Osob vote-tote chharo. Sandhya namar age anek kaaj go... [What vote-shote! Thousand and one things to finish before it is dark…] Come, sit here with us if you can bear the smell,” Malati Mal says pointing to the space on the ground next to her. She is inviting me to join a group of women, sitting and working around a huge onion mound, unfazed by the heat and dust. I have been hanging around in the village for almost a week now, shadowing these women, asking them questions about the upcoming elections.

It is early April. The mercury in this part of Murshidabad, West Bengal, reaches 41 degrees Celsius every day. Even at 5 p.m. in this Mal Pahariya hutment, it is scorching hot. Not a leaf moves on the few trees surrounding the area. The heavy, pungent smell of fresh onions hangs in the air.

The women are seated in a semicircle around the onion mound, in the middle of an open space barely 50 metres away from their makeshift homes. They are busy separating the bulbs from the stems using a sickle. The sweltering afternoon heat, combined with the vapours of raw onions, makes their faces look luminous in a way that only hard labour can.

“This is not our desh [native village]. For the last seven or eight years we have been coming here,” says Malati, in her 60s. She and the women in the group belong to the Mal Pahariya Adivasi community, officially listed as a Scheduled Tribe in the state and known to be one of the most vulnerable tribal groups.

“In our village Goas Kalikapur, we have no work,” she says. More than 30 families from Goas in the Raninagar block I of Murshidabad district are now living in a cluster of makeshift huts at the fringes of the Bishurpukur village and work on local farms.

They were to return to their village, they told me, for voting in the Lok Sabha elections scheduled on May 7. Goas Kalikapur is about 60 kilometres away from Bishurpukur hamlet.

PHOTO • Smita Khator
PHOTO • Smita Khator

Adivasi women from Mal Pahariya and Santhal communities come to work in the fields in Beldanga-I block in Murshidabad from nearby hamlets. Malati Mal (right, standing) stretches her legs which ache from long hours of squatting

The inter- taluka circular migration of the Mal Pahariyas from the Raninagar I block to their present base in the Beldanga-I block captures the precarious nature of labour migration in the district.

Mal Pahariya Adivasis have scattered settlements in many districts of West Bengal, and Murshidabad alone is home to 14,064 of them. “Our community traces our original place of dwelling in the areas surrounding the Rajmahal Hills. Our people migrated to different areas in Jharkhand [where the Rajmahals are located] and West Bengal,” says Ramjeevan Ahari, a scholar and activist of the community from Dumka, Jharkhand.

In Jharkhand, unlike in West Bengal, Mal Pahariyas are registered as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG), confirms Ramjeevan. “The differing status of the same community in different states reflects each government’s stand on the community’s vulnerability,” he adds.

“The people here need us to work on their farms,” says Malati explaining why they live in the settlement away from home. “During sowing and cutting [harvest time] we make 250 rupees a day.” Now and then they even get a small part of a fresh harvest from a generous farmer, she adds.

There is a severe dearth of local farm workers in Murshidabad as large numbers of wage labourers from the district move out in search of work. Adivasi farmers fill in that demand to some extent. Farm workers from Beldanga I block charge up to Rs. 600 a day while the inter- taluka migrant Adivasi labourers, largely women, work for half of that wage.

“Once the harvested onions are brought from the fields to the village, we do the next level of work,” explains Anjali Mal, a lean, young onion cutter just 19 years of age.

PHOTO • Smita Khator
PHOTO • Smita Khator

Left: Anjali Mal in front of her makeshift hut. She wants her daughter to go to school, an opportunity she herself never had. Right: Onion sacks being loaded onto trucks to be sent to markets across and beyond West Bengal

They ready the onions to be sold to the phariyas (middlemen) and for transportation to far off places across and beyond the state. “We separate the bulbs from the stems with a sickle, throw away loose peels, soil and roots. Then we collect and put them in sacks,” Anjali continues. For a sack weighing 40 kilograms, they earn 20 rupees. “The more we work, the more we earn. So, we end up working all the time. It’s different from working in the fields,” where hours are rather fixed.

