Who Carry The Pilgrims? The Lesser Known Lives Of Marang Buru's Doli Labourers

There is no end to this story just as the unending sufferings of the Doli labourers of Marang Buru or Parasnath. While religious and political outfits continue their fight, the labourer picks up his palanquin and searches for customers.

Marang Buru's Doli labourers

सो जाते हैं फुटपाथ पर अखबार बिछा करमजदूर कभी नींद की गोली नहीं खाते।
--- Munawwar Rana

(We sleep on the footpaths laying newspapers,
the labourers do not rely on sleeping pills)

A peek into the lives of the Doli labourers tells the stories of injustices meted out to the Adivasi and minorities inhabiting the dozens of villages surrounding the Marangburu or Parasnath hills in Jharkhand’s Giridih district.

On the fateful day of 9 June 2017, the CRPF shot down 45-year-old Motilal Baske alleging that he was killed during a confrontation with the Naxalites. Nearby villagers were called by the forces to identify his body, while a rifle was laid next to him. A resident of Dholkatta village, Baske was a member of the Majdoor Sangathan and a Doli labourer who also ran a small hotel in the hills that served bhaat daal to the labourers.

Doli labourers

"On days when there weren’t enough pilgrims to carry on his doli (palanquin), Baske would work in the hotel. He had started building his own house after he became eligible for the PM Awas Yojana and had received the first installment of money in his bank account. It was one of those days when business was down and Baske was headed home that he was shot by the CRPF", recalls Anil, who is referred to as dada (elder brother) by Baske's wife, Parvati Murmu. The police found no previous criminal records against him.

Murmu, 45, and her three sons aged 18, and 12-year-old twins await justice, five years after his murder while opposition leaders and politicians continue to milk in the controversy. Last year, Murmu was given a sweeping job in the Dumri block by the  Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) government. "I received my first salary after three months", she said. It was through the mukhiya that she first learned of Baske's death. The family, to date, has received no compensation either from the administration or the government. Her job will only become permanent after working for a year.

When Outlook asked Murmu if she has anything to say to the government, she responded saying "What can I say? Justice and truth have long eluded us."

Who are Doli workers? The palanquin carriers

A Doli worker carries a pilgrim visiting the holy Jain site Parasnath on his back and climbs 9km up the mountain top. He further walks another 9km taking the pilgrims through the different Jain temples located in the mountain range and then walks down the same distance to drop off the pilgrims who have completed their prayers and offerings.

There are no washroom facilities on the way for the labourers to relieve themselves during the 27 km-long journeys back and forth. No drinking water facility or healthcare facility has either been arranged for the Doli carriers. "There is no medicine or treatment available for us when we meet an accident or suffer injuries or fever. What can we say? We have no right. They (Jains) have all the rights", were the words of a Doli worker who has lived on this land for generations and has known only this to be his life.

Two labourers carry a pilgrim under 60 kgs on their dolis, while four take someone weighing more than 60 kgs. The rates have been fixed accordingly. About eight years ago, the Majdoor Sangathan Samiti (MSS), the only labour union in the area along with Giridih DC and Jain stakeholders agreed to increase the labour charges by 15 per cent annually, while it continued to be in order for about three years. There has been no increment since the government labelled MSS as a front organization for Naxalites. “The charges were dropped by the Jharkhand High Court last year as the state could not produce any substantial evidence to prove the allegations”, MSS member Baccha Singh told Outlook.

The Doli workers are forced by circumstances and their stakeholders to sleep under the naked sky through thundering rains, freezing cold or unwavering heat. Most pilgrims make a booking for the Dolis at night or early in the morning. The sleeping area designated for the Dolis is about a kilometre away from the starting point of the 9km trek to the mountain tops. Fearful of losing business and customers, the labourers sleep on the road pavements as they are not permitted to sleep under the sheds of the guest houses. “Moreover, the Jain trusts charge the poor Doli workers Rs 5 every time for sleeping there to cover bed, blanket, and other costs.”

“Not many men live beyond the age of 50-55”, Dilip Hansda, a 39-year-old Doli carrier says when asked who is the oldest Doli carrier. Shortly after our interview with Hansda started, he interjected to ask a question. What followed was not a question but Hansda and his community’s suspicion of the media. He alleged that the media that covered Jain protests nationally and internationally is run by upper caste powerful men; the media is eerily silent on Adivasi protests reclaiming their lands. 

