Latehar and Palamu, Jharkhand: Sauri Parheen’s day starts at 4 a.m. Her house is in one among the many hamlets scattered across the lush, undulating hillocks and jungles of the Chotanagpur plateau. “Jab bhatte mein jaate the, teen baje uthna padhta tha. Ab aaram se chaar baje uthte hain, aag sekte hain aur apni dincharya uske baad shuru karte hain (When I worked in the brick kiln, I had to wake up at 3 a.m. Now that I am home, I comfortably wake up at 4 a.m., sit by the fire, and then start my daily chores),” she says.

Sauri Parheen is among the 25,585 Parhaiyas (as per the 2011 census) in India, located primarily in Palamu and Latehar districts of Jharkhand. Parhaiyas are categorised as a ‘particularly vulnerable tribal group’ (PVTG). Identified by the Dhebar Commission in 1973, PVTGs constitute one of the most vulnerable tribal communities in India with low levels of literacy, declining population, pre-agricultural level of technology and economic backwardness.

Living deep inside India’s forests and traditionally subsisting on shifting cultivation and hunting-gathering, these communities have gradually lost their traditional source of livelihood as a result of environment degradation, wildlife and forest policy, encroachment of habitats and a persistent denial of land rights, according to this 2021 study on eight PVTGs of Odisha and Jharkhand.

This lack of livelihood has led to about 73% of the households in two blocks of Latehar to migrate for work, largely to perform casual labour in brick kilns and on construction projects. The migration takes place to areas as far as Bokaro, Varanasi, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Kerala and Delhi, as found by another study on the Parhaiyas of Latehar by Anmol Somanchi, a scholar at the Paris School of Economics.

With the onset of climate change, erratic monsoons and its impact increasingly being felt by the most marginalised, access to Jal, Jangal, Zameen (water, forest and land), the three most prized possessions of Parhaiyas, is getting all the more precarious. “Paani nahin hai. Jet ke mausam main toh peene ka paani nahin hota, kheti kahan se karenge? (There is no water. In the summer, we do not even have drinking water. How can we take up farming?),” asks Ranthi Parheen, who planned to go to the brick kilns of Banaras in January along with her husband, to make ends meet.

This assumes significance because Palamu and Latehar fall in the rain-shadow area, making access to water difficult in normal circumstances. Added to this, extreme weather events and the concomitant poor access to water have played a major role in mass migration from Palamu, as this Down To Earth report explains.

Life in the forests: Water scarcity, precarious livelihoods and unstable education

After spending some time warming herself, Sauri Parheen of Chandwa block in Latehar district starts her day. She prepares daal bhaat bhujia (lentils, rice and vegetables) for the family and gets her two young girls ready to go to the government primary school a kilometre away. The three other kids stay back home as they are too young to go to school and there is no anganwadi in the vicinity.

Sauri Parheen’s daughters, however, weren’t always going to school--it was only after the mother stopped migrating that they started going. “There are only 27 children registered in the school. Most of them don’t come to school regularly, especially when their parents migrate to brick kilns in Banaras and Patna,” says Nisha Kumari, the government primary school teacher who has been teaching in the Parahiya Tola for 20 years. “In the last 20 years of my teaching, only one Parahiya girl from my school has managed to pass the 10th standard,” Kumari adds.

The lack of consistency in school attendance assumes all the more significance because low levels of literacy is one of the defining criteria to identify PVTGs. Taking cognisance of this, the Union government has launched many schemes and programmes to ensure PVTG children are educated. The programmes range from Eklavya Model Residential Schools (ERMS) to Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas to pre- and post-matric scholarships. However cyclical migration, from the winter season to the monsoons, by the parents has made access to education tough for the children. “It is very difficult to get the children back on track and engage in class-room activities after they return (from migration),” Kumari explains, while filling in the attendance register. “This leads to many of them losing interest in studies and dropping out.”

Students have their mid-day meal consisting of eggs, rice and dal at the government primary school in Parhaiya Tola of Jharkhand’s Latehar. With parents migrating for work in brick kilns of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the children struggle to study.

“Despite making some marginal progress over the last couple of decades, the Parhaiyas remain a highly deprived community,” this study by Anmol Somanchi says. “Their traditional sources of livelihoods have been severely disrupted, education levels remain abysmal, and even the current cohort of children barely stay in school long enough to make anything of it. Limited accessibility and utilization of Anganwadi services and primary healthcare compromises the health of the Parhaiya population.” Parhaiya children’s lack of consistent access to education, owing to distress migration among parents, perpetuates the poverty trap.

