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‘Dadan Khati’: Know about Odisha’s missing voters, empty villages, a question PM Modi has been raising on 24-years of BJD rule under Naveen Patnaik

'Dadan Khati', the colloquial Odia term for poor labourers migrating out of the state in search of work and livelihoods, is a major election issue this time.

The incumbent Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is seeking a sixth term in office in the ongoing Assembly elections in the state. He has been the state’s CM since March 2000 and if elected again, he will become the country’s longest-serving CM in August, surpassing Sikkim ex-CM Pawan Chamling. However, anti-incumbency, particularly the acute crisis of distressed migration in areas in and around his assembly constituency, could be a major cause for concern for the BJD Supremo.  

‘Dadan Khati’, the colloquial Odia term for poor labourers migrating out of the state in search of work and livelihoods, is a major election issue this time. The BJP has asserted employment generation and industrialisation in its poll promises, targeting the BJD government of Naveen Patnaik for failing to generate employment in the state in 5 terms of their rule.

PM Modi has been raising this issue in all his speeches in the state.

Notably, BJD president Naveen Patnaik is fighting from two assembly constituencies. He is contesting from his traditional Hinjili seat in the Ganjam district which he has won five straight times. Additionally, he is also in the fray from the Kantabanji assembly constituency in the Bolangir district of Western Odisha. 

In the 2019 assembly elections, he had also contested from two seats and won both of them. But he resigned from the Bijepur assembly seat which falls in the Bargarh district of western Odisha, and served as the MLA from the Hinjili seat. However, distressed migration which has been a pervasive issue across all 30 districts of the state is more pronounced in the Western belt in districts like Koraput, Balangir, Nuapada, Ganjam, and Kalahandi among others.

A report in Down to earth about migrant workers from Nuapada unable to come back for voting

As per a BBC ground report of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s assembly constituency, Hinjili, it is estimated that nearly 50% of the youth of this region are migrant labourers as the area lacks industries and factories. 

According to 2019 data, there were approximately 22 lakh eligible voters in this assembly. Locals and those knowledgeable about the situation estimate that nearly 50% of the population has been compelled to migrate to other areas—both within and outside the state. Particularly, destinations such as Surat in Gujarat, Mumbai in Maharashtra, and other major cities in Kerala are sought after for better employment opportunities.

A 2019 report by OTV

After his father’s demise in 1997, Naveen Patnaik made a foray into politics and won from this constituency in 2000 when he was 54 years of age. He has represented this constituency for 24 years and despite being the Chief Minister of the state, the issue of distressed migration is far from over rather it has turned into a more acute crisis for the region. 

According to a BBC ground report, nearly half of the houses in Saru village, just 6 kilometers away from Hinjili, have locks on their gates, indicating that residents have migrated to other areas in search of job opportunities. Even if one encounters a young person in this village, they often reveal that they have returned home for a brief holiday lasting 10-15 days.  

Speaking with BBC News Hindi, Shambu Das (18), a native of Saru village, mentioned that he attends college and also works outside the state. He pointed out that while the area has educational institutions, there are not enough employment opportunities available. He expressed disappointment that while one can find private work, educated individuals struggle to secure decent employment. He added that earning Rs 12,000-15,000 would be satisfactory. ‘We have to migrate to other places because there are limited employment opportunities here,’ he said. 

Another young resident, Dadda Sahu (25), echoed the same sentiment, stating that although he had worked in his village, the opportunities were not satisfactory.

Shivshankar Sahu, who returned for his marriage, expressed that there are no industries or factories in this area. He mentioned that if Naveen Patnaik had established an industry here, the youth would have been happy, and they could have avoided migrating outside the state for work. Unfortunately, they are forced to leave their elderly parents behind. The situation is such that there is no one to care for them.

An elderly woman named Jambubati Sahu has four children and all of them have migrated from the village to earn a better livelihood.  

In another village, Ramchandrapur, a resident woman said that nearly 75% of the villagers have left the village to find better employment opportunities. Now people from all the villages are going outside for a job. 

However, many of the villagers feared to come on record as they feared that they would be targeted for airing their grievances. 

The BJP candidate from Hinjili, Shishir Mishra, stated that despite Naveen Patnaik serving as the Chief Minister and an MLA from this area for over 25 years, he has not built even a safety pin plant. He added that although Hinjili supplies vegetables to the entire state, it lacks adequate agricultural infrastructure.

