Nos. 70 & 71, April 2018

Nos. 70 & 71 (April 2018)
India's Working Class and its Prospects

India's Working Class and its Prospects

Understanding Rural Distress and Uncivil Social Networks of Economy in Eastern India

The Case of the Odisha-Telangana Brick Kiln Labour Circular Migration Stream1

-- Dr. Tathagata Sengupta2
-- Dr. G.Vijay3


Rural distress, especially in Eastern India, has been in focus for various reasons. Apart from being a significant challenge for the existing development model, Eastern India has come to be marked by communal tensions, on the one hand, and  radical left political movements, on the other. Analysts have pointed to the interconnection between the nature of the economic relations and the political conditions.

While successive governments and policy frames have long experimented with traditional developmental interventions, the hoped-for outcomes are nowhere to be seen. Governments have been satisfied with their statistics showing decline in absolute poverty levels and relief from appalling conditions of deprivation. However, the local-level social reality within some sub-regions of Eastern India, especially the KBK region (Kalahandi, Balangir and Koraput), defies all the claims of the current development model. Here the distress-ridden nature of social reality in the region is borne out even in official statistics.

While officialdom has been in a denial mode regarding its policy failure, it is important to grasp that the rural production systems themselves (and the coordination within them between the labour markets, credit markets, product markets, input markets, etc.) seem to constitute a structural constraint on progress. The social, political and economic power of the beneficiaries of the development mode almost engulfs governance structures. The ‘development process’ has approached the reality of distress in an almost cynical fashion.

The distress-driven migration stream from Balangir in Orissa to Medak and Ranga Reddy districts of Telangana provides a window to gain insights about the present development process. The present paper, while studying this migration, focuses on the conditions in the place of origin. There  we find explanations for the chronic reproduction of rural distress and un-free labour relations. These are part of the ‘uncivil’ social networks in conditions of informality and inter-locking of markets. These networks extend beyond the rural economy.

Prefatory Note on Social Networks
The conventional starting point  of economic analysis is to assume the existence of a fully developed market, with autonomous rational individuals, profit maximizing firms, and perfectly competitive markets, in which resources can flow in any direction to avail the greatest returns. For example, labourers would move to where wages are higher, borrowers would have access to credit on competitive terms, agricultural producers would obtain the best market prices for their crops, and so on.

By contrast, transactions in social networks take place in limited circuits, away from notions of market prices. In social networks, identities matter, and transactions are personal. Using the analytical frame of social networks, we can further examine how production can be organised over multiple modes, and across dualisms such as formal-informal, rural-urban, legal-illegal, etc.

The existing body of literature on social networks views them either as merely contingent modes to grapple with risks and uncertainties, or for specific functions, or at best strategic informal contracts (Piore and Sabel 1984). Very few scholars have attempted investigating the actual role of networks in so-called third world economies (Hubert Schmitz 1990). In doing so, we find that networks do not merely transmit information or perform specific, limited functions, but contain asymmetries of power, mechanisms of control, and a distinct mode of operation (Thorat and Newman 2010).

Social networks can be seen as a consequence of structural underdevelopment, whereby social, cultural, political, and symbolic forms of domination or hegemony can be pursued in specific segments/contexts, even as maximization of profits is simultaneously pursued in other segments/contexts (Vijay,G 2009). If semi-feudal structures or other distorted/perverse structures are useful in the pursuit of profit, capital will not institute social and physical infrastructure, modernisation, rationalisation, scientific temper, rule of law, democracy or the concept of citizenship in such a way as to transform those retrogressive structures. It would rather preserve these modes of accumulation, thus diverging from the conventional understanding of development (Vijay,G 2005; Vijay, G 2015).

The results of this study suggest that traditional hierarchies, political alliances and collusions could form networks, employing various resources (such as affinities based on caste, ethnicity, religion, regional/linguistic ties, political parties), in order to circumvent the rule of law and acquire coercive control over various factors of production in the running of the brick kiln industry. Not merely the law, but  lawlessness too is part of this mode of accumulation.

Networks in this sense are part of a particular mode of organizing production and society, yielding the development of underdevelopment for the economy as a whole.

Introduction to the History of the Problem:
For over two and half decades, there has been a peculiar circular migration stream of labourers from Orissa who get employed in unorganised sector brick kiln manufacturing units in (what is now) Telangana state. This migration has been studied with reference to the conditions of work, quality of employment and especially the nature of labour relations that represent new forms of bondage or un-free labour. The causes for the existence of such employment and labour relations have however been relatively neglected. Instead, by and large the reasons explored in the literature have been limited to natural causes such as droughts or intertwined reasons such as ‘distress’.

Some studies, however, have looked at the more important dimension of the interlocking of markets and the distress of the peasantry. The interplay among social institutions – including regulatory institutions and markets – in generating this interlocking, however, has been under-explored. This paper aims at addressing this gap so as to provide insights into the production of un-free labour relations. In course of addressing the problem and analysing it, this paper analyses the ill-reasoned views of the regulatory authorities and the policy-makers.

The first section below presents a brief historical background of the current crisis in Western Odisha, and the  second section presents the predominant misgivings that the bureaucrats and policy makers in government have had about the crisis.

