Migration, Poverty and Some Unanswered Questions from Odisha

migrant women
Where have all the women migrants gone from our mainstream narrative amid lockdown? Image - Image by Varun Kulkarni from Pixabay

I am a social researcher and I have been travelling to the tribal belts of Odisha, as part of my work since last couple of months. This has given me a fair insight into the lives and livelihood dynamics of tribal farmers in this state.

During this journey, one of the issues that captured my research attention was the striking absence of the youth population from tribal farmlands. It has caused a potential scarcity of effective labour force adversely impacting the agriculture sector. This section of the village is said to have migrated to far off cities in search of better livelihood options. 

Poverty is cited to be the most common cause of this migration. Upon probing, the village elders would depressingly blame increasingly scanty rain fall (caused by climate change) and lack of irrigation facilities for this paradigm shift. ‘Who would want their children to be farmers anyways’ , would be the heart wrenchingly convincing response and I would not dare to probe further.

The outbreak of the global pandemic has affected India deeply and it has resulted in a massive shift in social order and perception. As the country, unprepared for such a calamity, is facing challenges in providing health care facilities to the affected lot, the states are, though reluctantly, welcoming back the migrants to their respective homes. And the news magazines and channels are flooded with headlines drenched with sweat and blood of migrant workers walking back home. Deeply disturbed by the plight of these migrants, I decided to process and document the reverse migration cycle of migrant labourers from Odisha after they reach back home. And in the process, I wrote this poem. Well, researchers do not make good poets. But we are living in unusual time and as a researcher, I find myself unusually moved. 

I left home when

I was growing up.

I left home when 

The shrinking space I called home

Did not have enough leg space to 

Accommodate my expanding energy.

The hearth did not have enough firewood

To cook me a hearty meal a day. 

And the roof leaked on a rainy day,

And, refused to keep me dry.

I left that ever shrinking space I called home 

When there was one more addition to my already expanding sibling list

And my mother’s love was not enough 

To hold my hunger any more.

I left home

Because I realized I did not matter.

But I left home holding on to a hue of hope they called dream  

That resembled bread, shelter, and, may be, a little more…

And, my expanding legs fueled with youthful energy

 Walked me to the city to search something more.

And the city kept its promise 

Of helping me realize my dream for more.

It provided me bread, shelter, and yes, a little surplus 

To send back to that ever shrinking space I called home.

I toiled day and night 

So that the city can prosper.

Built home for others, and constructed roads and railway tracks 

To make their journey easier. 

My muscles pained, my bones ached, and my heart grappled for comfort

And, I found solace in alcohol and drugs.

Looking at the blurry starry night trying to find my home

curled up in the dirt space they called slum. 

And I fell in love with the neighbourhood girl, and the story unfolded thus.

the space shrank, for the expanding home.

But I worked harder, to sustain the favour.

And the city prospered, consuming my labour.

Then a pandemic broke

And the city is on its toe.

It needs to be cleansed

So that the show must go on.

And I left my city

Because I realized I did not matter.

My legs grapple for energy

As the journey backward is sure to be tough

With a tentative hope 

The shrinking space will welcome me back home

 

The houses I once built 

Have closed their doors

The roads and tracks are deserted,

As the journey is fruitful no more. 

Somewhere between the city and my home

I saw unnamed shadows struggling with thirst and hunger

There are random corpses who could not keep up with their hope

Journey back home seems even so longer!

The fear is crippling the

Journey, if at all I overcome. 

Will I matter,

Once I reach back home?

Narayani Rajashree Kanungo is a Post Doctoral Fellow at the Nabakrushna Choudhary Centre for Development Studies(NCDS),Odisha.

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