Monday, February 26, 2024

The Poverty of Development in Garo Hills

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By Sunny Mavelil

The present dynamic, vibrant and highly proactive Deputy Commissioner of West Garo Hills announced in July this year that 13000 laborers have been safely transported back to Assam in the aftermath of the communal flare up that prevailed in Garo Hills towards the end of June. While the efforts made by the district administration to save the lives of the migrant laborers from Assam must be lauded, the mass guided transport of the migrant laborers is a matter for serious reflection by the political class, NGOs, Church bodies and academicians if any, worth the name. While the figures given by the Deputy Commissioner is an indicative figure of West Garo Hills only, the actual number is far more considering the number employed in the other four districts as well as those who were given protection by informed community of civil society and private parties at large.

The average amount paid to a skilled migrant to labourer is roughly @ Rs 320/day and that of unskilled labourer is around Rs 220. The wages fixed by the district administration differs and does not actually reflect the real wages being charged by laborers. So if we assume that Rs. 250 is the average wage paid to a labourer the total volume of money being paid to the migrant laborers would be a staggering Rs. 32,50,000 (Rupees thirty two lakhs fifty thousand) per day. In one working month the amount would be Rupees 9.75 crore. Even if the migrant labourers work only for six months a year the minimum amount that would accrued to them would cross Rs 50 crore. Can we not safely assume that the total labour charges paid to migrant labourers from the entire Garo Hills would amount to 100 crore a year? If labourers are from the local community itself will not these financial resources be cycled in Garo? If that was to be the case how many families would have fairly decent houses; how many would be able to access quality health care and education and improve their agriculture? Given the fact that there are just more than 11 lakh people with huge resource base that is under-utilized this draining of wealth is a critical gap that needs to be addressed.

A few days after the tension one could notice that Tura markets were almost deserted. Prices of vegetables soared. 100 grams of chilli was sold for Rs 50. One could sense the panic that was felt due to this unprecedented situation. It is only then that one could realize what it means to be so ” beggingly” dependent on the vehicles that ply to Garo Hills ferrying vegetables and fruit products. One cannot but think: what has planning brought to Garo Hills? During a discussion with the District Veterinary Department the DVO shared that some years back they had facilitated projects for poultry farms which were profitable in the beginning but later the entrepreneurs did not want to put in hard work and began to order the required number of broilers from the nearby locations in Assam. The price of broiler went up from Rs.120-130 to Rs.160-180. Price of beef and pork increased as well. Though bad in a way the price increase might help the local trading community but since these are purchased from their counterparts in Assam who exploited the situation the only beneficiaries are the traders from Assam. During the peace meeting the elected local leaders pleaded with the district administration to bring essential commodities with armed escort. Is that not bad enough? Does this not imply that we are actually highly vulnerable? But do we take our vulnerability seriously and converge in a whole hearted manner to be self reliant?

The whole communal flare up started with the condemnable mob behavior following the molestation attempt by migrant laborers. Two staff of the Child Line Team of Bakdil reached the spot where the mob had taken law into their hands and tied four other migrant workers one of whom was a minor. Their hands were tied behind their backs and the leaders who seemed to have come from elsewhere had their fists and legs on them including the minor. That the Police reached late was a different matter. But how could so many on lookers jeer when a small tiny mob could intimidate and unceasingly kick and hit the helpless labourers? Is it civilized behavior? Apparently there were feeble voices protesting but such protests were drowned in the might of the blows. Does this speak of a society that is silent to large social, economic and political and educational injustice? Tura is home to a few who have grown filthy rich suddenly. Is the silence at the attack hurled down on the hapless though guilty labourers indicate that we tolerate injustice, and violence and call ourselves Christians?

Scientists and psychologists tell us that most behavior is learnt. This being so how does one explain the alleged “lazy behavior of the indigenous people?” The Banks say that people are lazy and do not repay the loans they have received. Contractors and even local people would prefer to keep a non local for a work than a local. But traditionally indigenous people in the past lived on the products of the land. The elders of yester-years would tell the younger generation that they would go to market walking long hours only to buy dry fish, salt and match boxes. They were to a great extent able to survive with vegetables and cereals produced in the villages. If they could climb the hills and ploughed them and carry head weight to the markets climbing these hills and could stand a long day with a morning meal, all done with great vulnerability and health hazards, can the local people be really tagged as lazy? I for one would not be able to climb hills for long durations as they do. I would not be able to plough the way they do and I definitely would not be able to carry products on my head to the most interior areas

Well one would think that I am highly communal. After all I would agree that the level of hard work, persistence, loyalty to the work taken up etc by a migrant laborer is unmatched by most indigenous groups. The normal argument is – Can an indigenous person work like a migrant worker? Do they complete the work taken up in time? Do they not charge much more than what a migrant labourer would charge? However all these arguments put together cannot disregard the wealth drain from Garo Hills. But that is one side of the coin. Traditionally the indigenous peoples have climbed hills with heavy head carriage, they walk long hours to the hills. They also carry their produce to the markets and also bring their purchases from the markets. Normally they are contended with two meals and can stand the heat of the day with that morning meal. They would leave their homes in the wee hours of the day having equipped with the morning meal and spend the whole day in the far away field doing all the necessary works related to cultivation. How then has the perception come that the indigenous people are not hardworking?

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