A Brief Oral History of the Patna State:
In engaging with contemporary social, political and economic conundrums, the history of the region under study is crucial to understanding the current social positioning of various actors, the nature of the social relations, and the processes contributing to the emergence of particular economic structures. Historical narratives are usually constructed from several alternative sources of evidence, each having its significance as a representation of the past. While travelogues, notes of historians of the times, commission reports, other official sources etc., have been the traditional sources for reconstructing history through the interpretative analytical frames of historians, the write-up that follows is based on oral histories, namely, the testimonies of people who are part of the problematic reality under study.4 This source would have its own limitations, as well as its own validity.

The current geographical area of Chhattisgarh and Western Odisha originally fell under the princely states of Garjat and Patna. After transfer of power from the British to the Indian Union, the state of Patna was merged with Odisha. Patna has a relatively recent history of agriculture. Cultivation as a dominant socio-economic practice appears to have started here around 100 years ago, when the Agariyas, known to be skilled cultivators, were settled here by the king. However, the condition of agriculture prior to that is not very clear. The Agariyas were the people who cleared large patches of forest and started organised agriculture.

According to some estimates, the proportion of land under irrigated agriculture was about 35 per cent around this time. This irrigation infrastructure was largely built and maintained by the local communities without any state intervention and control. But the king of Patna soon learned the tricks of the trade from the British colonial rulers. In 1946, the state of Patna started taking over these public irrigation projects, a process that indeed gained in momentum after 1947. This led to a peasant uprising, whose main political agenda was to regain public control over irrigation. Narratives about this peasant revolt can be found in the Patna Deepika newsletter and in the Cabinet meeting resolutions. Under pressure from the people, the cabinet of the king decided that only State-funded irrigation projects would be controlled by the State. Incidentally, the State’s lack of understanding of the uprising is quite telling. For example, one of the narratives states that these people liked fish in their meals, which is why they were trying to get control over these reservoirs and canals, many of which were rich in fish.

However in January 1948, Patna was merged with Odisha, which led to essentially bulldozing of the community control over water bodies by the entire State machinery, mostly through the panchayats. Once the State took over, the maintenance of these projects met with fatal blows. Many of the water bodies were converted to fisheries for State revenue. The current agricultural statistics show that only around five per cent of cultivable land in western Odisha is today under irrigation.

Another major historical event was the drought of 1965. This led to acute food shortage and hunger deaths. Under desperate circumstances, the administration opened up the jungles to the people, for relief measures. This might have been an unavoidable decision in those circumstances, but it led to indiscriminate felling of trees, and the rise of a forest mafia controlled by persons of Marwari and Gujarati descent, together with the Forest Department. While Gujarati traders controlled the trade in tendu leaves, the rest of the forest produce was managed by Marwari traders. The migration of people from western Odisha started mostly after the 1965 drought. Initially it was the dalits who started migrating to the cities of Raipur and Hyderabad, mostly because their local employment was the worst affected, and they were the most severely exploited class, because of caste discrimination. This is why, out of the handful of people who reaped some economic benefits out of this migration over the years, the dalits seem to be the majority.

Yet another important aspect of this issue of migration is the legal framework, namely the Inter-State Workmen Act (ISWM) of 1979. It was seen as a progressive piece of legislation when it first came, with provisions stipulating the proximity of the temporary residence of the workers to the site of work, working hours, payment of travel by the employer, etc. But soon people figured out, first, that it was only a regulatory legislation, and was not preventive or prohibitive; secondly, it was qualitatively not very different from existing legislations such as the Workmen Compensation Act (1923), the Payments of Wages Act (1936) and the Minimum Wages Act (1948). Moreover, it came to be misused by the administration and the law enforcers as and when they wished. The initial victims were the workers themselves, who had no clue about the kinds of documentation required, and were regularly harassed and faced extortion by the police for not having proper papers. It took a lot of effort on the part of some activists and progressive lawyers to shift the focus on to the employers as those who are actually liable for the violations. The act failed to regulate the employment of children, who are used to flip the drying bricks. The sardars or contractors get around the travel allowance stipulation by just paying for unreserved fare to transport the labour on long distance trains.

All in all, the ISWM did not mean much. Moreover, it failed to reflect the effects of other employment-related legislations such as MGNREGA, resource-ownership related legislation such as Forest Rights Act, and other legal rights such as Right to Education, etc. The Odisha Relief Code has a provision that if there is news of migration in any public media, the Collector should ensure that work is provided to those people. But no Collector in the history is ever known to have used this. 

