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Indian tribals find life tough in the city

No support, no skills means only the lowliest jobs

Indian tribals find life tough in the city

India's tribal people are flocking to big cities but few prospects await them.

Poulomi Saha, Mumbai

December 10, 2013

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Thirty-six-year-old Salomi Dadel has lived and worked in the big city for 16 years. It was a desperate need for money that brought her from Jharkhand state to Mumbai, she says.

Salomi, who completed 12th grade, works as a live-in domestic maid serving a family of four round the clock.

“I wanted to pursue nurse training but I couldn’t afford to pay the bribe required to acquire a place on the course,” she says, wiping away tears.

In the past decade, large numbers of single tribal women have migrated to India’s burgeoning cities in search of work.

Many of India’s tribal societies are egalitarian and women have taken a lead role in contributing towards household expenses. Now a growing number of women – like the men – feel compelled to step out of their traditional environments in search of work.

“Tribal migrants have found jobs in factories, agro-processing plants or are working as porters, domestic workers, bus cleaners, rickshaw pullers, street hawkers, petty traders and construction workers,” notes a 2010 study on tribal migratory patterns. “Migrants are often willing to take on jobs that others cannot or do not want to do.”

According to estimates, India’s economic hub Mumbai is home to at least 50,000 tribal migrants.

When Druze Bara, an Oraon like Salomi, visited the city as a teenager it was the glamor of Mumbai that kept him from returning to his village in Jharkhand. Today he has a family in the city and works as a chauffeur.

“I don’t feel like going back. There is no employment there – nothing other than farming,” he says.

Many tribals say that they feel increasingly alienated in their own areas and many have been displaced amid rapid development.

The Indian government and private investors have initiated mega-projects in mining, hydro-electricity and other industries, prompting the construction of new roads and towns, thus depriving natives of their traditional land and way of life. Few are employed in these new industries as they don’t usually have the necessary skills.

To get to the cities to earn money, they are often exploited by agents who pay the families of migrants cash in lieu of his or her work output at home. But it’s a fee that the migrant must then start to repay immediately when the paychecks roll in.

For some women, the experience is even worse. Studies show that many end up in the sex industry. Harassment by the very people who should protect them – police, urban authorities and contractors – is commonplace too.

Often tribal migrants have no identities in the cities. The state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, has several identity schemes for migrants but none for those from other states.

For most, financial security and identity are key priorities – savings provide a better standard of life for the migrant and more money to send home, while the right papers means access to healthcare and other services.

This month, the Mumbai-based Xavier Institute of Management and Research (XIMR) began piloting a program that incentivizes savings among these workers and helps them gain interest and medical benefits for their families.

“It is an effort to combine grassroots work with business solutions,” says Father Paul Vaz, director of XIMR.

Efforts are being made to issue these migrants with national ID documents but it’s a challenge due to their mobile lifestyles, adds Fr Vaz, and many are resistant.

Mary Goretti of Seva Niketan, an NGO that works with migrants in Mumbai, says that society needs to change its mindset if tribals are to start getting a better deal.

“Prospective employers should think before employing graduates and the like for domestic or menial jobs,” she says. “It’s a two-way street.”

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