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Kantabanji is an important railway station on the Vizianagaram-Raipur main line. These days it is teeming with lakhs of people. The town, in Bolangir district, has become the largest migrant labour market in Western Orissa.
Failing agriculture and shrinking forests have destroyed traditional livelihoods, forcing people from severe drought-hit areas in the western area of the state to take up hazardous jobs in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
Drought relief and poverty alleviation programmes, including NREGA, have failed to provide them alternative sources of income. The reasons are the same old ones: the maladministration, manipulation and malpractices of sundry middlemen, contractors and unscrupulous government officials.
The state government’s announcement of its intention to provide up to 200 person days work under NREGA, 50 more person days than the 150 the central government had raised to in drought-hit areas, didn’t help. NREGA mandates 100 person days of work.
Given the poor implementation, the distressed villagers are continuing to migrate despite government guidelines that no one can go outside without being registered in their respective panchayat offices first.
One thing everyone will tell you is that it is much easier to get dadan (advance in Oriya) from a sardar (middleman) and assured work and food in the brick kiln for six months than getting 100 days of full employment and timely wages from government officials under NREGA. For instance, as against the district-wide demand of 90,508 days of work by August, the state government could provide just 15,495 days.
With no opportunity for sustainable livelihood or indeed any sort of income, many are opting to borrow money from the moneylender and migrate in search of jobs. Kalahandi, Koraput and Bolangir are the districts where most such migration is taking place from. Some travel to neighbouring Chhattisgarh to work on farms, others migrate to the brick kilns in the south. One estimate suggests that around two lakh people go through Kantabanji towards the kilns every year.
Yet others venture to Goa’s fishing villages and Kerala’s construction sites.
By Bijay Mishra in Bolangir, Orissa