The principal nodal point in Balangir district from which the migration takes place is a small town called Kantabanji. The town was established fairly recently, after a railway track was built in 1936. The main reason for the town coming into existence was that the king of Patna used to take his train from here. Soon, perhaps because of the north Indian origins of the ruling Singhdeos (for instance, the last king and later Chief Minister of Odisha, Rajendranarayan Singhdeo was born to a Punjabi mother and brought up in Kharsua, Jharkhand), Marwaris and Gujaratis started flocking to this hitherto unknown town. The local businesses were soon to be taken over completely by these communities, which condition continues to date. The key businesses relate to forest produce, liquor industry, processing of crops, textiles, stones, medicines, etc., most of which are run illegally, without any license. After many of these industries were nationalised, the Marwaris simply became the contractors for the state. Thus, the effect of nationalisation has been nothing more than the introduction of some hollow legalities, and the reorganisation of the same business class.
The history of the region would be incomplete without the history of land struggles. During the time of the king, every village of Patna state had a gaontia, or a village head, who was also the local feudal lord, with a large retinue of service providers for the king, such as the washerman, gardener, etc. In return the gaontia was not paid by the state in cash, but was given rent-free land. After the merger with Odisha, these lands were re-acquired by the State, along with other zamindari lands, using pre-1947 laws like the Patna State Land Revenue Act and the Patna State Tenancy Act. There was a lot of debate around the issue of how to use this land. Later Nandini Satpathy, as Chief Minister, declared that this land would be distributed to the landless through the gram panchayats. Although the land was distributed accordingly (each landless family getting only about 0.5 or so acres of land), the land records were not corrected in line with this. In the early 1990s, the gaontias filed a case asking for rights to these lands on the basis of existing outdated land records, won the case, and started harvesting the crops from these lands. The indigenous people did not have any reason to distinguish between the State administration and the judiciary, and were left confused and disappointed with this dual nature of the same State first assigning lands to them, and then taking it back with the stroke of a pen. However, helped by a progressive lawyer, Adv. B.P. Sharma, they filed an appeal against the judgment, leading to the setting aside of as many as 60 such ex-parte orders, involving around 600 landless families. It was around this time that the Singhdeos won the elections, and the same old ruling dynasty was re-established in the area, this time through a formal democratic process. The gaontias, mostly STs, OBCs and General Castes (there are no Dalit gaontias), formed the “Gaontia Sangh”, started having regular meetings, many of which Singhdeo would attend and participate in. Thus the pre-1947 linkage of the local ruling class of the gaontias and the State of Patna was re-established within the Constitutional framework, and both of them together once again marginalised the landless (sukhwasi in the local terminology). Although the Gaontia Sangh weakened over time, and the landless are now harvesting crops from these lands, the records are still not set straight. The ruling class is still intact as the gaontias are still the local ruling and economic elite, and the Singhdeos still hold Parliamentary power.

This is the local political economy, which forms the framework in which the current mass migration needs to be understood. On the one hand, we have the feudal ruling elite still ruling the villages, particularly the revenue villages, where the feudal relations are still intact, though there is no corvée or feudal militia any more. The ruling family of the time of the princely state still supplies the legislators at both state and central levels. The village economy is completely controlled by the upper caste traders and political heads. The Marwari traders in the Kantabanji area have built a strong politics around Hindutva, and political leaders operate through organizations such as Brahman Samaj, which further alienates the indigenous people socially, culturally and politically. All this, together with the State and mafia control over vital natural resources like forest and water completely sweeping away historic community ownership, form the basic premise for class relations. It is thus also the basis for the economic decisions made by the landless and marginally landed. The above, coupled with neo-liberal anti-farmer agricultural policies, efficiently drives people out of their homes.

Understanding the Misunderstanding of the Crisis:
The contemporary circular migration stream needs to be analysed against the above historical background, which has conditioned the development process. There is already a large body of research available on distress-driven circular circular migration streams, and while the literature has suggested predominantly structural causes for the phenomenon (Kapadia, Breman and Perry 1999; Ghosh 2005; Vijay 2005; Vijay 2009; Breman 2010; Guérin 2012; Vijay 2015), this research evidently has no effect on the perceptions of officialdom.

The brick kiln migration stream from Odisha to Telangana has often been acknowledged by the policy makers and officialdom as being a fall-out of distress. However, it has simultaneously been the view, especially of regulatory authorities, that the labour migration as part of this stream is a result of drought and other social-cultural peculiarities. It is the firm assertion of the regulators that, despite the peculiar nature of the employment, labour is not necessarily vulnerable to any form of bondage.

In this background, the present paper inquires into the nature and causes of distress, the nature of migration and the labour relations, the peculiar interface between the rural economy in the place of origin and the  economy in the place of destination, the socio-cultural practices of the communities, and the role of the regulatory authorities. This exploration helps us to understand the complex process of the formation of the brick kiln labour relations.

Below we list five hegemonic propositions which underlie the understanding of the policy-implementing agencies. These hegemonic propositions (with the exception of the fifth) are opinions of officials. Indeed, scholarship elsewhere has used categories such as ‘post-normal science’ and ‘post-truth society’ in order to grapple with contemporary challenges to objective analysis; but in peculiar social and institutional formations like India, a retrogressive process prevails whereby opinions backed by the reigning power get the status of ‘effective truths’. (That is, what counts as ‘truth’ for the purpose of policy-making and implementation is determined by the structure of power and status in society, irrespective of its relation to verifiable objective reality.) 

Because they are hard to challenge for institutional and structural reasons, ‘effective truths’ get circulated and become rigid. The difficulty in challenging such ‘effective truths’ is partly because those who suffer due to them do not have the resources required to challenge their circulation, and also because official statistics do not supply society with data or facts pertaining to the informal sector, and the relations, institutions, or processes therein.

