"When they come to ask for votes, we will tell them, ‘first give us pension’.”

Litati Murmu is speaking to PARI seated on a datti (platform) outside her mud house in Burutola, a hamlet in the village of Kusumdih in Jharkhand’s Dumka district.

“We’ll demand houses and pensions this time,” chimes in Sharmila Hembram, her neighbour and friend who is sitting next to her.

“This is the only time they will come,” she adds jokingly, referring to the political leaders. When they do show up before the polls, they usually pay the people in the village. “They [political parties] give us 1,000 rupees, 500 goes to the gents and 500 to us,” says Sharmila.

The money means something to the two women as government schemes and benefits have largely eluded both of them. Litati’s husband passed away suddenly in 2022 and Sharmila’s husband died in 2023 after a month’s illness. The grieving women say they have each other when they set out for work, a matter of comfort to both.

When they lost their husbands, Litati and Sharmila tried to avail of the widow pension scheme – under the Sarvajan Pension Yojana scheme , a widow above the age of 18 is entitled to a monthly pension of Rs. 1,000. A frustrated Litati says, “We filled out many forms and even went to the mukhiya [village head], but got nothing.”

PHOTO • Ashwini Kumar Shukla
PHOTO • Courtesy: Sharmila Hembram

Left: Lakhi Hasaru (left), Litati Murmu (middle) and Sharmila Hembram (right) sitting on a datti (platform) outside Litati’s mud house in Kusumdih village, Jharkhand. Litati and Sharmila, who belong to the Santhal tribal community, are both daily wage labourers. Right: Sharmila's husband passed away in 2023. She tried to avail of the pension scheme for widows under the Sarvajan Pension Yojana, but failed.

Not just pensions, but even homes under central schemes houses under PMAY (Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana) elude the largely (43 per cent) tribal communities of predominantly Santhal, Paharia and Mahli (Census 2011). “Go around this entire village, sir, and you’ll see no one has colony [a house under PMAY ],” Sharmila says, making her point.

Around seven kilometres from Kusumdih, in the village of Hijla, Niruni Marandi and her husband Rubila Hansda received a gas cylinder under the Ujjwala Yojana scheme before the Covid-19 lockdown but, “the 400-rupee gas cylinder now costs 1,200 rupees. How will we fill it?” asks Niruni.

Other government schemes such as Nal Jal Yojana and Ayushman Bharat Yojana, as well as assured incomes through MGNREGA, have not reached their village located only two kilometres from Dumka city, the district headquarters. Many hand pumps in the village have run dry. One resident of Hijla told this reporter that his family walks to the river, a kilometre away, to fetch water.

The job market is running dry as well. “[Narendra] Modi has been in power for 10 years. How many jobs has he [as Prime Minister] given to the youth? So many government posts are vacant,” says Rubila, who is a daily-wage labourer. Their two-acre farm-land, where they used to grow paddy, wheat and maize, has not been cultivated for three years because of severe droughts. “We used to buy rice for 10-15 rupees a kilo, now it’s 40 rupees a kilo,” Rubila says.

Rubila has been a polling agent for the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) for many years. He has seen Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) fail multiple times. “Sometimes the machine breaks down. If you cast 10–11 votes, it works fine. But the twelfth vote might print the wrong paper,” says Rubila. He has a suggestion to make it better. “The process should be pressing the button, getting the paper, confirming it and putting it in the box, just like the earlier system,” he says.

PHOTO • Ashwini Kumar Shukla
PHOTO • Ashwini Kumar Shukla

Left: Many hand pumps in Kusumdih village have dried up. This is one of the working pumps from which Sharmila and Litati fetch water. Right: An Election Commission of India poster in Dumka town encouraging people to vote

PHOTO • Ashwini Kumar Shukla
PHOTO • Ashwini Kumar Shukla

Left: Rubila Hansda, a resident of Hijla, says there is anger among villagers after the arrest of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha leader Hemant Soren: 'This is politics, and the tribal community understands it well.'  Right: The family received a gas cylinder under the Ujjwala Yojana before the Covid-19 lockdown, but, 'the 400-rupee gas cylinder now costs 1,200 rupees. How will we fill it?' says Niruni Marandi, Rubila’s wife

The Lok Sabha seat here is reserved for a person from a Scheduled Tribe. The Dumka seat in Jharkhand was held by JMM founder Shibu Soren for eight terms until he lost to BJP’s (Bharatiya Janata Party) Sunil Soren in 2019. Now, BJP’s Sita Soren, Shibu Soren's eldest daughter-in-law, who switched from JMM to BJP two months ago, is contesting against JMM's Nalin Soren. JMM is part of the INDIA Alliance.

