In Paratwada, the space behind the government guest house has a large group of migrant labour waiting to be picked up by contractors.

It was a night out under the stars. These were not city slickers but a group of villagers from Salona. On the way down from Chikhaldhara hill station in Amravati district, the darkness of the cold night is lit by small fires. Groups of people huddle around the flickering flames.

Their children lie swaddled in thin bedclothes which cannot keep the chill away. Shivlal Belsare and his wife are finishing off a frugal meal of rice and chillies. Since a fortnight, he and about 30 people are working on a road construction site. There is no work in the village and people have migrated.

“We will work like this till March and go wherever the contractor tells us. The children too are pulled out of school. Who will look after them at home,” he says.

Salona is not far off from Churni Phata where they are camping for the night. But work will take them even further away. Melghat region which comprises the Dharni and Chikhaldhara talukas has rural employment works which are approved to the tune of Rs. 36.73 crores.

Yet work, which is guaranteed by law and for which ample funds and an elaborate framework has been set up, is not available. As a result, the annual exodus began a month ago. Deputy Collector Shiv Mishra said as of December 5, the region had 900 workers on employment guarantee schemes. Officially job cards have been issued to 41,250 families in both districts which translate to a registered labour force of about one lakh.

In Paratwada, the space behind the government guest house has a large group of migrant labour waiting to be picked up by contractors.

Families with small children have brought their belongings including food supply and vessels for a long stay. Shaligram has come from Kesharpur village over 50 km away. “We come here every year looking for work, there is nothing back home. We get wages of Rs. 100 a day while the women get Rs. 80,” he says. Suniyari has come all the way with two infants, one is only a year old, and the older one is two.

Both of them are chewing plain rotis. “What else can I give them, the poor eat only rotis,” she says. Like her Sakrai has brought her two children along. “Anyway they don’t go to school,” she smiles.

Chotelal sits near the group, covered in a thick blanket. His age and gray hair don’t deter him from travelling around in search of work. “I have coming here for many years, what else can I do? Agriculture does not make ends meet. It is very difficult. We stay in an open ground, there is no water,” he says. Near him is a group of men and boys from Kongada village. They have been working since November 30 for five days and have earned Rs. 600 each. Babulal says this is an annual practice. Most of the group is very young. Kishore Savalkar, a student of class eleven has left his studies to work. “This is the first time I have come. There are boys in the tenth class too. We don’t have any money so we have to work,” he says shyly.

In village after village in Chikhaldhara and Dharni talukas, migration is the norm. In Kohana village nearly 200 people have already left a month ago. The unseasonal rain has been lucky for farmers here — they have planted some green gram and wheat. The government is using that as an excuse not to start work. People’s experience with employment guarantee schemes (EGS) is that they never get paid on time. “Not many have job cards in this village and last year there was work but there are some complications. We get paid on the basis of the amount of mud we dig and that is all wrongly calculated. You work for a fortnight and spend months getting the money. Who wants to waste time like this? It’s better to migrate,” says Mangal Bhusum. That’s why there is no one who prefers EGS. Three wells were dug in the village but work was stopped halfway last year. The gram panchayat which is supposed to initiate work does nothing and the forest department too is no help.

There are trucks in the village -- contractors have come to get people for labour in other districts. Young girls are taken to work in orange orchards.

Under the new rules for EGS payment, each worker has a bank or a post office account and money is paid to them directly. N.M. Naikwad, postmaster at Kohana has six villages under him some of which are far away. Each worker can be paid a maximum of Rs. 2,000, if the dues are more than that, then the person has to be called again. Payment can be time consuming both for the post office and the workers. Villagers in Kohana are demanding work. Sumani Dhikhar says, “we are too old to travel out now. All the men have left already.” The impact of migration on the health of women and children is acute and that is one of the reasons for the severe malnutrition among children that is endemic to Melghat. Mira Solao, the anganwadi worker in Kohana says 20 children below the age of six have left with their parents and two of them are severely malnourished. When they come back the children fall ill, she pointed out. This year people from Kohana have gone 120 km away for work where they live near a dam site in tents.

In Hathighat too, the situation is similar. Shakuntala Mohan Bhoir, anganwadi sevika, says 38 children are out since a month with their parents, of which 35 have gone on work sites. She says this is the first year that so many children have gone. The list of migrants includes 18 couples and 35 children, of which 23 are already malnourished. There are totally 87 children in the anganwadi and only 17 are of normal weight. In Chikhaldhara taluka, official sources say that over 500 children below six have migrated with their parents.

Complaints of lack of work reached a flash point on December 5 after a public hearing in Amravati on this issue. District Collector Rucha Bagla had to assure an angry delegation of activists and Adivasis that she would speed up the work everywhere. “No one should migrate for work,” Ms Bagla declared. It’s probably a bit late for that now.

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