After sending her children to school, Sauri Parheen spends the day collecting fire-wood and bamboo from the forest and making soop (winnowing baskets) from bamboo, which she sells for Rs 150 each in the local market. Another source of income for her is goat-rearing. “Ab kya karein? Jeevika ke liye aur koi saadhan nahin hai kyunki paani nahin hai, toh soop banake aur bakhri charake kaam chalate hain (What else do we do? There are no other avenues of livelihood because of the scarcity of water, so we get by, making winnowing baskets and grazing goats),” she says.

Ramesh Parheen lives just a few houses away from Sauri Parheen. He explains the ordeal of losing his livestock to the harsh winters of Jharkhand. “Suvar mar gaya. Kheti ke liye paani nahin hai. Peene ke liye paani nahin hai. Upaay daadan aur palayan ka hi bachta hai (My pigs died. There is no water for farming or even drinking. The only option we are left with is to migrate and get involved in ‘Dadan’ (a contract-based money lending system),” he says, beginning to climb the hills to collect fire-wood and bamboo.

The lack of access to a stable source of income coupled with the onset of climate change, erratic monsoons and reduced access to water, making existing livelihoods precarious, has forced the Parhayas to migrate. In 2023 for instance, the state recorded 38% less rainfall than average during the monsoon. The Jharkhand government has finally declared 158 blocks in 17 districts of the state as drought-affected, with about 1.5 million farmers affected. Only four districts in Jharkhand recorded normal rainfall during the monsoon season in 2023 and 19 districts recorded less than normal rainfall. Even during normal years, access to water is difficult, as explained by Mahboob Dada, a local community mobiliser. “As Parhaiya families live in the undulating hilly terrain, even during the rainy season, they need to walk downhill in order to collect water for drinking and agricultural purposes,” he says.

A small field in Parhaiya Tola of Jharkhand’s Latehar. In 2023 for instance, the state recorded 38% less rainfall than average during the monsoon, and so the kharif crops weren't harvested as late as November.

But notwithstanding the scarcity of water and the reduced access to forests due to increased incidence of forest fires and concomitant issues, some like Sauri Parheen prefer to live in Latehar. There is more freedom in her life at Latehar, she claims. “Bhatte se toh kahin zyada aaraam milta hai (There is much greater relief in staying here, compared to the brick kilns),” she says.

Her husband, who migrates to the brick kilns every season, brings home Rs 15,000 to Rs 18,000. She prefers to stay back, take care of their livestock and ensure that her children go to school.

Life at the brick kilns and migration patterns

Unlike Sauri Parheen, many don’t have the luxury of choice. Conversations with people in the field indicated that the most dominant form of migration among Parhaiyas is the family migration of the Didi (wife), Dada (husband) and their children to brick kilns in Banaras and other parts of UP and Bihar.

Post-Diwali, towards the end of November, they migrate and spend around seven months in the brick kilns, before returning to the village in June to prepare their fields for Kharif cultivation. This is echoed by studies which identified a migration corridor, with many districts of Jharkhand acting as the source and the brick kilns of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tripura, Delhi etc. acting as the destination.

Sauri Parheen’s husband and many like him continue to migrate to the brick kilns of Banaras, where they work in exploitative conditions, which many scholars including Jan Breman have called conditions of ‘neo-bondage’. “Jab bhatte mai thi, subah paanch baje se raat ko das baje tak kaam karna padhta tha. Har roz, ek jagah se doosri jagah eet dhone ka kaam tha. Har das eet ke liye ek coupon milta tha (I used to start work at 5 a.m. and continue till 10 p.m. Every day, my job was to carry bricks from one end to the other and for every 10 bricks that I carried, I got a coupon),” she says. For 100 coupons, she used to get Rs 150. With the exploitative work taking a toll on her health, Sauri Parheen stopped migrating three years back.

Her neighbour Ranthi Parheen continues to migrate. She complains of back pain, fever and joint aches. “Jab bohot beemar hojaate hain, bol dete hain ki aaj kaam nahin hoga. Doctor bula dete hain thekedar aur dawai ka paisa pagaar se kaat lete hain (In times of injury or ill health, a doctor is called to attend to the worker and the medical expenses are cut from the worker’s salary),” she adds.

