PUCL Bulletin,

April 1985

Special Article

Palamur migrant labour in mica mining
-- By Subrahmanyam

Palamur is a small village of a little over thousand people in the Atmakur taluk of Mehbubnagar district in the Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh. Mehbubnagar is characterised by little agricultural development and almost no industrial development. The Government describes it as one of the most backward districts of Telangana. Not more than 2,000 workers are employed in the few registered factories in this district. This district also has the lowest rainfall in the state. Palamur and the other villages of Atmakur taluk are as a result severely drought ridden areas.

It was from these conditions that the first batch of labourers migrated in the early 1950s in search of work. Eventually, Mahbubnagar, especially Atmakur taluk, became the chief suppliers of migrant labour to all kinds of unskilled, seasonal and contractual work all over the state and to an extent even to the neighbouring state of Karnataka. Today, all these migrant labour are known as PALAMUR LEBAR (as they pronounce it in Telugu). The condition of employment and living conditions of Palamur labour in the Mica Mining Industry obtained through personal visits to the Gudur regional (Andhra Pradesh) is the theme of this paper.

Mica Mining Industry
The Mica production in India is confined to Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan. Bihar contributes around 60% to the country's production, Andhra Pradesh 30% and Rajasthan 10%. The industry is over a hundred years old and employs nearly 12% of the total mining labour. The mica belt of Andhra Pradesh, located in the Nellore district, extends for about 96 kms from South of Gudur to Udaygiri.

In the 1970's production as well ad employment dwindled by over 50%. However, with as much as over 90% of the country's production being exported and the export volume being the same this decline in production indicates a significant under reporting of production. Along with this, the labour employed was also under reported. Mica owners do not report casual and temporary workers on the rolls and do not show them in their statutory returns to the Director General of Mines safety. In one of the A.P. mines the owners were reporting only 251 workers, whereas they were employing over 400 workers. Besides under reporting in the production by the established mines, illegal mining is also quite prevalent. This illegal mining affects the workers employed in such mines in so far as their wages and welfare benefits are concerned. Under reporting in production is done mainly to evade the royalty; in mica's case the royalty payment is gradewise. Production and employment details from 1975 to 1979 are as follows:

Andhra Pradesh
 All India
Year Production Employment Production Employment
1975 3,584 2,652 11,461 10,235
1976 2,834 2,088 9,470 8,174
1977 3,913 1,920 9,332 6,218
1978 3,067 1,955 9,583 6,915
1979 2,633 1,496 9,073 5,970


Employment in the mica mining industry includes employment in processing units. Mica processing units are operated by three agencies in this industry: the mica owners, the dealers who work as middlemen between the mine owner and the exporters. All these agencies besides having their own workers, also use home splitters. The total workforce with all the agencies, consists of over one lakh workers, three-fourth of whicha re home splitters. Almost all the workers in the processing units are employed as temporary and casual workers. Except a few big factories, none of the units report employment over 20 people.

One of the common malpractices is to employ workers on a temporary basis even though the mine is under continuous working. In Andhra Pradesh, the casual workers are listed in a 'B' register. These 'B' registers are the muster rolls for workers who have been working for more than three months. To avoid the statutory requirements, of converting a temporary labourer into a permanent one after three months of continuous working, the names of the workers along with the names of their parents are altered every three months. Thus a mine owner avoids paying the minimum wages, provident fund, bonus and other benefits.

In Andhra Pradesh, in some cases, the semi processing of the crude mica is done in the factories attached to the mines. The workers employed in these factories, as they are treated at par with the mining workers, come under the central minimum wage regulations. To contravene this situation, the mine owners have floated new concerns and brought the factories under them. These new concerns registered under the Factories Act have to follow only the states' minimum wage regulations. A worker who used to get Rs.6.65 per day in the earlier stage, is not getting only Rs. 3.60 per day in the changed situation.

Palamur Labour
The workers from Palamur came to the Gudur mining areas for the first time in 1964. Since then, the demand for them has been steady. Presently, around 30% of the 2,000 odd mica mining workers in the Gudur mica belt, are the Palamur labour. The mine owners prefer to employ the Palamur labour rather than the local labour because: (a) being migrant workers, working under a contractor (Sirdar), they will be out of the purview of the unions and as such, as far as the management is concerned, they would not be a source of management-labour disputes; (b) they work harder under the supervision of their contractor and (c) the mine owners save on such cash disbursement as Provident Fund, Bonus etc.

The mine owners approach the regular contractors (sirdars) whenever they need more workers. The contractor pays an advance of Rs.500 to each worker, man or woman, at their native village (s). Incidentally, almost all the contractors hail from the same villages as the workers. The workers sign a promissory note for the advance and collate the small property they hold at the village (cattle or marginal land holdings). After bringing them to the mine site, the contractor keeps them in a single hall like dwelling like a herd of sheep'. Generally each contractor brings the workers in gangs ranging from 30 to 50 workers.

The mine management pays the daily wages of these workers, directly to the contractor. The contractor thus receives Rs.12 per day for a driver or a skilled worker and Rs.8 per day for an unskilled worker. As against this, the contractor pays the worker only Rs.80 to 100 per month. A portion of even this money, is adjusted against the advance given to the worker. Apart from this, the contractor gives three meals a day to the workers. The staple is rice served with tamarind juice a combination known to reduce the intake of rice per meal. They are also given two bundles of beedies, one small piece of washing soap and a little hair oil, every fortnight. The total payments, including the food and other items, works out to Rs.150 per month. As against this, the contractor gets Rs.208 for each unskilled worker and Rs.250 for each skilled worker.

The workers have to invariably do odd jobs, if they can find any, to earn cash for their petty expenses. In case they are unable to find these jobs, they are forced to take fresh loans from their contractors. These loans get added to their already existing advances (loans). When the workers fall ill and are required to stay away from work, the contractor deducts the wages for those days from the money he is supposed to be adjusting against their advance.

