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Better wages make M.P. tribals shift base

Farmers from Siwal village in Burhanpur district weeding a field.

Farmers from Siwal village in Burhanpur district weeding a field.  

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Agricultural labourers migrate to Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh every season

Riyali Bai finds the 10-hour journey to Surat every year more promising than staying back home. “For six months at least, I’ll be paid the same as my husband, that too for doing much more work,” she sighs, showing her calloused hands.

Back in Kherkheda village of Burhanpur district, sowing fields, weeding furrows, picking cotton balls, winnowing grain, lugging chaff, shooing away stray cattle and hauling sacks on her back and hoisting bales of hay on her head, while clutching a toddler to waist, fetches her only ₹80 every day.

Meanwhile, her husband, Amar Singh, perches on the plough drawn by a set of bulls, splatters water across the crop using a hose pipe and sprays pesticide. On most nights, he saunters his way to the field, and plonks on a cot set under a makeshift shed, to stand guard, all for ₹100.

Tribal farmers from Burhanpur, Khargone and Khandwa districts in Madhya Pradesh migrate to Gujarat seasonally from November to April for beans and coriander cultivation, where they make ₹200-₹250 a day, almost more than double the wages back home. While better wages is a virtue for men, the prospect of equal pay is liberating for women.

“The wage gap here, and better and equal wages in Gujarat take us there in clusters every year,” says Antram Awase of Siwal village, where 35 of the 70 houses lie padlocked, with cattle entrusted to neighbours for the period. “This is also the time when farmers migrate to Andhra Pradesh for cotton cultivation, where they are paid more and equal.”

“Men do more physical labour than women. If we start paying them more, they’ll continue demanding a higher wage,” says Ramesh Patidar, an owner of 25 acres in Khandwa district.

Household chores

It’s not just eight hours of work on the fields, says Ms. Riyali, who wakes up at 4.30 a.m., an hour before her husband, and goes to bed around 12 a.m., after washing utensils and putting children to sleep, much later than him. “We prepare food in the morning, ready children for school, wash utensils, and tend to the infirm and old,” she says, trudging back home with a pot brimming with drinking water. “Still, we are paid less than men.”

While in the 1980s, women were paid ₹10, and men ₹15 a day, in 2002, women could make ₹25 and men ₹60 a day.

Although males, including children, take cattle for grazing, says Mr. Singh, cleaning cattle sheds is left to women.“If I start picking up cow dung, people will question me if I don’t have a lugai (wife).”

The families, Barela, Bhilala and Korku tribals, migrated from Khargone district to the region for its dense forests around late 1970s. Switching to subsistence farming years later, they cleared out patches, resulting in an enduring conflict with foresters, who, as recent as July 9, clashed with them, allegedly firing pellet guns and injuring four. Without titlements, they continue cultivating fields from June to October.

Loans from landowners

For income, locals depend on agriculture labour and construction work, often finding themselves indebted to big landowners. So, demanding equal wages locally is not an option. “We take loans from landowners, and have to work there to repay it. If we ask them for equal pay, they’ll ask us to find work elsewhere,” says Bhuri Bai.

As for construction work, while women, who sieve sand, and along with men, who mix cement with sand, carry bricks, make ₹150 a day, men earn up to ₹250, explains Yuvraj Ramesh, a mason. “Even in Gujarat, for construction work women are paid less. But the difference is starker here,” says Mr. Awase.

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Printable version | Dec 16, 2019 1:15:19 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/better-wages-make-mp-tribals-shift-base/article30126879.ece

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