Another Day In Paradise: Lock down Series 4

Dear Jamlo ,

This is not a letter or a conversation that I never ever want to do again in my life. And this is not the language in which I should be talking to you, a 12 year old girl. But times are such that one has not much choice. Or how could you a 12 year old have had to walk 150 kilometres and succumb to death on the road just 50  kms from home? All of what happened to you in the recent days is NOT RIGHT…and should never happen to anyone, let alone a 12 year old…

I realise that I should be telling a child of 12 a story or singing you a song or playing on the swing instead of narrating the sordid and morbid details of an unjust , cruel world where money and power reigns supreme. In your little life it came – the inequality came in the form of hunger and poverty that forced your parents to push you away to another place to earn a living. And the never satiated system of economic module that we have created and named productive and efficient grabbed you by the shoulder terming it cheap labour…

The news about your untimely death has created a silence that is too loud for many of us to suffer , too deafening to tolerate…we stand dumbfounded in the face of it.Ever since Lockdown started there has been panic created by closure of roads, stopping of all means of transport and uncertainity about when one can reach home. In March one of the first days of lock down, we heard the tragic end of a woman and her 1 year old grandchild along with 7 others who while walking the arduous path back home was caught in a forest fire near Rasingapuram in Theni district( Tamil Nadu) and burnt to death.  So too the news of the 16 young lives who fell exhausted on the railway track while trying to return home to Madhya Pradesh from their work site in the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation zone. The 2800 km long walk that Jadav Gogoi undertook traversing Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal from March 27th –April 20th would have been at some other point of time if done by someone else be lauded as a heroic feet. But during these tough times of fear and insecurity it brings out to light the lives of so many who hold the highly industrialised in human side of what is called development. This is ironical and criminal  at a time when lakhs are being spend to protect and save one life affected by the Corona.

It is very clear that a more deadly and fatal virus, more visible and palpable, more widespread and with larger epidemic impact is what has made you and thousands like you move away from your place of birth, cross State borders under heavy threat of either Police or the so called Maoists in search of a solution to this. The malady known as Poverty and hunger, penury and deprivation, fear and discrimination. It is not by choice that you would have experienced physical and social distancing but such unjust attitudes would have been imposed upon you. This virus would have forced children like you to leave school and the minimum comfort and care of your  homes to start thinking about working to ease the stress and burden of your parents.

Every year during the months from February – April, the chilli fields of Telengana would wait expectantly for groups of you to reach and camp there for harvesting the red hot spice. This year the harvest is at its best and so too the price (rs 12,000 a quintal as against the rs 7000 last year). And just when the land owners and farmers were updating their bank accounts and planning out the strategy to give you the minimum wages, the new virus struck.  The virus for which there is  no solution..and everyone fell under the dark and ominous veil of social and physical distancing.

You must have accompanied your maternal uncle on a sunny day in April  leaving the side of your parents and siblings, the taste of the simple meal your mother cooked, the play ground and stream by your village to reach this alien state for work. I wonder if you would have chosen the meagre 120-200 rs wages that is given every day depending on the quantity of chillies that you pick or would you have chosen to be paid as chillies itself- one lot per every 12 lots that your tender fingers would have picked? I would never ever know if you liked your curries hot as it is reported that in the villages where you come from taking back chillies is welcomed more as it is a much used condiment rather than the money.

Now that your journey back home has become news because you did not survive ,dear Jamlo, I worry about how you and the team reached the villages for work. No one speaks about how you reached there, the trails and travails of a group of people travelling every year in search of work to be able to stay without hunger for a few more days. It is your death that has caught the news and not your life and its tribulations….Did you know that more than 10,000 people like you leave their villages in Odisha and Chattisgarh every year during these harvest months to reach the fertile fields of Godavari river basin to  pluck, sort, dry and pack chillies in jute bags? This year too you would have been a number in the list of labourers in the land lord’s pay records..instead death overtook your frail body and made you a name with a story of a life that could have had a different trajectory, a path other than a dismal end!

It is only few years back that we read about the Children of the Chilli fields, a feature about the thousands of migrant labourers who opt to reach the red burning fields of Telengana to participate in the harvest of a crop that the whole  world waits for. We had read about 14 year old Vetti Moye who is one of the many children who come in large groups from Chhatisgarh to work in Telengana’s chilli fields. He had lost his father to malaria and had to support his mother and siblings. It is your death, dear child that has brought to light many disturbing facts that have been swept under the carpet.