Sensitive public servants such as S. R. Sankaran and B. D. Sharma, who dedicated themselves to the service of the most vulnerable sections of the society, are no longer to be found in the system. The approach of such individuals, people-centric and motivated by the values of the Constitution, has been relegated to obscurity by the neo-liberal framework that guides the current policy approach to development. The new breed of bureaucrats are not even Weberian legal-rationalists; rather they are like modern knights, barons, and castellans, inebriated by power and unaccountable to the common people. While they are under oath to protect the  constitution, they are prone to the worst kinds of parochial and primitive prejudices of race, caste, religion, region, patriarchy etc. They tend to understand the poor of this nation through the lens of Social Darwinism, as a population suffering from genetic pathology. Whatever may be the text and the spirit of laws, as well as the facts on the ground, the attitudes and action of the policy makers and officialdom are governed by the ‘effective truths’ as represented in the case under study, for instance by the hegemonic propositions presented below:

We will examine the following hegemonic propositions:

1. “Rural distress is the fall-out of a crisis generated by nature. External factors such as poor rainfall and consequent drought are the causes of backwardness, and hence distress”;

2. “The heads of a large number of migrant households are either drunkards or indulge in irresponsible and irrational conspicuous consumption beyond their means. These households are therefore responsible for their own misery”;

3. “Advance payments are merely a mode of wage payments, which are thus in themselves not in violation of any law and do not call for regulation or prohibition. Advance payments therefore do not signify either bondage or un-freedom in labour relations”;

4. “Workers have of late become very ‘smart’, and while they borrow advances from the contractors, they call the authorities and inform them about the fact that they are being taken somewhere by the sardar, or they act hand-in-glove with NGOs and other agencies, and pretend they are bonded, renege on employment contracts, and try to return in the middle of the contract period”;

5. Finally, among the theoreticians, two approaches can be found. The first, in recognition of distress, advocates generating employment in the rural area as a way of preventing migration. Other scholars consider migration to be essentially developmental in nature, and think social security and labour regulation in place of destination is the appropriate solution.

These ‘effective truths’ guiding the approach of the officialdom are examined below on the basis of a survey done in five villages from Balangir district of Odisha. (Data presented in this paper however are only from two villages, Bahabal and Kuthurla, of 64 and 89 households respectively.) A stratified purposive sampling technique has been adopted to select the set of representative sample households. The households have been chosen to proportionately represent the total households in terms of size of the land holding, social categories (STs, SCs, OBCs, and OCs), household size and migrant and non-migrant households. A sample of 12 households from Bahabal and a sample of 20 households from Kuthurla has been drawn from the villages for an intensive and detailed study. A structured questionnaire as well as individual and group informal interviews have been conducted for a primary household level survey. Apart from this primary level information, we have gathered secondary data from official sources as well as some NGOs. Structured interviews were also conducted with the Collector, Sub-Collector, District Labour Officer, and Revenue Inspector, as representatives of the Government; contractors, or sardars; recruiters, or chote-sardars, who are appointed by sardars; as well as moneylenders. The purpose of these interviews was to supplement other sources of information and to arrive at a more comprehensive understanding of the problem by viewing it from other vantage points. In what follows, this paper tries to provide empirical evidence to test the above propositions.

Probing the Origins of the Condition of Distress:

The Official Explanation:
The official view on the causes of distress held by both regulators and policy makers is provided by the Orissa Development Report, which argues that :

A poor and backward state like Odisha having a substantial size of depressed population (nearly 40 per cent SC and ST population) and a backward subsistence-oriented agricultural economy has failed to bridge the development disparities that have long existed between the people and space at the inter-district level. Till 1992, the State was divided into 13 districts. Among the 13 old and undivided districts only the four coastal districts namely Cuttack, Puri, Baleswar and Ganjam and two districts from the highland region namely Sundargarh and Sambalpur may be characterised as developed or advanced according to the existing development position of the State’s economy. Among the backward districts, further, the old and undivided districts namely, Kalahandi, Bolangir, Koraput and Phulbani in the highland region are found to be chronically backward and highly underdeveloped (Meher 1999 122). In recent years, three of the old and undivided backward districts namely, Kalahandi, Bolangir and Koraput in the southwestern part of Odisha have become vulnerable to recurring droughts and famine like situations, which lead to distress migration of the poor during non-agricultural season. They are also considered very backward districts in the country and are popularly known as KBK districts. Needless to say, in a poor and backward state like Odisha, the KBK region is the most backward and poverty stricken belt (Planning Commission 2003).

Further, the report goes on to quote a dated work to garner insights on the current situation: “Poorly distributed rainfall, geological formation resistant to weathering, shallow, sandy and dry nature of land, and intensive shifting cultivation are the major factors, which have been responsible for the depletion of forests in this region” (Senapati and Sahu 1968).

However, certainly in terms of minor irrigation and water shed projects, technologies, and the nature and structure of agriculture, conditions have undergone significant changes from the late sixties to contemporary times. A large number of forest dwellers (Scheduled Tribes) engage in commercial agriculture, and they cultivate crops, including paddy, cotton, onions, pinnate, etc. The official version implies that the conditions are almost unaltered; natural causes have become a chronic phenomenon that reinforces the distress. Researchers might well be overwhelmed into accepting this premise uncritically. But even before we surmise the causes for distress, we might as well verify if distress in fact exists.

Distress is defined here as an economic condition in which a household’s employment and livelihood options are inadequate to meet its subsistence requirements, leaving it no option but raising debts to meet those requirements. The migration of labour following such a condition in the place of origin, intended to repay the debts incurred to meet subsistence requirements, thus gets defined as distress-driven migration.

[Tables referenced below may be viewed in PDF format as follows: Tables 1.1 & 1.2, Table 2.1, Tables 3.1 to 3.4, Table 4.1]

Tables 1.1 a,b,c,d&e bring out that  irrespective of the landholding sizes, 85 per cent of all the surveyed households are in deficit in that they are unable to obtain adequate subsistence incomes from the opportunities such as agricultural labour, non-farm labour, forest produce and agricultural production. Column 9 of these tables suggests that 88 per cent of the households are having outstanding loans. The incomes of these households are so low, not on account of any natural catastrophe. Rather, they are low due to the very depressed prices they obtain for their toil and trouble (prices of agricultural/forest produce, and wages for farm/non-farm labour). This is depicted in the Tables 4.1 a&b, and will be explained later.

