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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 39 September 23, 2023

Distress Migration: Trapped in Brick Kilns | S N Tripathy

Saturday 23 September 2023, by S N Tripathy


In India, a perplexing paradox prevails; approximately 26% of its population lives trapped in poverty, struggling to afford basic sustenance, even as the country boasts a surplus of food resources. This curious coexistence of hunger and abundance underscores the intricate facets of security that extend beyond mere survival.

The 2022 Global Hunger Index reveals India’s disheartening position at 107th among 121 nations with calculable GHI scores. This ranking contrasts starkly with India’s regional peers, as Afghanistan, despite its war-ravaged state, only slightly trails India at 109th place. Intriguingly, crisis-afflicted Sri Lanka holds the 64th rank, Nepal at 81, Bangladesh at 84, and Pakistan at 99, underscoring India’s comparatively poor performance (Patnaik, 2023).

The Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey 2016-18 marked a significant milestone as India’s inaugural nationally representative nutrition survey focused on children and adolescents. The survey’s results revealed concerning statistics: 35 per cent of children under the age of five experienced stunted growth, 22 per cent of school-age children also faced stunted growth, and 24 per cent of adolescents were categorized as underweight for their age. This ranking is emblematic of a confluence of challenges, from an alarming surge in farmer suicides to the encroachment of corporate giants into the retail sector and the proliferation of Special Economic Zones. The substantial government investments directed towards infrastructure development and legislation aimed at fostering rural upliftment have failed to bridge the gap due to widespread corruption (Transparency International, Corruption Perception Index, 2022) and mismanagement leading to the diversion of investible funds. [1] This glaring disparity persists as civil society organizations often remain unaware of these initiatives, resulting in an uneven distribution of benefits between urban and rural areas.

The glaring and often daunting disparities that persist in terms of access to fundamental amenities between rural and urban areas, aggravated by the prevalent underutilization of the existing provisions and resources by civil society organizations, cast a significant and concerning pall over the holistic growth and development of livelihood opportunities within rural domains.
The unfortunate reality exacerbates this predicament that the current mechanisms and initiatives often fall short in effectively targeting the impoverished populations or adequately addressing their specific and pressing needs, leading to a situation where the lion’s share of the accruing benefits and advantages tend to disproportionately favour and cater to the more affluent and privileged segments of society (Kundu et al., G. 2020; Tripathy, 2006)

The livelihoods and livelihood analysis concept, emergent in the mid-1990s, aligns closely with poverty alleviation strategies. A nuanced comprehension of the livelihood systems underpinning impoverished communities is vital for effective poverty reduction. The livelihood system represents a holistic blend of physical, economic, social, and cultural elements that collectively shape the environment in which families subsist. It transcends mere material conditions, encapsulating the psychosocial dimensions of lived experiences.

Rural communities across India engage in various livelihoods, ranging from agriculture to other occupations, in their quest for income and subsistence. This pursuit involves a delicate dance between food and nutritional security and the broader tapestry of livelihood security. Striking the proper equilibrium between immediate consumption and future production capacity is paramount for households grappling with food insecurity.

Alas, the vulnerabilities embedded within India’s food security system fan the flames of distress migration, a phenomenon starkly evident in regions like Kalahandi and Bolangir districts (Odisha), where drought-induced adversities drive masses to urban centres (Tripathy, 2015) Central to the livelihood approach is its focus on impoverished households, considering their vulnerabilities, the assets and resources that underpin their survival, the impact of governance and institutions on their livelihoods, and their responses to threats and opportunities. Agricultural pursuits and allied activities have traditionally sustained nearly 60% of India’s rural populace. However, the viability of land-based livelihoods for small and marginal farmers is waning as their holdings need help to provide adequate sustenance for their families and livestock.

In this milieu of economic uncertainty, thousands of migrant labourers, predominantly hailing from the impoverished KBK region of Odisha, embark on journeys to various districts in Andhra Pradesh, as well as states like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala, to toil in brick kilns. This mass migration, often including families, is driven by the absence of viable livelihood options in their native villages. It is exacerbated by the predatory practices of moneylenders who ensnare them in a web of debt (Tripathy 2005, 2006).

The Government of Odisha has taken cognizance of these exploitative labour dynamics and initiated discussions with counterparts in Andhra Pradesh, facilitated by the Ministry of Labor and Employment and the ILO, to establish a coordination mechanism between the sending and receiving states (Government of Odisha, Annual Activity report-2020-21). The aim is to bolster the rights and welfare of inter-state migrant brick kiln workers, enabling them to access social security and income generation schemes that could liberate them from the clutches of usurious lenders and unscrupulous employers.

