Migrating to distant lands for a job

K. Venkateshwarlu
Goal of rural job scheme eludes Chenchu tribals

Struggle for survival: Udathanuri Parvatalu, who was among the group of Chenchus who went all the way to Meghalaya in search of work, at Vadde Rayavaram in Mahbubnagar district.
VADDERAYARAM (Mahabubnagar dt): For a morsel, primitive Chenchu tribes of this ‘gudem' (habitation) again gear up to migrate to distant Meghalaya for work, a paradox in a State that boasts of creating the maximum number of person days under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme.
Criss- crossing undulating Nallamala forest for long distances is a life skill learnt early by these fleet-footed tribals. Yet they dread travelling 1,700 km to Meghalaya as it often means facing death and working as bonded labour in abominable conditions for a paltry wage. But with water sources drying up, dwindling forest produce, fragmented farms not yielding much and finding work to feed themselves turning a daily challenge, they hardly have a choice.
They have to take the arduous journey despite the MGNREGA's express purpose of checking such migration from drought prone areas by providing wage employment for all in their own ‘gudem' or village. Five years since the programme was launched, the goal continues to elude Chenchus.
“Last month we got work for eight days and this month there is no sign of any work so far. How will we survive? We are scared of going to Meghalaya as every time we go there at least two or three of our community people die. We are treated worst than animals. But if things do not improve here in the next few days we have to pack up and go” says Udathanuru Parvathalu.
There fear is not unfounded. The saga of deaths began at the site of a power plant near Shillong with Katraju Laxmi of Marredmandinne in February 2006, around the time NREGA was launched. She was among 600 Chenchu bonded labourers who were literally carted away to Shillong by a labour contractor on a paltry advance of Rs. 1,000.
Like other Chenchu women, Laxmi found the wage hardly sufficient. Hard labour with no proper food made her vulnerable to disease and she died. Her death sparked off protests and one of them was staged at India Gate in New Delhi and the then Rajya Sabha member, R. Chandrasekhara Reddy, highlighted their plight in the Upper House. Petitions were sent to National Human Rights Commission and the Prime Minister and the State Chief Minister. Parvathalu says at least six Chenchus met the same fate during the last five years. After the furore, they indeed got wage employment but not enough to rule out migration. The only thing that has changed during these years is increase in advance for bonded labour from Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 5000.