

Arsi Vasawe, a mukadam for the Shrikrishna Sugar Mills for the last five years, has to bring in 20 families every year. For that, he gets a commission of Rs. 20 for every tonne of sugarcane. A family usually manages harvesting one tonne of sugarcane a day. Vasawe is also unapologetic about charging the exorbitant interest rates. “They do it for their stomachs. I do it for mine,” he says. However, he is ready to offer discounts for families that are loyal to him. “I guess it can go as low as 70 per cent,” he grins. Like the labourers he lends to, organises and offers jobs, Vasawe is also landless.

He earns up to Rs. 30,000 a year. He takes a loan from the sugar factory, and distributes it as a loan to the labourers. He chalks out the annual cycle, when he says, “They get money when they need it, so they come back and work for me. I give them the loan in four instalments, from May to October. The next six months they work and repay the loan. Again in May a fresh loan starts.”

Prithviraj Raghuvanshi, owner of the Shrikrishna Sugar Mill in Gujarat, describes the phenomenon of migration as an “essential element in the rural set- up of the country. Vasawe and 120 other mukadams supply labourers to his mill. “The mukadam exercises an ethical right on the labourers. He has a strong hold on them. Even if they get employment under the MGNREGS, they won't get a loan. Added to that they don't even get the money they are entitled to,” he says. Mr. Raghuvanshi admits that the transaction between the mukadam and the labourer is “internal” and that no factory owner interferes in their relationship.