Following upon these very depressed prices, almost without exception the households take loans from private moneylenders at exorbitant interest rates. Tables 1.2 a,b,c,d&e show data pertaining to the loans taken by these households. Of households’ total receipts from the rural economy including the loans, the average borrowings from private unregistered moneylenders make up 30 per cent in Bahabal, 54 per cent in Kuthurla, 38 per cent in Bagjharan, 34 per cent in Bariali and 43 per cent in Debripali.. Thus the data appears to confirm the existence of distress and also that the distress has been a fall-out not of natural, but structural, causes. The second point will be substantiated further with evidence.

However, one might question the premise of what constitutes subsistence. Hegemonic proposition 2 cited earlier states that the workers are responsible for their own plight. The regulators believe that the households who constitute the distress-driven migrant workers’ stream to brick kilns engage in conspicuous consumption, especially alcohol addiction, and this expenditure is the real reason why they borrow and then end up taking advances to repay the loans, thus ending up as distress migrant labour. In their view, therefore, household expenditures are much more on conspicuous or irresponsible consumption rather than on subsistence consumption. Tables 2.1 a,b,c,d&e show what, in the ‘effective truth’ assessment of officialdom, constitutes irresponsible consumption, viz., household expenditures on festivals, functions, gifts, alcohol and gutka. Interestingly, the data suggest that in Bahabal this consumption accounts for 19 per cent of total expenditure, but it does constitute a relatively significant proportion (weighted average  42 per cent) of the deficit. In Kuthrula this expenditure constitutes only 21 per cent  and  28 per cent of the total expenditures and deficit respectively.  In case of Bagjharan the so called conspicuous consumption accounts for 22 per cent of the total household expenditures and 29 per cent of the deficit. In Bariali the proportions of such spending constitutes 20 per cent and 28 per cent of the total household expenditures and deficit respectively. Finally, in case of the fifth village Debripali, the so called conspicuous consumption is 16 per cent and 27 per cent respectively of the total household expenditures and deficit. The implication is that even if such so-called irresponsible, irrational, conspicuous consumption5 is completely given up, these households will still be left with 69 per cent of their deficits, with the household expenditures far exceeding their current rural income sources. This cannot therefore be an explanation for the distress and the misery of these communities, and therefore this view is yet another effective truth.

Enacting Un-Freedom and ‘Out-Smarting’ the Exploiters:
The evidence indicates that distress, and consequent dependence on loans from local moneylenders, is a reality. The mode of repayment of these loans in turn brings about a distress-driven circular migration stream. As already mentioned, people from the representative sample villages quite clearly do not have the means to meet their expenditures, even assuming they give up what bureaucrats consider to be conspicuous or irresponsible consumption expenditures. It is to repay these loans and to meet their subsistence consumption requirements that people take advance payments from middlemen contractors and migrate to work in the brick kilns.

When we asked officials about the possible existence of bondage due to advance payments, they responded with two of the propositions listed earlier: first, they were of the view that advance payments were merely a mode of payment and to the extent that they were voluntarily accepted by the migrants, there was no case for the existence of bonded labour. However, the officers did not stop with this mere technical-legal position. They displayed their partisan view by claiming that labourers have become very ‘smart’ (meaning capable of cheating). The authorities argued with us in the course of our interviews with them that the labourers first take advances from the sardars and then they call up the police or other civil society organizations and claim that they have been held in bondage. The whole ploy is meant to get away from the commitment to their contract of labouring in the brick kilns, after having benefited from the advance payments. In what follows, we probe the veracity of these observations.

First, let us see whether workers have become ‘smart’. Table 3.1a provides the list of the moneylenders; table 3.1b provides details about a sample of moneylenders. Interestingly, the data from Table 3.1b suggests that some of the moneylenders are themselves operating in the brick kiln migration as labour contractors. Further, it is important to note that as regards moneylending, advance payments, agricultural wage employment and recruitment into the brick kiln employment, as also inputs supply, etc., the structure of related economic transactions operates more like networks rather than as markets. There is a limited number of actors acting as moneylenders or licensed contractors or landlords providing employment to labour in agriculture. Not only are these actors limited in number, they operate in multiple interlinked markets.

We know that information about households spreads fast in small communities. Scholars like Elinor Ostrom (1997) have made this observation in a very different context pertaining to management of Common Property Resources. We further know from interviews with the chote sardars (the village level recruiter on behalf of a big contractor) that big contractors have networks of their own, often operate in demarcated villages, and rarely recruit from villages ‘belonging’ to other contractors. They stick to the villages conventionally seen as their set of recruitment villages. There is a tacit understanding thus amongst the contractors, and they do exchange information.

Most of the contractors belong to the Scheduled Castes and therefore could be seen as wielding very little social power from the point of view of their caste location. However, this section of Scheduled Caste elites have very little democratic element in their social roles; they therefore may not be  seen in turn as having anything to do with the category called ‘Dalits’. However, these contractors who happen to be Scheduled Castes wield tremendous coercive social power, despite the disadvantages associated with their social location. The source, structure and modus operandi  of this social power is quite veiled by the maze of village-level social hierarchies and intertwined with the social, political and economic roles of multiple agents and agencies.