Discontent is also growing in this region after the arrest of Hemant Soren, the erstwhile chief minister of Jharkhand, on January 31, 2024 . The Enforcement Directorate arrested him in a money laundering case linked to an alleged land scam. Subsequently, he resigned from his post.

“This time, not a single vote from our village will go to the BJP,” says Rubila. “ Aaj apka sarkar hai to apne giraftar kar liya. Ye politics hai aur adivasi accha se samajhta hai [today your government is in power so you have arrested him, this is politics and the tribal community understands it well].”


In their thirties and from the Santhal tribal community, Litati and Sharmila do not own any land and work as adhiya (tenant farmers) during the agricultural season, receiving 50 per cent of the produce. But for the last three years, Sharmila says, “ eko dana kheti nahi hua hai [not a single field has been cultivated].” She makes do with her earnings from the five ducks she owns, selling the eggs at the local weekly haat (market) in Dasoraydih, five kilometres away.

The rest of the year they mostly work at construction sites in Dumka town, around four kilometres from their village, paying Rs. 20 for the roundtrip on a toto (electric rickshaw). “We earn 350 rupees a day,” Sharmila tells this reporter. “Everything has become expensive. We have to manage somehow.”

Litati agrees, “we earn a little and eat a little,” she adds, gesturing with her hands. “If there is no work, we’ll have to eat maadh-bhat [rice and starch].” In any case, there is no work available in their tola , the women say.

PHOTO • Ashwini Kumar Shukla
PHOTO • Ashwini Kumar Shukla

Left: With no work in the village and families to take care of, Litati (sitting) and Sharmila (green blouse) travel to Dumka in search of work. 'We do whatever work we get,' Litati, who lost her husband in 2022, says. Right: Litati and Sharmila live in Burutola, a hamlet in Kusumdih in Dumka district. Forty-three per cent of Dumka's population belongs to tribal communities and the Lok Sabha seat here is reserved for a person from a Scheduled Tribe

Here in Dumka district, the livelihood of the tribal communities is dependent on cultivation or related work, or government schemes. The only government scheme the families benefit from is five kilograms of ration through the public distribution system.

The women don’t have labour cards in their name. “Last year, people came to make the card [labour card], but we weren't home; we had gone to work. No one came back after that,” says Sharmila. Without a card, they cannot work at Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MNREGA) sites.

“We do whatever work we get,” says Litati and adds, “ jyada dhone ka kam milta hai, kahi ghar ban raha hai, to eata dho diye, balu dho diye [we mostly get work carrying things; if a house is being constructed, we carry bricks and sand].”

But there is no guarantee as Sharmila says. “Some days you get work, some days you don’t. Sometimes, you might not get work for two or three days in a week.” She got her last job four days ago. Like Litati, Sharmila is also the sole earning member in her house where she lives with her in-laws and three children.

The women’s work begins early when they set out to collect water from the only functional handpump in the tola which serves over 50 houses. Then they cook and do other household chores before setting off with their spades and plastic baskets to find work. They also bring along their nettho – a small cushion made from cement sacks that they put on their heads before placing a weight on it.

PHOTO • Ashwini Kumar Shukla
PHOTO • Ashwini Kumar Shukla

Left: Sharmila and Litati's children are looked after by their grandparents when the women go out to work. Right: The children playing inside Sharmila's house

When the women go to Dumka to look for work, their children are taken care of by their grandparents who live with them.

“If there’s no work, there’s nothing at home. The days we earn, we can manage to buy a few vegetables,” says Litati, a mother of three. In the first week of May, when she went to the market to buy vegetables, the price of potatoes was 30 rupees a kilo. “ Daam dekh kar matha kharab ho gaya [the price made my head spin],” she says, turning to Sharmila.

“Give us some work like jhadu-pocha [sweeping or mopping],” Litati says to this PARI reporter, “so we don’t have to wander around every day; we’ll get work in one place.” She also mentions that most people in their village are in the same situation, only a few have government jobs.

Sharmila agrees: “ Neta log vote ke liye aata hai, aur chala jata hai, hamlog oisehi jas ka tas [politicians come for votes and then leave; our situation stays the same]...”

Ashwini Kumar Shukla

Ashwini Kumar Shukla is a freelance journalist based in Jharkhand and a graduate of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (2018-2019), New Delhi. He is a PARI-MMF fellow for 2023.

Other stories by Ashwini Kumar Shukla
Editor : Sarbajaya Bhattacharya

Sarbajaya Bhattacharya is a Senior Assistant Editor at PARI. She is an experienced Bangla translator. Based in Kolkata, she is interested in the history of the city and travel literature.

Other stories by Sarbajaya Bhattacharya