By Azera Parveen Rahman
In a village in Odisha, while some households are completely taken care of by women all throughout, others become women-dependent for every little thing for at least five months in the year. This is when men in the age group of 20-45 ‘disappear’ or migrate from their homes soon after the paddy harvest. In the Sitalpur village of the coastal district of Odisha’s Bhadrak, the number of women-dependent households are slowly on the rise. The village then has mostly women, children, and the elderly left behind. But where do those men go? “To the big cities in search of work as daily wage earners or for permanent jobs, because agriculture cannot sustain us fully anymore,” said Anjali Naik, whose husband left home three years back to work in a factory in Bengaluru.
Erratic weather pushes migration of farmers
The first sign of the problem arose about eight years back. “Cyclones, that used to come once every few years, started coming more frequently. Floods became more unpredictable and more ravaging. With our crops destroyed partially or fully, like during Phailin in 2013, we suffered heavy losses,” Anjali said. “There was no way to compensate for the losses during the summer months because the land salinity increases during summer and nothing can grow on it. That is why my husband decided to look for work outside,” she said.
Increase of workload on women
This decision however came at a heavy cost for Anjali. While her husband did provide financial support, the entire responsibility of running the household and taking care of the family fell on her shoulders. She also had to tend to the crops on their five-acre land. “My husband comes home during the (paddy) planting season and then again during harvest. But in between, I have to tend to the crops, supervise the hired help while spraying pesticides and completing other such work,” she said. A run-through of her daily schedule sounds exhausting – her day begins at 5 a.m. with cleaning of the house. She tends to the cattle, visits their paddy farm, and comes home to prepare tiffin for her three children – all before 9 a.m. “My husband works hard and earns Rs 15,000 a month. He sends us most of it. But I also work very hard – I have to take care of things both outside and inside the house,” she said.
Like Anjali, Padmini Naik’s is also a woman-led household in the same village. “When our second child was born five years back, my husband decided that the only way he could afford us a proper life was by working outside,” Padmini said sitting on the veranda of her newly-constructed house. Sada Shiva Naik, her husband, was once a farmer who later migrated to Delhi to work in a garment factory.
“We have one and half acre of land. But agriculture couldn’t sustain us,” Padmini said, “We have now given that land on lease to someone else.” Evidently, it is not easy to run the house on her own. Padmini’s children are aged nine and five, and she also has her mother-in-law staying with them. “I have to do everything around. Cook and clean, get groceries, take the children to the doctor when they fall ill, everything,” she said, “Sometimes I wish he was here or we could go to the city to be with him. But if my husband comes back, how will we raise our children well? And if we go there, won’t the expenditures increase?” she asks, more to herself.
In the meantime, Kanchan Biswal, Padmini’s neighbour, came and sat next to her. “I asked my 20-year-old son to go out of the village to the city, to look for work. My husband has a kidney ailment and our medical expenditures are very high. We have a one and half acre land but agriculture, particularly now, when we have a cyclone almost every year and floods, doesn’t bring in enough money,” she said. Samiranjan, her son, earns Rs 10,000 from his job in Bengaluru and sends home between Rs 5,000-8,000 every month. “I don’t want him to get into farming, no. My husband does it when he’s ok, but that’s it,” she sounded determined.
Seasonal migration not uncommon
Not all farmers of Sitalpur have, however, migrated for permanent jobs. Many opt for seasonal migration to the cities after their paddy is harvested and return on time before the monsoons, when the paddy planting season begins. During this interlude it’s the women – mostly their wives – who take on additional responsibilities.
Satyaranjan Naik has been migrating seasonally after the paddy harvest for the last eight years. “I can go anywhere — Chennai, Bengaluru, anywhere. It depends where the contractor informs me of work availability. If I finish work in one place, I may move to another city and then come home during monsoons,” he said. Satyaranjan is not married but his brother, Manoranjan, who works as a data entry operator in Mumbai, is. “I take leave and come home during harvest to help out at home,” Manoranjan said. Once harvest is over and both the brothers are gone, it’s only their elderly mother and Manoranjan’s wife and children left behind at home.
“It feels lonely, but now I am getting used to my husband’s absence,” Shantilata Naik, Manoranjan’s wife said, “There are so many of us like this in the village. In fact, all other villages around here have similar situations.” Shantilata is not alone in such a situation, nor is Sitalpur unique. The impacts of climate change has hardly left anyone untouched. All these ‘disappearing’ men are farmers, and as Satyaranjan explained later, erratic weather pattern is the main reason why they can no longer rely on agriculture for a living.