The safety challenges faced by migrant workers at their workplaces, their exposure to various physical and psychological health vulnerabilities, and prevalence of potentially malignant health disorders and mental health issues among migrant labourers have been highlighted in great detail in the India Migration Report 2021. But in spite of these issues, migration continues unabated due to systems like Dadan.

Is saal bhi jayenge, dadan ke vajah se (We will go this year as well, to repay Dadan),” says Ranthi Parheen. The Persian term Dadan, meaning to “give”, developed as a technical term in Bengal to denote an arrangement of providing loans or working capital advances. The system of Dadan persists as a commonly found credit arrangement in agrarian South Asia, according to this study.

“Every time Sauri didi’s family or a Parahiya family like hers needs money, they go to the ‘Sardar’ or local contractor, who provides them with the timely and much-needed advance. In exchange, the families are asked to go and work in brick-kilns of Banaras, Patna and Tripura, repay the Dadan and also earn something for themselves,” explains Mahboob Dada. “They are able to earn Rs 30,000-Rs 35,000. Once a family takes ‘Dadan’, they are compelled to work for the Sardar in a brick kiln until they pay back the advance amount. ‘Dadan’ works as an anchor that keeps the household shackled to the Sardar and this cycle keeps repeating every year.”

In September 2023, Sauri Parheen’s family needed money to celebrate the Karma festival. She asked her husband to sell the goats they had, instead of going to the brick kiln, to arrange this money. The husband rebuked her. “Tyohaar manaane ke liye bakri kaun bechta hai? (Who sells goats to celebrate a festival?),” he asked. His idea was to keep the goat as a fallback option for meeting major expenses in the future, and thus he decided to migrate.

Social security schemes as a safety net

In April 2017, the Jharkhand government introduced the Dakiya Yojana in three districts (Godda, Palamu, and Sahebganj). Under this scheme, all PVTG households were to receive foodgrains in sealed packets at their doorstep, under the Public Distribution System (PDS), instead of having to collect them at the local fair-price shop. This decision was reportedly made in response to exploitation at the hands of the dealers and the large distances between PVTG hamlets and PDS outlets. This was later expanded to the whole state.

“The Government has taken several measures to help PVTG communities. We have started the PVTG pension of Rs 1,000 per PVTG household. We have also started the PVTG Dakiya Yojana- under this, each PVTG household is entitled to an AAY (Antodya Anna Yojana) ration card, as part of which 35 kg of rice are provided and sealed packets of ration are delivered at the doorstep of the PVTG households, under the control of the Block Supply Officer,” says Vijay Kumar, block development office of Chandwa Block, Latehar.

“In addition, PM-JANMAN Yojana package scheme by the central government provides support to PVTG households in applying for Aadhaar card, Ayushman card [for health insurance] and provides Rs 2 lakh for building houses under Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana etc.

“I feel that over time, due to the presence of multiple government benefits, there is over-dependence on the government for their sustenance, and there is an increasing expectation that the government is going to dole out more welfare benefits,” he adds.

Despite these initiatives, however, food insecurity was very common with more than 40% of households reporting occasional or frequent hunger in the 2023 study conducted by Anmol Somanchi mentioned above. Close to half the sample households reported Aadhaar-related exclusion from at least one welfare benefit or government scheme, and many reported persistent issues, as per the study.

“Our fieldwork confirmed that despite some marginal progress in the recent decades, the Parhaiyas remain a very deprived community,” says Somanchi. “Their traditional forest-based livelihoods have been severely disrupted and their habitats are persistently being destroyed by human encroachment and climate change.

“Education levels and access to public services like Anganwadis and health services remain low. In such conditions, distress migration to various urban centres in the country was found to be common. Welfare programmes like the PDS and pensions are working well and certainly help. But even despite them, hunger remains widespread among the Parhaiyas. Clearly, much more needs to be done to guarantee even the basics of a dignified life. Ultimately, what seems necessary is a more democratic approach to development, one that is responsive to the demands of Adivasi struggles--for instance, relating to protection of habitats and conferment of traditional land rights.”

Meanwhile, Sauri Parheen continues to winnow her baskets “Bhatta jaana humari majboori thi, lekin yeh haalat mere bachhon ki zindagi mein kabhi nahin aane chahiye (We were forced to migrate to a brick kiln because of our economic conditions, but my children should never in their lives encounter such circumstances).”

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