KUTTA, KODAGU (Karnataka): It's only when Bimala gets down from the bus at Kutta in Karnataka that we realise she was the only woman on it. She did not board at the point of origin, Mananthavady in Kerala, as we did. But from the Begur adivasi colony in between. She will go on further to Nathayal "to do weeding work in an estate there."
Her face and her walk betray her fatigue. Like on every other day, she's been up since 4 a.m. "I have two children and a husband down with TB," she explains. She has to finish cooking, cleaning, washing and get things ready for the children to go to school. "And I have to leave by 7 a.m. to reach here in time for work. Here, the sahucar's vehicle will pick me and others up to take us to his estate."
There, Bimala will earn Rs. 50 for her weeding work, which keeps her bending for eight hours in the sun. But she will lose Rs.15 each day on bus tickets. She takes her food from home. "At the work place we get nothing. Not even a cup of tea."
At home, where she reaches after 7 p.m. there's still much to be done. Including trips every two or three days to Kattikulam (bus fare Rs.3.50 each way) to buy provisions. Since Bimala has very little cash in hand at any given moment, she cannot buy enough at one time and thus reduce the number of trips she makes. So, this often cuts further into the Rs.35 she scrapes out of her trips to Nathayal.
On whatever is left she looks after two young sons (in the 8th and 9th standard) and a sick husband who cannot work. Bimala sleeps at ten p.m. or after, most nights. The family survives and runs on her 16-18 hour workday and the Rs.25-30 it leaves her with. She answers the questions put to her by Prof. Balagopal of St. Mary's College and Krishna Prasad of the Karshaka Sangham (Kisan Sabha) without self-pity.
"Our Begur colony has 60 families and all are in the same condition," she explains. "Most come here like me, seeking work. I've done this for four years. The only thing is, I hardly ever see the children awake." Wayanad's already marginalised adivasis have been pushed deeper into debt and penury by a crisis that has sharply reduced any employment they could get.
Earlier, too, the large-scale conversion of paddy fields into cash crop farms deprived adivasi women of countless workdays each year. Paddy transplantation had till then been a major source of work for them. Besides, "we used to get some weeding and other work closer by, in the forest." But the Forest Department has cut that to a minimum. And the plantations - even those launched by the state for adivasi welfare - are in the doldrums.
Now with the district's economy crumbling, those like Bimala, always on the margin, have simply been crushed. She has been travelling on the bus to Kutta a lot longer than the non-adivasi job seekers. Together their numbers are huge. The explosion of bus services from Wayanad to obscure points in Tamilnadu and Karnataka reflects this. Scores of services have sprung up along routes where there were few or none just four years ago.
"They come in ever larger numbers," says M.K. Mohammad in Kutta, in Kodagu district. He works in the local mosque and has seen the job hunters from across the border swell from a trickle to a flood. "Yes, there is more work in Kodagu. After all, this side of the border there are huge holdings - up to 2,000 acres. But this giant tide of people means that the work is getting less. And, obviously, wages are getting much lower."
Back in Wayanad, the only earnings that have risen are those of the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation. Little known destinations in Karnataka and Tamilnadu now bring in higher earnings per kilometre (EPKM) than bus services to major cities within Kerala. The bus to Kutta rivals - and on some days exceeds - the EPKM of the service to Kozhikode. This is also true of buses to Pattavayal and Gudalur in Tamilnadu.
"Out-migration has increased," says P. K. Chandran, district transport officer at the KSRTC office in Sulthan Bathery. "This is new. Five years ago, there were just three or four trips a day to Pattavayal. Now there are 32 trips daily. Indeed, that route is the best revenue earner for KSRTC from this Bathery depot, alongside Kozhikode."
The soaring number of out-bound bus trips signals the intensity of Wayanad's agony. Unlike much of the rest of Kerala, this district never saw major out-migration. It's cash crop wealth ensured quite the reverse.
"Till 2002, people came here in great numbers, seeking work," K. N. Subramanian had told us. He is a district leader of the Karshaka Sangham (a unit of the All-Indian Kisan Sabha). "The Pulpally region alone drew almost ten thousand migrant workers. Mostly from Tamilnadu."
Other districts exported labour to the Gulf. But Wayanad, says Subramanian, "was known as `the Gulf of Kerala.' The Pulpally-Mullankolly region was called `The Kuwait of Kerala.' It gave work to thousands."
But even some who once provided a bit of that work now seek it themselves in Karnataka. P.V. Poulose, K. Biju and E.V. Babu are farmers from Wayanad getting down with us at Kutta. Together, they are leasing ten acres at a total cost of Rs.1 lakh in Barnani near Mysore. Crushed by the crisis at home in Mananthavady, they're going in for ginger cultivation in Barnani. This is a high-risk game, with ginger attracting a lot of problems from pest to theft. Not to speak of the environmental damage their chemical farming model entails.
Input costs and other risks, too, are very high. Their finances are thinly stretched and failure would bankrupt them. "We have no choice," says Poulose. "We have to offset our losses at home which have been severe these past three years."
Meanwhile a new busload of people arrives in Kutta from across the border. The agrarian crisis has transformed a district known till now for in-migration into one seeing huge, anarchic out-migration.