During the interviews with the contractors, we learnt that the contractors pay certain commissions to village committees. Interestingly these commissions are mediated through religious organizations at the village level that conduct the Jagannath Yatra and other important village-level religious ceremonies. The amount is paid by the contractors according to the conventionally demarcated recruitment villages in which they operate. The contributions made by contractors are not an arbitrarily donated lump-sum amount, but are calculated per worker recruited to the brick kiln migration stream from the village. The quantum of money currently being paid to the village committees of the religious bodies is Rs. 200 per worker.

The relationship between the labour contractors and the powerful village-level social elites is a long term relationship, and this network mediated through village committees is perhaps only one instance manifesting this relationship. The members of the village committees are once again the same set of actors who are operating in various roles as moneylenders, landlords providing agricultural employment, traders in inputs, owners of PDS shops and purchasers of output etc., often belonging to the upper castes and OBC communities. The village committee is an institution with advantages in both function and social location of the committee members. Conversely, it does not have the disadvantages of the sardars, of not residing in the villages and not belonging to socially hegemonic caste groups.

The data from Table-3.1b presents details of a sample of the moneylenders. It clearly depicts the structural interconnections and the network that exists amongst the powerful economic and social actors, which is of immense significance for our analysis. One of these moneylenders, Shiv Prasad Mishra of Bahabal village, is also a village temple priest, in charge of the Jagannath Rath Yatra in the village. The institution of the village committee is of immense significance because it represents the complete control exercised by the social elites over the structurally interconnected economic lives of the village communities, who constitute the source of the migrant brick kiln workers.

We know from Tables 1.1 a, b,c.d&e that, in several instances, the sources of incomes and the entire set of livelihoods and consumption expenditure structures depend on agricultural labour incomes or the non-farm employment provided as part of the NREGA program, farm input supplies on credit basis, and the supply of subsidised PDS rice, which aids the struggle to achieve subsistence. All of these transactions are mediated by, or are dependent on, a small number of village-level social elites.

For instance, from the total sample of 20 taken from Kuthrula village, 17 respondents sold their labour power in the agricultural labour market, and 12 of these respondents were employed by a single landlord, Mr. Behera, who also happened to be the biggest moneylender in the village.

It is shocking to learn that in most of the villages in the most backward districts of Odisha, wages are collectively fixed for the ensuing season in a Gram Sabha (village assembly). Imagine the challenge for agricultural labourers, who are dependent in so many ways on the powerful elites of the village, to stand up and assert their bargaining power for a better wage. It is because wages get fixed in this manner that we find agricultural wages vary from village to village. This significant variation in the wage rates is further evidence that the economy is operating on the basis of the social power of networks rather than on the basis of markets. And to grow ‘smart’ therefore is an impossibility for the brick kiln migrant workers, since in the backdrop of what has been presented about the village economy, it would amount to economic and social suicide, given the existing structure of control.

Having established that distress is a reality arising from the gap between subsistence needs and actual income; having shown that addictive or other cultural-driven consumption expenditures do not explain most of the gap; and having refuted the claim that workers are getting ‘smart’, we have to probe a little deeper into what causes distress, and its connection with the actual existence of conditions amounting  to bonded labour. The rhetoric about rainfall, soil and weather etc, referred to earlier in the analysis of distress, and the official sermons on backwardness of Balangir, often seem to signify wrath of nature, an act of God – as if the soil, rain, weather have all conspired to cause distress; why else is the place unable to generate adequate subsistence? Could there be a better social explanation for the existence of distress?
The explanation for chronic distress seems to lie not merely in the interlocking of markets within the rural economy, but also in the extended interlocking of the rural economy with the advances paid by the brick kiln employers. Even more significantly, this inter-sectoral, inter-state flow of labour is through agencies that provide both coordination and control functions.
The control structures are all-pervasive. In our interviews with the contractors, the contractors stated that all through the path the migrant workers take, they are monitored and controlled by such veiled agencies. In the Kantabanji town, there is the urban mafia with deep political connections operating along with the police and revenue administration, monitoring the movements of the migrant workers who have borrowed advances. The railway officials at Balangir railway station also receive their cuts. Then, as the train crosses Odisha and enters Andhra Pradesh, there are groups of urban mafia. They have specifically named mafia groups in Vijayawada and have referred to a mafia don called Bobbili town’s Babbulu. In Telangana region as well, there is a local level mafia that is operating as a monitoring agency.

If, and only if, the labour department, revenue department, and other regulatory authorities had the earnestness and commitment to recognise the nature of this entire paraphernalia of how migrant labour are monitored and controlled, they themselves could have identified how and why this distress-driven migration stream is caught up in a form of bondage. The control that the sardars have on the governance institutions in Odisha could well be called ‘institutional capture’, comparable to the control that seths have inside the Telangana region. Several non-governmental agencies have put the estimated number of migrants at 4.5 lakhs (i.e., close to half a million). And the average amount of advance paid by sardars per workers is Rs 15,000. Based on this, one can estimate the size of this market in value terms and understand how and why capture of institutions has become a reality in Odisha given the stagnation in other sectors of the economy.