However, the brick kilns are formidable fortresses, incarcerating labourers within their unyielding walls. Once sources of sustenance, these kilns morph into symbols of tyranny, subjecting workers to threats and brutality that quell any semblance of dissent. Despite the allure of better opportunities, their freedom to seek them remains fettered, undermining the essence of a thriving market economy.

This narrative of exploitation predominantly features Scheduled Tribes originating from the nation’s remotest and most destitute corners. Their saga unfolds within the confines of brick kilns, where they endure relentless shifts of up to sixteen hours a day. Meagre wages offer scant respite as they grapple with primitive living conditions and insurmountable debts, rendering them de facto bonded labourers.

Physical suffering becomes their constant companion, exacerbated by inadequate nourishment and rest. Amidst these trials, mental afflictions manifest as addiction and substance abuse. Unbeknownst to many, the Inter-State Migrant Workers (ISMW) Act holds the potential as a shield against these adversities, yet its protections remain elusive due to widespread ignorance.

These labourers, ensnared in the relentless cycle of debt, find themselves drawn further into its clutches. Failure to repay advances by the end of the season consigns them to further servitude, perpetuating a dire cycle. Even during lean periods, no relief is granted, demanding even more significant financial sacrifices to meet both ends.

Behind the façade of brick kilns lies a system reminiscent of medieval serfdom, corroding the foundations of human progress. The labourers, relegated to the status of spectral figures in this remote landscape, bear testament to the urgent need for systemic change, for it is only through dismantling these walls of exploitation that the light of equitable prosperity can shine through.

An urgent imperative exists to amend and overhaul the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act (1979) to rectify inherent shortcomings within the legislation. The Act’s current scope encompasses only migrants traversing state boundaries, resulting in the exclusion of a substantial migrant population. Furthermore, it lacks oversight over unregistered contractors and establishments. The Act’s silence on establishing crèches, educational centres for children, and mobile medical units for labourers is conspicuous. It also fails to offer guidelines for inter-state collaboration. While the Act solely pertains to regulating the employment and service conditions of migrants, it does not encompass their access to social safeguards, their entitlement to urban amenities, or the distinct vulnerabilities faced by female and juvenile migrants (Tripathy 2012, 2015).

Importantly, it must be underscored that pivotal provisions of the Act, including mandates for minimum wages, displacement allowances, medical benefits, and protective attire, remain inadequately enforced.

To address these challenges, the government must enhance rural development by improving educational institutions, healthcare facilities, and employment opportunities. Moreover, fostering skill development and small-scale entrepreneurship aims to make rural life more viable and attractive.

In this context, banks must play a role in facilitating economic growth by providing financial support to both established and emerging businesses. Moreover, diversifying job opportunities beyond agriculture, addressing infrastructure gaps, and deploying microfinance can help mitigate distress migration.

By implementing comprehensive strategies that bolster rural economies and create opportunities, the government aims to mitigate the root causes of rural-urban migration and provide citizens with better alternatives within their communities.

(Author: S N Tripathy, Former Professor of Economics, Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune, currently at 4th Vijoy Bihar, Berhampur)


  • Government of India. (2019). Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey 2016-18. Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, New Delhi.
  • Government of Odisha, Annual Activity report-2020-21, Labour and ESI Department, Bhubaneswar.
  • Kundu, D., & Sarangi, G. (2020). Migration, informal employment, and development: A study of rural–urban migration in India. The Indian Journal of Labour Economics, 63(1), 37-54.
  • Patnaik, P. (2022). Hunger and Poverty. Peoples Democracy, October 23.
  • Tripathy, S. N. (2005). Tribal Migration. Sonali Publication, New Delhi.
  • Tripathy, S. N. (2006). Dynamics of Tribal Migration. Sonali Publication, New Delhi.
  • Tripathy, S. N. (2012). Socio-Legal Aspects of Migrant Laborers: A Study in Maharashtra in ’Changing Dimensions of Social Justice in New Global Era’, edited by Dr. Kamlesh Gupta, Mr. Trivikram Tiwari and Ms. Nandini Basistha, published from Pentagon Press, New Delhi.
  • Tripathy, S. N. (2015). Evaluating the role of micro-finance in mitigating the problems of distress out-migrants: A study in KBK districts of Orissa, in The Micro Finance Review. July-December, Journal of the Centre for Micro Finance Research, Banker’s Institute of Rural Development, Lucknow.

[1India is the 85 least corrupt nation out of 180 countries, according to the 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index reported by Transparency International.

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