Similar scenes in Kantabanji, the other seat where Naveen Patnaik is contesting

Similar scenes of empty houses and missing voters working in faraway states are also visible in Kantabanji, the other seat where Patnaik is contesting in the current assembly elections. Scores of villagers from rural areas of Bangomunda, Muribahal etc work in brick kilns of Telangana and elsewhere. Many families have at least one, or some times more members working in other states. Most of these voters are likely to miss voting on May 20.

Odisha government rubbishes Dadan Khati as a non-issue, accused of gross under-reporting of numbers

Lack of employment-induced migration has been a major concern in the region, yet the BJD has been reluctant to acknowledge it as an important issue. 

Last year in November, the Odisha government released interstate labour migration numbers. In the written statement, Labour Minister Sarada Prasad Nayak noted that 40,088 labourers from the State have migrated to other States in search of employment through the network of 626 licensed labour contractors.

As per a January report in The New Indian Express, contractors from other states have been running buses daily to ferry migrant workers from several districts in Odisha. Additionally,  mediators engaged by various companies arrive in the Kandhamal district and lure unemployed people with job offers.

On the condition of anonymity, some of the migrant workers said that they prefer to go outside as livelihood options are limited at their native places. 

A Congress leader and zilla parishad member of Raikia, Satyaban Patra alleged that distress migration is continuing in the district but the administration and Labour department have turned a blind eye to the practice. 

Covid lockdown saw return of 10 lakh people

After the COVID outbreak, the coastal state, infamous for the exodus of skilled and unskilled labourers to other parts of the country for employment opportunities, witnessed a return of over 10 lakh people

Despite the enormous magnitude of migration, the Odisha government gave the migrant numbers at around 40,000 underscoring that the state government had grossly under-reported the migrant figures to hide the dismal ground realities of lack of employment avenues in the coastal State. 

As per the report, the state government had earlier put the interstate migrant workers’ figure at 1.35 lakh.

An activist named Umi Daniel said that with an abysmal lack of employment opportunities and the absence of an irrigation network for agrarian activities, people from these backward belts of the State migrate to different States. In the process, these defenseless people are ensnared in a bondage labour system and fall prey to the exploitative practices of tyrannical employers.

Daniel added that every year, around one thousand cases of torture and exploitation of migrant Odia labourers are reported. While the government puts the migration figure at 40,088, the actual figure could go up by twenty-fold, he claimed.

However, according to the officials, the State Government is making consistent endeavours through the Field Departments and field functionaries to secure the livelihood of those who are the most vulnerable in society. 

The officials said that the Odisha government has initiated a slew of measures like initiatives like providing care and education to the migrating workmen families, rescuing the workmen caught in difficult conditions, and setting up help desks for migrant Odia workmen in the destination states like Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamilnadu, Karnataka, and Delhi.

Distressed migration causing major changes in Odisha’s villages

As per a study by IDR, increasing labour migration from Odisha has led to significant economic, social, and cultural changes in some villages. To understand the profile of migration from southern Odisha, they carried out four empirical studies between 2019 and 2021 that covered one block each in the Gajapati, Ganjam, Kandhamal, and Kalahandi districts. 

The study revealed that between 18 and 31 percent of households had at least one member who had migrated for employment outside Odisha. Of this percentage, less than 20 percent engaged in seasonal migration lasting less than six months, indicating that the majority of migrants remained at their work destinations for longer durations exceeding six months.

The lack of employment opportunities leading to distressed migration causes emotional distress and presents challenges in accessing adequate healthcare for the elderly parents and women left behind. It prevents migrant workers from regularly attending to their families, spending time with them, and visiting during festivals or emergencies, among other challenges. 

Apart from the social and economic issues, ‘Dadan Khati’ has other consequences, some even criminal. Every day, Odia newspapers are full of stories from rural, undeveloped areas where families are searching for a missing son, missing husband, or missing father wh went to work for some contractor and never returned.

There are reports of gross exploitation, non-payment of dues, rape, even murder where the uneducated, gullible victims of distressed migration have nowhere to go. The local authorities sometimes try and prevent agents of contractors in Hyderabad or Chennai from taking dozens of people from interior villages, they sometimes succeed, but the people have no other means to earn money, so eventually they do end up in brick kilns of Telangana and Tamil Nadu.

With the issue of distressed migrants getting more pronounced in CM Naveen Patnaik’s bastion which falls in Western Odisha, it poses a major concern for the BJD chief to not just defeat the resurgent BJP in the state but also overcome more than two decades of anti-incumbency. 

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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Paurush Gupta
Paurush Gupta
Proud Bhartiya, Hindu, Karma believer. Accidental Journalist who loves to read and write. Keen observer of National Politics and Geopolitics. Cinephile.

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