In fact the economic stagnation might well be further reinforced by these massive outflows of migrants, inasmuch as this outflow itself gets seen as the only source whose remittances  fuel demand and the circulation of value held by several rent-seekers enjoying significant social and political power. These rent-seekers have emerged over the years as the only economic powers against the backdrop of imploding regulatory institutions. Officials say workers have grown ‘smart’, but it is in fact the officials who have grown ‘smart’, knowing their helplessness is part of a governance structure that is effectively controlled by the violators; officials can hardly dare antagonise their real bosses behind the screen. Some of the contractors even told us that they are now successfully diversifying into civil contracts and have taken up some of the massive infrastructure projects being carried out by the Odisha government. The contractors go to the extent of stating that they now plan to launch an organisation to unite all the contractors operating in Odisha to then effectively influence the Odisha government (at present they enjoy only local influence, and locally some groups do control some Members of the Odisha Legislative Assembly).

The more blatant forms of control are physical violence and brutality: Bashing up of under-performers – which sometimes ends in grievous injuries, leading to death of workers (portrayed as suicides); chopping off of hands of workers who run away from brick kilns without fulfilling their contracts; sexual abuse of women etc. These extreme forms of violence by the employers might in fact be in response to resistance by workers. The true violence is all pervasive and endemic to this very structure. It is manifest in the fear pervasive among workers. Workers do not very easily name sardars, chote sardars, moneylenders, etc. It requires a lot of persuasion and trust, which comes only with familiarity with the workers. It is only because we were carrying out this research at the household level with the help of activists – who have taken tremendous risk in raising their voices against powerful social agencies, voicing the interests of the communities, that people have shared what otherwise would be closely guarded information.

The rural economy, the brick kiln economy, together with the coordination and control systems managing the process of flows, have to be read as an integrated system, an uncivil social firm. All expectations of progressive upward mobility on the welfare front or hypotheses of modernization fall flat when we actually treat the rural and urban geographies and sectors as essentially a single integrated and coordinated and controlled system. The chronic resurgence of the distress and circular migratory streams are to be thus understood.

Tables 4.1a, b, c, d & e provide evidence that further shows how the structures of control, together with the effective capture of regulatory agencies by the class of violators, produce the distress. The statistics presented in these tables  give data about how income structures of the rural households would alter radically if only the households received what is the going price in the market for some goods, or received the stipulated minimum wages. These figures suggest that if, and only if, the system were to operate according to its own stated norms, in terms of ensuring the market prices or legally stipulated wages, the possible average increase in the incomes of the households would range between 105-1711 per cent. Had it been that the system would remunerate the households in accordance with the current prices for produce and legally stipulated minimum wages for labour, in absolute terms on an average the household incomes in Bahabal would go up by Rs 29,384, in case of Kuthrula this increase is by Rs 18,433, in  Bagjharan, Bariali and Debripali the average increase in household income is by Rs 90,524,   Rs 55,385 and Rs 44,114 respectively. With such increases, a section of households, especially those owning lands, could actually circumvent the distress, while the landless could experience a significant reduction in their deficit. The solution to the problem of distress therefore requires circumventing the massive rents that depress the incomes of the workers to sub-‘market’ and sub-legal levels. The challenge however is to find an agency that is capable of making this happen under conditions where the regulatory bodies have been captured by the violators of law.

It is not surprising therefore that the Maoist movement flourishes and finds relevance and rationale for its existence in such societies. On the other hand, it is also to be observed that more moderate agencies attempting to provide relief, such as Christian missionaries and Muslim moneylenders in sub-urban pockets, are seen as rivals to the reigning networks, and Hindutva-based communal mobilisations have been underway against these economic actors. These mobilisations are aimed at preventing the loss of the distressed labour force (as a consequence of possible relief measures) or losing market shares in the usurious credit market to rivals. In addition, other non-governmental organisations experimenting with initiating self-help groups with the objective of providing low interest credit have also faced threats, brutal attacks and murder.

To conclude, based on the evidence, we find emphatically that the distress in Eastern India is not an act of nature. Nor is it because people have extravagant and irresponsible consumption habits. The distress-driven migration streams are not strategies of diversifying incomes that somehow cause the social and economic mobility of poor households. For over two and half decades, these migration streams have not grown owing to this multi-livelihood mode of subsistence. The traumatic experiences of people are not smartly staged in an opportunistic manner to get away with advances. People who take advances do run away sometimes but this happens when the contract is actually violated by the employer, either in terms of the conditions of the work promised or possibly the use of excessive force at the work place.

The reality of the mode of development seems to be one where more number of households are joining the ranks of the distressed rather than successfully overcoming distress under the existing relay of debt and advance payment borrowings. The distress-driven migration generates labour relations with a veiled control structure. If this were recognised it would help characterise these labour relations as constituting uncivil modes of coordinating various inter-locked markets so as to minimise risks as well as to depress wages. The distress and the forms of bondage have been thus structurally generated, and are ignored because the structure has engulfed the regulatory bodies themselves.

The source of optimism lies in the fact that people do resist severe exploitation and there have been attempts to organise the workers in the place of origin to fetch better outcomes in the destination sites, which are otherwise impossible terrain for collective action. These attempts seem to be bringing token relief. The data, however, hint at certain solutions. Households who have access to land have a better chance to circumvent distress than others; and circumvention of distress requires as a precondition the dismantling the uncivil structures of control that siphon off value that rightfully belongs to the gatherers, producers and labour.