Sadhan Mondal, Suresh Mondal, Dhonu Mondal and Rakhohori Biswas, all in their late 40s, are some of the farmers in Bishurpukur who hire the Adivasis. They say there is a need for agri-labourers, “on and off,” through the year. A demand that peaks during crop seasons. It is mostly Mal Pahariyas and Santhal Adivasi women who come to the villages in these areas for work, the farmers tell us. And they seem unanimous on this: “Without them, we won’t be able to sustain farming.”

The work is really demanding. “We hardly get time to cook any lunch…” says Malati while her hands are busy with onions. “Bela hoye jay. Konomote duto chal phutiye ni . Khabar-dabarer anek daam go . [It gets very late to eat. We quickly boil a little rice somehow. Food items are so costly].” Once farm work is done for the day, women have to get on to household chores: sweeping, washing cleaning before taking a bath and then rustling up dinner.

“We feel weak all the time,” she adds. The recent National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) tells us why. It shows rising levels of anaemia among all the women and children in the district. Also, 40 per cent of children here under the age of 5 are stunted.

Don’t they get their rations here?

“No, our ration cards are for our village. Our family members pick up our rations. When we visit our homes, we bring some foodgrain back with us,” Malati explains. She is referring to the provisions they’re entitled to under the Public Distribution System (PDS). “We try not to buy anything here and save as much as possible to send it back to our families,” she adds.

PHOTO • Smita Khator
PHOTO • Smita Khator

Mal Pahariya settlement in Bishurpukur, where 30 families of migrant agricultural workers live

The women are surprised to learn that nation-wide food security schemes like the One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC) can actually benefit internal migrants like them. “No one ever told us about it. We are not educated. How will we know?” asks Malati.

“I never went to school,” says Anjali. “My mother died when I was only five. Father abandoned us – three daughters. Our neighbours raised us,” she says. All three sisters began working as farm labourers at an early age and were married off in their teens. Anjali at 19 is the mother of 3-year-old Ankita. “I never studied. Somehow learned to do only naam-soi [signature],” she says. And adds that most of the teenagers in the community are school dropouts. Many of her generation are unlettered.

“I don’t want my daughter to end up like me. I wish I could put her in school next year. Otherwise she would learn nothing.” Her anxiety is palpable as she speaks.

Which school? Bishurpukur Primary School?

“No, our children don’t go to the schools here. Even the little ones don’t go to khichuri school [ anganwadi ],” she says. The discrimination and stigma that confronts the community, even in the face of the Right to Education Act (RTE), remains hidden within Anjali’s words. “Most kids that you see around here don’t go to school. Some of them back in Goas Kalikapur do. But they keep coming here to help us and so miss their classes.”

A 2022 study observes that the literacy rate among Mal Pahariyas in general, and among the women in particular, is alarmingly low at 49.10 per cent and 36.50 per cent respectively. The statewide literacy rate for Adivasis in West Bengal is 68.17 per cent for males and 47.71 percent for females.

I see girls as young as five or six helping their mothers and grandmothers collect onions and put them into cane baskets. Two boys in their teens are dumping the bulbs in turn from the baskets into large plastic sacks. The division of labour seems to respect age, gender and the physical strength involved in the task. “ Joto haat, toto bosta , toto taka [more hands, more sacks, more money],” Anjali puts it simply for me.

PHOTO • Smita Khator
PHOTO • Smita Khator

Children in the settlement don't go to school. Even those who do in their native village, miss school when they come here from time to time to help

Anjali is going to vote for the first time in the Lok Sabha elections. “I have voted in the gram panchayat polls. But first time for the big election!” she smiles. “I will go. All of us in this basti will go to our village to vote. Else they will forget us…”

Will you demand education for your children?

“Demand from whom?” Anjali pauses for a few moments and answers her own question. “We don’t have votes here [in Bishurpukur]. So, no one cares about us. And we don’t stay there all year [in Goas] so, we don’t have much say there either. Amra na ekhaner, na okhaner [we belong neither here nor there].”

