"Our homes used to be full of paddy during the festival. But there was nothing this year. It was all empty," Mathura Dharua told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "More than half the people have migrated. But I don't know brick kiln work and I feel weak. I have never left this village and I can't leave now," Dharua said.
Odisha's western region has been grappling with scanty rainfall for years, but the rain deficit in the last three years has worsened three-fold, officials say. A "normal" monsoon rain in Balangir district - the amount received decades back - is nearly 1,200 mm, they say. But in the last two decades, rainfall has declined substantially, worsening in the last few years, said Sarat Chandra Sahu, director of the weather office in Odisha. In 2017, Balangir district recorded just 840mm of rain. farms have withered and farmers departed, villagers who stayed behind have turned to forests in the area to survive, felling teak trees for wood to sell to traders and clearing the land to cultivate heat-resilient cotton. The loss of green has turned villages warmer, and the sudden showers that once moistened the land have stopped, said officials at Odisha's forest and weather departments.
"Any distress migration in any part of the world is rooted in hunger and suffering, and those left behind suffer the most," said Umi Daniel, a migration expert and regional head of Aide et Action International. "The families left behind in villages like Kharkhara are more vulnerable. They have poor access to food and their kin leave only a little money with them," said Daniel, who has been tracking migration from western Odisha to the brick kilns. "The older people who die here in these villages, (it's) often because no one is there to take care of them," he said.
Kumar Gwal, one of those who has remained in Kharkhara, said the decision to stay was not an easy one. Standing on his two-acre farm, under the beating afternoon sun, he said that until three years ago the land yielded enough rice to feed his family of six for most of the year. He took the odd job or a bit of daily wage work for a little money, he said, "but always had peace of mind as there was food at home". But over the last three years, as the crops failed, Gwal has had to rely almost entirely on daily labouring to survive. He makes 100 to 150 rupees ($1.50-$2.30) a day and worries about his family going hungry.
"The agents tell me that if I leave to work in a brick kiln, I will make 100,000 Indian rupees ($1,500) in cash advance," he said - enough, he thinks, to buy a motorcycle and build a concrete house in the village. About 20 km from Kharkhara is Kantabanji town, where workers are offered a cash loan based onthe number of able-bodied members in their families who can come to work at the brick kiln. Such debt bondage in brick kilns has been going on since 1987 for lack of other job opportunities, said Bishnu Sharma, a lawyer based in Kantabanji who helps migrant workers. "But it is increasing every year," he added.
Unlike Gwal, however, most villagers who remain in Kharkhara have stayed because they are too old to work in the brick kilns. Dozens of frail, elderly people sit hunched outside their huts, staring blankly at rows of locked doors.