With stringent laws (Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act implemented in 1988) many years before you were born  that has banned children below 14 years to be engaged in any kind of activity especially labour other than education, how did so many of you below that age work even for one day ? Where are the jet setting human rights activists and social justice researchers in the country who seemed oblivious to this blatant law breaking that has been on for many years? That too to a crop from a State that contributes more than48.29 lakh tonnes annually of this hot much needed spice. Did no one notice that half of the work force for chilli harvesting that crosses the borders of Odisha and Chhatisgarh every year during the harvest season are children? And many of them are not paid money but chillies as wages and live in deplorable conditions with minimum access to daily needs?  Did it take your death and your long arduous walk, Jamlo for us to see what has been going on for decades?

I wonder if the burning chillies hurt your tender fingers, whether it irritated your soft nostrils and made you sneeze, did your Uncle look after you and assure minimum comfort and rest for your body? Or were you in the thick of fear and discomfort all through the days you were away from home? How many days of hunger and semi starvation would you have gone through even before the walk home started? I do not have the language or the nerve to ask anyone this, dear one..as I look at the aadhar card that media was showing, I see your innocent face wrought with anxiety,  already worn by want and hunger, I see how your mother or you yourself would have hurriedly stroked the unruly hair to pose for the picture, how eager your little mind and body must have been to help your parents…I see that you were born on New Year’s day in 2008 as per records ( or did the officer who filled your details just put a date) –and you left the world just when you had entered your “teens”- !

It does not need much visceral analysis ( your viscera has been kept for further analysis,it seems ) to know that the little food you ate on Saturday which caused discomfort and stomach pain to your tired and exhausted body would not have been food but poison for you. The people with you have reported that you did not eat much that day!  It does not need much thought or tests to know that a small child who has walked 150 kilometres in 4 days with minimum or no rest will collapse due to the mere physical and mental strain- terms like dehydration, electrolyte imbalance and exhaustion …to think that in these modern times when all facilities are at the tip of your fingers a child died just because she did not get a glass full of water..

I remember how much was made of the cracked and blistered feet of farmers who voluntarily walked 180 kms from Nashik to Bombay in 2018 with supplies of water and food all along the way. And now even as I write this thousands are walking in the heat on an empty stomach, thirsty and weary to what is “home”. Many take the less known and surveyed roads so that they do not fall within the surveillance teams hovering around…

I can see the silent helpless tears of your parents, the shock in the face of your Uncle who took your responsibility a month back, the desperation of your friends and villagers…the indignant anger of many of us who heard this ..none of this will bring you back, Jamol…but if it can bring back sanity and humaneness, kindness and compassion, slow down the viscious cycle of exploitation and cruelty that should grind to a stop, “break the chain”of discrimination and alienation that you faced…if it can bring back the freedom, joy, access to a safe home, health and education that is the right of a 12 year old… the 1 lakh rupees that is being offered to your parents now will not bring you back nor will it solve the omnipresent crippling unemployment and poverty in your life…

Each time we in the cities “throw in” ( Chef language) the red chilly in the garnishing which invariably gets “thrown out” too, some of us may remember you, Jamol and your tender body that fell on the road after plucking and drying them in the red fields of Godavari basin…I wonder with a shudder if it was your mother’s face that came last to you as you fell into the dark deep well of lifelessness as we celebrate Mother’s day with cakes and delicious eateries?

In tears and unbearable sense of impotent anger

References:

News in various media

Pari : Nov 21, 2015: Children of Chilly Fields.

Jamlo Makdam is the 12 year old girl who walked 150kms to her home in Bijapur district of  Chhattisgarh who along with her family and villagers had reached the chilli fields of Kannaiguda village in Telangana for work in April. With Lockdown continuing indefinitely and no assurance of returning safely home, they undertook this walk back home on April 15th and died on April 18th due to dehydration, muscle fatigue, electrolyte imbalance and hunger.

Conversations with Santhi.S, Sajan Bhaskaran, Manju Vasudevan and Ajith U


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2 Comments

  1. Avatar SURESH ELAMON says:

    As I finished reading this, I see dark ominous clouds gathering in the skies from all directions, the sun is hiding but no silver lining anywhere…

  2. Powerful, tangible and Sad