She says that she does not know much about what to expect from the candidates in an election. “I only want to get Ankita admitted to a school when she turns five and I want to stay in the village with her. I don’t want to come back here. But who knows?” she sighs.

“We can’t survive without work,” says another young mother, Madhumita Mal, 19, echoing Anjali’s doubts. “Our kids will remain just like us if they are not put in schools,” she predicts with a painful certainty in her voice. The young mothers are unaware of special schemes like Ashram Hostel or Sikshashree , offered by the state; or  the Eklavya Model Day Boarding Schools (EMDBS) run by the Centre that aim to promote education among Adivasi children.

Even the Congress party ruling in Baharampur constituency, under which Bishurpukur village falls, since 1999 has done little for the education of tribal children. It is only in their 2024 manifesto that they promise residential schools in every block for the poor, especially those from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. But the women know nothing about any of these.

“If no one tells us about them, we will never know,” says Madhumita.

PHOTO • Smita Khator
PHOTO • Smita Khator

Left: Madhumita Mal in her hut with her son Avijit Mal. Right: Onions inside Madhumita’s hut

PHOTO • Smita Khator
PHOTO • Smita Khator

Left: Sonamoni Mal with her child outside her hut. Right: Sonamoni's children inside the hut. The one thing in abundance in these Mal Pahariya huts are onions, lying on the floor, hanging from the ceiling

“Didi, we have all cards – Voter ID card, Aadhaar card, job card, Swasthya Sathi insurance card, ration card,” says 19-year-old Sonamoni Mal.  She is another young mother desperate to get her two children into school. “I would vote. But this time my name is not there in the voter’s list.”

Vote diye abar ki labh hobe? [What will you get if you vote?] I have been voting for ages,” retorts Sabitri Mal (name changed) in her late 70s, releasing a peal of laughter among the women.

“All I get is an old age pension of 1,000 rupees. Nothing else. There is no work in our village, but we have our vote there,” says the septuagenarian. “For three years now, they have not given us eksho diner kaaj in our village,” complains Sabitri. She means the ‘100 days work’ as the MGNREGA scheme is locally known.

“The government has given a house to my family,” says Anjali, referring to the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana scheme. “But I can’t stay in it as we have no work there. If we had eksho diner kaaj , I would not have come here,” she adds.

Their extremely limited livelihood options have compelled many from this largely landless community to migrate to faraway places. Sabitri tells us that most young men from Goas Kalikapur go as far as Bengaluru or Kerala in search of work. Men after a certain age prefer to work closer to their village, but there are not enough farm jobs there. Many earn by working in the brick kilns in their block, Raninagar I.

“Women who don’t want to work in brick kilns go to other villages with young children,” says Sabitri. “At this age I cannot work in bhata [kilns]. To put something in my stomach, I have started coming here. Old ones like me in our camp also have a few goats. I take them for grazing,” she adds. Whenever someone from their group can manage, they “go to Goas to bring back food grains. We are poor; we cannot buy anything.”

What happens once the onion season is over? Will they return to Goas?

PHOTO • Smita Khator
PHOTO • Smita Khator

Once the onions are harvested, the farm labourers clean, sort and pack the onions and get them ready to be sold

PHOTO • Smita Khator
PHOTO • Smita Khator

Left: In the afternoon, the labourers pause for lunch near the fields. Right: Malati with her goat and the onion sacks she has packed

“After the onions are cut and packed, it’s time for sowing sesame, jute and a bit of khorar dhaan [paddy cultivated in the dry season],” says Anjali. In fact, “more and more Adivasis including children join their community settlements to make quick cash” from this time of the year till mid-June, with a surge in the demand for farmwork, she says.

Farm employment hits a lean period between crop cycles leaving them with fewer days of wage work, explains the young farm labourer. But unlike footloose migrants, they stay there and don’t return to their native village. “We do jogarer kaaj, thhike kaaj [work as helpers to the masons, contract work], whatever we can manage. We have built these huts and stay here. For each hut we pay 250 rupees a month to the landowner,” says Anjali.

