“When we go to them seeking employment, we are shooed away on the pretext of no vacancy, or that we would be hired when there’s labour shortage; something that hasn’t happened in years and is likely to never happen. The metal dust and other toxic effluents have made farming impossible for us. Our lives have turned miserable.”
This is the wailing desperation of locals of a small village called Kusumdih Kalyanpur in the Ramgarh district of Jharkhand. Khushilal Mahto, a native, shares his story of unfulfilled promises, unemployment, and despair. A number of metal industries have their manufacturing plants located in the district and they do not own the land but have been leased it by the government. Industries, not just one or two but a significant count form an industrial belt. Kusumdih Kalyanpur lies in the midst of one such metalwork industrial belt.
When we think of industries being set up in close proximity, it is promised that it would bring employment opportunities to the locals, uplift and empower them. However, this turned out to be untrue for the natives of Kusumdih Kalyanpur. Steel plants started setting up in the vicinity about 15 years ago. Mahto, who has worked in factories in metropolitan cities like Bangalore and Nagpur, goes on to share his thoughts on the pay disparity. They would still be at a significant disadvantage had they been given some employment by these factories. “We would’ve been paid Rs.15,000/- had we put in the same labour in any factory in Bangalore. Back here they merely give us Rs.5000/- for it.” Years ago, when these factories were fairly new, they used to distribute books and stationery to promote quality education and gain the trust of the local community. These kids are now left to struggle for the bare minimum, let alone their tuition fees of about Rs.3000.
It’s not just the broken promises but also the unforeseeable consequences of industrialisation that have pushed Khushilal Mahto towards poverty. The ecological concerns raised by these heavy-metal industries are distressing. Ever since their set-up, they have incessantly exploited groundwater ultimately leading to a depleted water table in the region. Of course, the locals are bearing the brunt for it. Wells as deep as 30-35 ft have dried up, consequently pushing the native dwellers to be reliant upon the municipal water supply for drinking water and other domestic consumption. It is no surprise that the electric borewells are also not able to extract water from a depth this low. It is only after moving about a kilometre away from the spot that one gets to witness water-charged wells.
Steel, manganese and other metal industries tend to contribute to significant levels of dust in the region. This dust then accumulates on the crops thereby degrading the quality of the produce. Mahto has been struggling to grow his brinjal produce because of this dust accumulation every day without fail. He recently incurred losses of about Rs. 10,000 because of poor harvests. Even more startling is the straight-up denial from the factory management citing that their personal gardens remain unaffected from the dust. How could that possibly happen when their gardens are sprayed with water on a daily basis? Daily water spraying is something that small farmers like Mahto just cannot afford.
Whatever little he earned as a construction worker in other states was sufficient to sustain. But it is family responsibilities that have brought him back to town. He has ageing parents, a wife and two school-going children to support. Apart from the ones staying in Kusumdih Kalyanpur, he has two brothers working in the neighbouring state as drivers.
To make ends meet, he has also been working on his relative’s land all by himself. He has to invest right from the seeds to fertilizers, take good care of it, grow the produce and make sure it yields profits otherwise all of it goes in vain. The landowner gets half the produce nevertheless. It is quite a risk for a small farmer like Mahto but he does not have better alternatives anyway.
With rapid industrialisation and its promises of better regional growth, inclusion and economic upliftment, it becomes unimaginable to fathom its harrowing side effects. It is the story of Khushilal Mahto, but many live the same fate.