After pondering for a fortnight in quarantined isolation at an institutional facility and then spending another week at home, Jagadish Naik, a first generation migrant worker from Odisha’s Keonjhar, is thinking of returning to his factory job in Chennai.
Mr. Naik was forced to turn breadwinner at the age of 18 for his family, which gets to till their land once in three years on a rotation basis. His big joint family owns less than one acre of land in Badanai village in Keonjhar’s Champua block and all its members cannot afford to depend on the small patch of land for their survival.
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Mr. Naik had resolved not to return to his previous job at a sanitiser production company in Chennai, especially after a harrowing time during the nationwide lockdown. But his resolve melted in a week.
Nowhere to go
Pratap Chatamba, a 24-year-old youth from the Ho tribe, who worked as a security guard in the same Chennai-based company and has been Mr. Naik’s co-traveller, also did not have a happy experience to share. Mr. Chatamba kept calling his friends from the quarantine centre in the Government High School here, seeking information on job opportunities as well as help for a smooth return to his life at home. To his dismay, he, like others, found no one at the quarantine centre’s gate to take them back to their village, despite being in possession of COVID-19 negative certificates.
“My father is immobile and whatever little land we have is locked in a joint family dispute. Before migrating to Chennai, I had tried to find a job in Keonjhar but everyone shut their door on me. Now, I don’t know where my next month’s income will come from,” Mr. Chatamba said he had to ask himself as he walked back home from the quarantine centre.
These two young tribal youths had to migrate from a district that accounts for close to 25% of India’s iron ore production. Early this year, there were record online bids for 20 iron and manganese ore mines, mostly in Keonjhar, with companies like JSW Steel, ArcelorMittal, and Jindal Steel and Power, offering higher than the average sale price for the ore, even though the metal market is experiencing a downturn.
“A conservative estimate shows Keonjhar district has alone produced iron worth ₹2,65,000 crore in the past two decades. Not just iron ore, the district is rich in other minerals such as manganese and dolomite,” said Kiran Sankar Sahu, a lead member of the Keonjhar Citizen Forum.
More than 50,000 natives of Keonjhar have registered with district administration to return. As of now, around 11, 000 have returned. Mr. Naik sees a much bleaker future ahead. People who were already living on the edge cannot move out to sell forest produce and fuel wood to make a living. Vegetable growers find their harvest remains unsold.
MGNREGA wages raised
Keonjhar District Collector Ashish Thakare says his district has become the first in the country to raise minimum wages provided by the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme by 45%, from ₹207 to ₹298. “We have been able to create 1 lakh man-days of work per day,” said Mr. Thakare, while listing out a number of livelihood interventions, from reviving cultivation of millets in mining-affected areas to doubling farmers’ income through agriculture production clusters, and from promoting agro-horticulture-forestry- based livelihoods to tussar sericulture.
But not unsurprisingly, Mr. Chatamba is not inclined to work under the MGNREGA scheme. “The programme does not assure constant employment,” he said.