“No one ever comes here to check on us. No leader, no one…You go have a look,” says Sabitri.

I walk through a narrow unpaved road towards the hutment. Sonali, 14, is my guide. She is carrying water in a 20-litre bucket to her hut. “I went for a bath in the pond and filled this bucket. No running water in our basti . The pond is dirty. But what to do?” The water body she refers to is about 200 metres away from the settlement. It’s the same one where retting of harvested jute crop – separation of fibres from the stem – takes place in monsoon. The water is infested with bacteria and chemicals harmful to humans.

“This is our home. I live here with baba ,” she says walking into a hut to change into dry clothes. I wait outside. The cabin made of bamboo twigs and jute sticks loosely tied together is covered with a layer of mud and cow dung on the inside and barely allows any privacy. A roof of bamboo slices and straw covered with tarpaulin sheets rest on the bamboo poles.

“You want to come inside?” asks Sonali shyly while combing her hair. In the fading daylight passing through the gaps between the sticks, the insides of the 10 x 10 feet hut stand bare. “Ma lives in Goas with my brothers and sisters,” she says. Her mother works in one of the brick kilns in Raninagar I block.

“I miss my home a lot. My maternal aunt has also come here with her daughters. At night I sleep with her,” says Sonali, who had to drop out after Class 8 to work in the fields.

PHOTO • Smita Khator
PHOTO • Smita Khator

Left: Sonali Mal happily poses for a photo outside her hut . Right: The belongings inside her hut. Hardwork here certainly is no key to success

I look around the hut as Sonali goes to hang the clothes she has washed at the pond. A few utensils on a makeshift bench in the corner, a plastic bucket with a tight lid to keep rice and other essentials safe from the neighbourhood rodents, a few plastic water cans of different sizes and an earthen stove embedded in the mud floor, mark the cooking area.

A few clothes hang here and there, a mirror and comb tucked in the wall at another corner, a rolled-up plastic mat, a mosquito net and an old blanket – all rest on a bamboo positioned diagonally from one wall to the other. Clearly, hard work is no key to success here. The one thing that is in abundance, a testimony to a father and his teenage daughter’s hard work, are onions – lying on the floor, hanging from the top.

“Let me show you our toilet,” says Sonali as she walks in. I follow her, and after crossing a few huts, reach a narrow 32-feet-stretch at one corner of the settlement. An open 4 x 4 feet space covered with stitched plastic grain storage sheets make the wall of their ‘toilet.’ “This is where we urinate and use open spaces a little away from here to defecate,” she says. As I try to take a step ahead, she cautions me not to go any further lest my foot lands on faecal matter.

The non-existent sanitation in the basti reminds me of the colourfully illustrated messages of Mission Nirmal Bangla I saw on my way to this Mal Pahariya settlement . The posters boast of the state government’s sanitation project as well as about Madda’s open-defecation-free gram panchayat.

“It’s so hard during periods. We often have infections. How can we manage without water? And the pond water is full of dirt and mud,” Sonali says, putting aside shame and hesitation.

Where do you get water to drink?

“We buy from a [private] water supplier. He charges 10 rupees to refill a 20-litre jar. He comes in the evening and waits at the main road. We must carry those big jars to our huts.”

PHOTO • Smita Khator
PHOTO • Smita Khator

Left: The area in the settlement used as a toilet. Right: Mission Nirmal Bangla graffiti in Bishurpukur hamlet boasts of Madda’s open-defecation-free gram panchayat

PHOTO • Smita Khator
PHOTO • Smita Khator

Left: The polluted p ond that Mal Pahariya farm workers use for bathing, washing clothes and cleaning utensils. Right: Drinking water in the community has to be bought from a private water supplier for a charge

“Would you like to meet my friend?” she asks with a sudden cheer in her voice. “This is Payel. She is older than I am. But we are friends.” Sonali introduces me to her newlywed 18-year-old friend, sitting on the ground at the cooking area of her hut and preparing dinner. Payel Mal’s husband works as a migrant worker at construction sites in Bengaluru.