"A few years ago, a journalist interviewed me and listened to all our problems. But when the news flashed on the TV, they only covered the Jain’s narratives and issues," Hansda took an awkward pause before asking, “Will you do the same?"

Hansda continues to tell Outlook that education makes little or no difference for the palanquin carriers and their families. "You will come across Doli labourers who have completed high school or hold a Bachelor of Education degree. The scarce employment opportunities and lack of resources do not open many lucrative livelihood options for the likes of us." he adds.

Affluent merchants and businessmen come to visit and offer their prayers here at Parasnath. "It's not just us, but our fathers and grandfathers have also carried the pilgrims on dolis. We have worked honestly and earnestly for generations. We sleep through rain, scorching heat, or cold waves in the middle of the roads. We have been told by the trust managers that there is no place for us to sleep near the guest houses."


The children in the area become old as early as they reach 16-17 years of age and carry the weight of dolis on their shoulders. Hansda himself started to work as a doli carrier when he turned 19. "We have no dreams and aspirations, but only ask for the mere basics. We just need enough to feed our families which has also become challenging with the advent of bikers on the hills. Their increasing numbers are pushing us on the verge of starvation," saying this, Hansda concluded our interview.

An internal conflict for survival

Over the last few years, bikers have started offering bike rides to the Jain pilgrims despite the administration's ban on vehicles in the mountain ranges. In the absence of employment and work opportunities, their numbers have only increased. This has become a great cause of trouble for Doli workers whose livelihoods are being threatened. Doli workers and MSS allege that despite being unsafe and illegal, the business has flourished only with the support of the local police station, administration, and the forest department.


The union, Doli workers met with the administration for the redressal of their concerns. "About four to five months ago it was decided that the bikers would only take pilgrims on their way down, however, it was never followed. This is the administration's strategy to create a divide within the local communities here", an MSS worker said.

The Parasnath-Marang Buru row

The Giridih district located mountain range is Marang Buru for the Adivasis and Parasnath for the Jains. Attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists and pilgrims each year, the mountain range is not new to conflicts or history. As Jain protests settled around the country with the Centre surrounding to the demands of the Jain community who comprise 2 per cent of India's population and are amongst the highest taxpayers, the cause of the Adivasis who are now protesting and reclaiming their religious land has fallen on the deaf ears of both the Union and state governments.


The struggles of a labour union; A fight for rights

In the absence of accessible health care and hospitals in the region, the MSS initiated the construction of the Shramjeevi Hospital which was inaugurated on May 5, 2015. The hospital was built through crowdfunding in which local workers and labourers pooled a voluntary sum of money. Patients were treated without any fees. The hospital was shut in 2017 by the then Raghubar Das-led BJP government, charging MSS of being a frontal organization of Maoists. The only affordable and accessible health centre didn’t reopen until the Jharkhand High Courted lifted the ban in February 2022 in the absence of any evidence against the union.


Baccha Singh told Outlook that the administration had shut all branches of the union which to date remain unopened. Approximately 25 bank accounts of workers and labourers affiliated with the union which has not yet reopened despite the HC order and giving a copy of the SC order to the authorities. Singh said. “We have now approached the High court where the matter is pending, the affidavit submitted by the government to our lawyers has no mention of our sealed offices and bank accounts."

The CRPF often gets abusive and violent with the locals. Labourers on their way to or back from work, when confronted alone by the armed forces, are beaten and constantly live in fear in their own land. The language gap between the outsiders, the forces, and the locals only makes things worse for the locals residing in the area. “Unless you don’t speak in clear Hindi, it is difficult for the Adivasis to comprehend what you are saying. Many a time, when the labourers don’t understand the CRPF’s language, they are roughed up”, said Singh, highlighting the plight of the labourers.


“The armed forces would mistreat and beat Doli labourers asking them to produce proof that they are not Naxals. Therefore, the MSS issued a card after pressurizing the administration for the Doli workers with their details on the card along with the Union’s name which they now have to carry all the time around their neck, when leaving their homes to prove that they are just innocent workers," he added.

There is no end to this story just as the unending sufferings of the Doli labourers of Marang Buru or Parasnath. While religious and political outfits continue their fight, the labourer picks up his palanquin and searches for customers. He has to go home and feed his family, he also has to go home alive and safe.