The Palamur workers, work for a period of six months, February to July, and return to their villages to do sowing in their marginal farms. They come back again in October to work for three months, October-December, and go back again for harvesting. Thus, the Palamur labour in the Gudur mica belt are basically seasonal migrant labour.

India yet to sign UN Convention
So far, India has not signed the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. However, 21 countries signed the Convention at a ceremony in New York marking the opening of the document for signatures on 4 February.

The states represented were: Afghanistan, Argentina, Belgium, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, France, Iceland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Senegal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland.

By signing, these have expressed their intention to become parties to the Convention. It comes into force when 20 states do in fact become parties, by ratifying it (if they have already signed) or acceding to it (if they have not).

The Convention defines torture as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person to obtain information or a confession; to punish, intimidate or coerce; or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a person acting in an official capacity."

(See PUCL BULLETIN February, 1985)

Though the workers are aware of the minimum wages etc. they come with the contractor rather than on their own because the contractor pays them the advance. This is a significant factor in view of their perpetual indebtedness. Almost all these workers are in debt to the local traders (Sahukars). All the loans are consumption loans and the high interest rates (upto 5% per month) ensure that the loans are never repaid. The trader won't allow the worker to leave the village unless part of this loan or atleast the interest is paid. So, the worker depends upon the contractor's advance to make payment to the trade. He works for six months only for the meagre food and returns to find that the consumption needs of his family were met by more debts from the trader.

As all these workers are illiterate, they cannot make out how his earnings are adjusted against the advance and what deductions are made and why they are made. Even if they understand these machinations, they cannot question the contractor. As a result, after six months, during which period the worker should have repaid the advance he has taken from the contractor, he would still be owing the contractor. The balance which the worker still owes the contractor, gets adjusted in the next instalment of advance. Also till the advance is settled, the worker is obliged to work with the contractor.

Thus, he perpetually remains in the vicious circle of indebtedness (both to the village trader and the contractor) lower income and high interest rate.

Mica Mines Labour Welfare Organisation (MMLWO)
The Micra Mines Labour Welfare Act, 1946 provided for setting up of the Mica Mines Labour Welfare Organisation. Under the Act, source of funds was provided to the MMLWO by imposing a cess on exports of mica. The cess rate, at present is 3.5% on the total value of exports.

The MMLWO's activities are related to the areas of health, education, housing, water supply and vocational training. Other activities are: providing recreational facilities, accident benefits, cooperative stores etc.
Though the MMLWO's objectives are quite appreciable in the actual situation, the welfare benefits are rendered in a very very marginal way. The significant reason for this is the exceptionally high administrative and establishment expenses of the MMLU and also the general indifferent attitude of its administrators. As much as 80% of the total MMLWO's money is spent on the administration and establishment. Naturally, as a result, very little is left for actual expenditure in medicines, hospital supplies, schools and other facilities run by the MMLWO.

The MMLWO's facilities are available only to the mine workers. (though the cess is imposed on the processed mica, the process workers are not covered by the MMLWO). The irony is that the mine workers who are retrenched because they had silicosis (T.B.) which is an occupational disease in this mining area are also not covered by MMLWO. When in 1946, this Act was formulated, it was mainly to protect the workers from this occupational hazard. Even for the casual and temporary workers, under which category the Palamur labour comes, to get the MMLWO's facilities is difficult. Definitely they won't get housing facilities. Every time they need medical attention they have to carry a slip from the mine management that they are working in the mines, but the workers who are enrolled in the 'B' register do not get it easily.

There exists a very low state of unionisation in the Gudur mica belt. There are two unions; the Mica Mazdoor Sangh, affiliated to BMS and the A.P.Mica Mine Workers Union affiliated to AITUC. While the former claims to have a membership of 1500, the later claims to have 1200 members. Both the unions are open to any mica worker whether he is engaged in mining or processing. Neither of the unions, however, involve splitters who work at home. Thus, out of the total of around 7,000 workers in mica mining and in mica processing, the membership claimed by the unions is significantly low. Both these unions are mild in their approach and do not really have a strong base.

It is rather an unpleasant task to conclude on this grim situation. The contract labour system that is prevalent in this mica belt is not a unique situation in the mining industry in this country. What is unfortunate is to find the unions, that exists in these areas, not taking any measures at all to fight against these sordid labour relations.

In the Andhra Pradesh mica belt, both the unions, know about the plight of the palamur labour. Both the unions, however, would not like to take up their cause. The unions don't even approach them for enrolment into their unions. When anybody asks them about this, they give all sorts of vague answers. The union people insist that the palamur workers themselves are not prepared to join the union as they are virtually under the strong control of the contractors.

The factors that inhibit the unions from taking up the problems and fight for these workers could be any one of the following two reasons:
a) The union which is supposed to have been started by a large mine owner, cannot naturally takeup the cause of Palamur labour, as this mine owner is the largest employer of the Palamur labour. He employs around 200 Palamur workers in his mine.

b) The fact that they are only seasonal migrant workers, (they can't provide a stable political base in the sense of being a solid vote bank in elections) would naturally be not useful for the political parties that control these unions.

Even the MMLWO's welfare measures don't reach the laborers. Also, many managers expect the workers to do their domestic work for granting this favour. In such a situation, the medical facility of MMLWO is as good as dead for these workers. Housing, the other major welfare activity, the MMLWO does for the mica mining workers, is also not available for the Palamur labour. MMLWO provides housing subsidies and other types of assistance only to regular workers and since Palamur labourers are not regular employees this facility is not available to them.

Thus these migrant labourers are neither considered by the unions that operate in this area not by the state's welfare measures.


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