“I keep coming and going. My mother-in-law lives here,” says Payel. “It’s lonely in Goas. So, I come and stay with her. My husband has been gone for a long time now. Don’t know when he is coming back. Probably for elections,” she says. Sonali reveals that Payel is expecting a child and it’s already been five months. Payel blushes.

Do you get medicines and supplements here?

“Yes, I get iron tablets from one of the ASHA didis ,” she replies. “My mother-in-law took me to the [ICDS] centre. They gave me some medicines. My feet often get swollen and ache a lot. Here we have no one to do any checkup. I will go back to Goas once the onion work is over.”

For any medical emergency, women rush to Beldanga town – about 3 kilometres from here. For over-the-counter medicines and first aid supplies they have to go to Makrampur market, about one kilometre from the settlement. Both Payel and Sonali’s families have Swasthya Sathi cards, but they say they “face a lot of difficulties in getting treatment during emergencies.”

While we talk, the kids of the settlement keep running around us. Ankita and Milon, both 3 years old, and Debraj, 6, show us their toys. Jugaad toys, hand-made by these little wizards with the magical power of innovation. “We don’t have a TV here. I play games on my baba’s mobile sometimes. I miss the cartoons.” Debraj, in a blue and white Argentina football t-shirt lodges his complaint.

All children in the basti seem malnourished. “They always suffer from fever and stomach problems,” says Payel. “And the mosquitos are another problem,” says Sonali. “Once we are inside the mosquito net, we don’t get out even if hell breaks down on our heads.” Both friends burst into laughter. Madhumita joins them.

PHOTO • Smita Khator
PHOTO • Smita Khator

Left: P ayel and Sonali Mal (right) share a lighter moment after a hard day of work. Right: Payel has just turned 18 and is yet to register as a voter

PHOTO • Smita Khator
PHOTO • Smita Khator

Left: Bhanu Mal at the work site. ' Bring some hariya [traditional liquor made from fermented rice] and fries. I will sing you a song in Pahariya,'  she says. Right: The children in the migrant settlement make toys using their magical powers of innovation

I once again try to ask them about the elections. “We will go. But you know, no one comes here to meet us. We go because our elders think voting is important.” Madhumita speaks candidly. It’s her first time as well. Payel’s name has yet to come on to the voter’s list as she has just turned 18. “Four years later I will be like them,” adds Sonali. “I will also vote then. But unlike them I will not get married so soon.” Another round of laughter breaks out.

As I start to leave the settlement, the laughter of these young women, the playful shouts of the kids fade, and the loud voices of the women onion cutters take over. They have completed the day’s work.

“Is there anyone in your basti who speaks your Mal Pahariya language?” I ask.

“Bring some hariya [traditional liquor made from fermented rice] and fries. I will sing you a song in Pahariya,” says Bhanu Mal teasingly. The 65-year-old widowed farm worker goes on to say a few lines in her language and then adds little affectionately, “you come to Goas if you want to hear our language.”

“Do you also speak it?” I turn towards Anjali who looks a little bewildered on hearing this unusual question about her bhasha. “Our language? No. Only old ones in Goas speak in our bhasha . Here people laugh at us. We have forgotten our language. We only speak Bangla.”

As Anjali joins the rest of the women walking towards the basti she says, “In Goas, we have our home and everything, and here we have work. Age bhat vote, bhasa sab tar pore [Rice first, and then vote, language and everything else].”
Smita Khator

Smita Khator is the Chief Translations Editor, PARIBhasha, the Indian languages programme of People's Archive of Rural India, (PARI). Translation, language and archives have been her areas of work. She writes on women's issues and labour.

Other stories by Smita Khator
Editor : Pratishtha Pandya

Pratishtha Pandya is a Senior Editor at PARI where she leads PARI's creative writing section. She is also a member of the PARIBhasha team and translates and edits stories in Gujarati. Pratishtha is a published poet working in Gujarati and English.

Other stories by Pratishtha Pandya