There can be no better example than the experience of the brick kiln workers to suggest the complex connection between the nature of production relations and the nature of institutions. Uncivil modes of social practice have developed in the recent past, in the form of mob lynching, and the use of brute force on various sections of people, including those that are part of elite institutions of higher learning. These recent developments suggest that social experiences such as those of brick kiln labour are capable of generalising themselves in society at large. By tolerating the uncivil relations experienced by brick kiln workers, we do not keep these relations in isolation; rather these relations keep subtly transforming society, setting new standards and ‘new normals’. These relations then resurface in shocking forms of arbitrariness, intolerance and brutal force in other spheres of society as well.


[Tables referenced above may be viewed in PDF format as follows: Tables 1.1 & 1.2, Table 2.1, Tables 3.1 to 3.4, Table 4.1]



Breman, Jan (2010): ‘The political economy of un-free labour in south Asia’, Outcast Labour in Asia; Circulation and Informalization of Workforce at the Bottom of the Economy, Oxford University Press; New Delhi.

Ghosh, J (2005): ‘Migration and Public Policy’, Frontline, Vol. 22, Issue 10.

Guérin Isabelle, Subramanian Ponnarasu, Govindan Venkatasubramanian, Sébastien Michiels  (2012): “Ambiguities and Paradoxes of the Decent Work Deficit:Bonded Migrants in Tamil Nadu,” Global Labour Journal, Vol-3, Issue-1, pp.118-142.

Kapadia Karin, Jan Breman and Jonathan Perry (eds.) (1999): The Worlds of Indian Industrial Labour, Sage Publications: New Dehi.

Meher, R. K. (1999): Development Disparities in a Backward Region, APH Publishing Corporation; New Delhi.

Ostrom Elinor (1997):  Governing the Commons; The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Piore, Michael.J and Charles F.Sabel (1984): The Second Industrial Divide: Possibilities of Prosperity, Basic Books, New York.

Planning Commission (2003): Orissa Development Report, Government of India; New Delhi.

Schmitz, Hubert, 1990: ‘Flexible Specialisation in Third World Industry; Prospect and Research
Requirement’, Discussion Paper 18, International Institute for Labour Studies, Geneva.

Senapati, N. and N. K. Sahu (eds.), (1968), Bolangir District Gazetteer, Cuttack: Orissa Government Press.

Thorat, Sukhadeo and Katherine S.Newman: ‘Economic Discrimination; concept, consequences and remedies’, in Blocked by Caste; Economic Discrimination in Modern India, Oxford Univ Press; New Delhi.

Vijay, G (2005): “Migration, Vulnerability and Insecurity in New Industrial Labour Market”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XL, No.23, May 28-June 4.

-- (2009):  “Defragmenting ‘Global Disintegration of Value Creation’ and Labour Relations”,  Economic & Political Weekly, Vol XLIV, no 22, May 30.

-- (2015): ‘Labour Movement in Globalizing India’, Chapter 10 in Jayati Ghosh (ed.) (2015):          ICSSR Research Surveys  and Explorations in Economics; Volume-2; India and the International Economy, ICSSR and Oxford University Press; New Delhi.




1. The authors wish to acknowledge the S.R. Sankaran Chair of the NIRD&PR for funding this research project. This paper draws in part from a report submitted by the authors to the NIRD&PR. The authors especially wish to register their thanks to Prof. D. Narasimha Reddy, Prof. Kailash Sarap, Prof. Suman Chandra and Mr. Yugandhar for their guidance and institutional facilitation for carrying out this study. We also wish to thank Mr. Mohan Meher (Master ji), Ms. Arpita Kanjilal, and Mr. Subhadeep Kumar for their encouragement and support in carrying on the project. Thanks are due to the research scholars Ms. Rosalin, Mr. Chinmoy, Mr. Surya Kumar Paul, Mr. Madhusudhan Nag,  Mr. P. Vinod Kumar, Mr. B. Prasad, Mr. Anand, Mr. Sriman Naveen and students Mr. Shiv Hastawala and Ms.Pooja for their valuable contributions in carrying out the primary survey as well as helping us with tabulation and formatting.  We wish to express our sincere thanks to Mr. A. Krishna from Brick Kiln Workers’ Union and Mr. Golap Nial ji, Mr. Miniketan ji, Mr. Thana ji and others from the Zindabad Sanghatan  who have been in some sense instrumental in providing us with logistical support at different stages of this study. The authors also wish to thank Prof. Bharathi, Prof. Kavitha, Prof. R. Vijay and the B1 Collective, all of who have provided us an opportunity to present this paper in Prof. R. S. Rao Memorial seminar. Finally, thanks are due to Prof. Jan Breman, Prof. Alpa Shah, and Prof. Keshab Das who have all commented on earlier versions of this research, for their valuable academic inputs. (back)

2. School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Hyderabad. (back)

3. School of Economics, University of Hyderabad. Email: gudavarthyvijay[at] (back)

4. Although the corroboration of the oral narratives with other sources of information is absolutely necessary for validation of the evidence, we have not attempted this in the present paper for reasons relating to focus, time and space. (back)

5.This characterisation by bureaucrats of certain household consumption choices as ‘wasteful’, ‘irrational’, etc is in itself contestable. Not only may it be a form of moral policing by dominant sections, but its notion of ‘rationality’ ignores the social and material conditions of the worker’s life. For example, alcohol and gutka consumption may be, in part, a response to physical exhaustion from overwork; certain wedding and festival expenses may be a necessary condition of existence within the worker’s community; and so on. (back)


NEXT: Oppression, Bondage, and Struggle in the Hinterlands


All material © copyright 2018 by Research Unit for Political Economy