Why Homi, 15, Has No Option But Work At A Mine In Rajasthan, 7 Days A Week

Rural women have few work options in the state and poverty does not allow them to study either

Even though it is a Sunday, Homi, 15, and a group of young girls from the tribal-dominated Berawal village in Udaipur had been called into work by the private mining company in Salumber tehsil. The stone and marble mines are about an hour-long walk from their homes, and the path winds through a jungle. 

In the mine, in clear violation of multiple labour laws, the girls do a variety of tasks in 8-hour shifts, seven days a week – they cut and drill stones, haul them to the trucks and clean the work area. It is backbreaking work and the girls say it makes them sick with respiratory issues and exhaustion. But they do not have a choice – they cannot continue their education because they need to earn for their family.

When we meet the girls, they are taking a break in a clearing in a forest that lies on their way home. It is 5pm and they look exhausted, especially Homi. For all the rigours of the day, she is neatly dressed in a printed kurta and blue printed skirt, a dupatta draped around her thin frame and a tidy bun framing her young face.

Homi was forced out of her school to work at the mine where her father is employed. Her mother cares for her two siblings and runs their home. She has just finished eating the meal she had packed for work. Did she make the food? “Who else?” she asks shyly. The girls are paid Rs 200 for their work. “We get the money at the end of the month, but not in full. We also work seven days a week,” she says.

This is the story of an adolescent from a rural, tribal community but even for adult women, the job market is a hostile place in many parts of Rajasthan. Social conservatism and patriarchal structures ensure that women are not encouraged to leave home and domestic and care-work responsibilities to seek employment, female literacy is low. In villages, women are mostly employed in agricultural and farming jobs where they are paid poorly.

Rajasthan, which goes to polls on Saturday, is dealing with acute and rising unemployment, especially among its women, data show. Those living in its rural pockets are finding it hard to get jobs other than farming. And women, who make up 47% of the electorate, told us they know nothing about the state schemes for employment launched in recent years by the government – the Work from Home scheme (2022) or the Shakti Udhyam Protsahan Yojana ).

Homi taking a break as she comes back from work in Berawal, Rajasthan/ Nikita Jain

Rajasthan has seen an increase in female labour force participation rate from 27% in 2017-18 to 36% in 2022-23. The female  worker to population ratio (WPR) i.e  proportion of population that is employed in the same period has increased from 26.3% to 46.5%. However, the unemployment rate in the state for females has risen from 2.3% in 2017-18 to 2.9% in 2022-23.

Prized Labour But Not Paid Enough

Every day brings long hours of work, first at home and then at the mine, for Homi. She wakes up at 4 am and finishes all the household work. “I finish breakfast by 8am and leave for work,” she says.

Berawal is hardly an exception, we find.

Rajasthan has 79 varieties of minerals and produces 9 % of the country’s total mineral production according to an report of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Natural stone is a key component of Rajasthan’s mining sector,  with high deposits of granite, marble, sandstone and unique decorative stones

Rajasthan has the country’s highest number of mining leases (33,031)—174 for major minerals, 15,280 for minor minerals, and 17,577 quarry licences—and most of these are in the small-scale and unorganised sector, reported the India forum. These mines employ a large population of young women who work under tedious and difficult conditions. 

Most women miners in Rajasthan belong to Dalit or  Adivasi communities. Women mine workers are underpaid, malnourished, exploited and often physically abused, as we found in our interviews. Women miners earned on average Rs 256 per day while men earned Rs 395 per day according to the ILO report on stone quarrying in Rajasthan. The rates, noted the report, were usually higher for physically stronger workers (such as young males) and significantly less for older workers, women and those with health conditions.

In stone mines, women assist with cutting and drilling of the stones, carry them for cleaning, clear the work area and serve food and water to the mine workers. Contractors seek out flexible, petite adolescents to go into the mine if required because they are petite and flexible adolescents to do the job, we were told by social activists like Narula.

Scheme After Scheme

Aware of the issues relating to unemployment, in the run-up to the election, Ashok Gehlot approved a proposal to increase the minimum wage rates by Rs 26 per day for each category. Earlier, the minimum wage decided by the state’s department of labour and employment for different categories was: unskilled – Rs 259, skilled – Rs 283, semi-skilled – Rs 271 and highly skilled – Rs 333. 

Last year, the Rajasthan government launched ‘Mahila Nidhi’, a loan scheme for the social and economic development of women who are poor or come from disadvantaged social groups. Under the scheme, easy credit will be available to women to set up and start new businesses.

But neither the group of girls we met near Berawal nor any woman in search of employment in the state who we interviewed knew of these programmes.

It has been estimated that an area near Udaipur’s Relpatliya village contains 1 million tonnes of resources containing 80-95% barium sulfate used in diagnostic procedures. The Salumber-Manpur-Ghatol sector in Udaipur bears features of ancient mining and metallurgical activities, especially for iron, as per the Journal of the Geological Society of India.

While the men work deep underground in the mines, the girls are supposed to fill the trucks with stones and materials. Rekha Naruka, a social worker associated with the Ajeevika Bureau that works on women’s employment in the region, says that some girls too are expected to enter the mines.

“The working conditions [pollution and poor nutrition] expose these young girls to many diseases. They are also underpaid,” she says. According to her, men usually get Rs. 250 for unskilled work, but the women are paid Rs 200 for the same work.

The road that girls in Berawal have to take for work in the mines, Rajasthan/Nikita Jain

Ganga, who is 17 and works with Homi, says many in the group suffer from respiratory disorders. “Our lungs are affected by the toxic dust due and we feel weak but we have to do strenuous work even through our periods,” she says. “If there was another choice, we would not work here.”

Homi, who is the middle of four children, says she could only study up to Class 10. Would she like to study further? “Yes,” she says with a rueful smile.

Migrating For Work

Kushalgarh is a small tribal village located in the Banswara district of Rajasthan and poverty is so acute that women are forced to migrate for work. Mrinula, 18, had an argument with her parents because she refused to accompany her parents to Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh in search of work.

In southern Rajasthan, male migration is common in the Adivasi community because the natural habitats that supported them have been destroyed and there are limited work opportunities.

With men, daughters and wives too are forced to move to neighboring states. The women work at construction sites for which they get the minimum wage of Rs 200 a day. 

Mrinula, who is still a school student, told Behanbox that it is mostly during vacations that women migrate with their family to earn income. However, the living conditions at the destination are often hostile. “There was no toilet where we went for work last time and we had to make do in a makeshift tent in the open,” Mrinula says in a low voice.

She recalls being made to work long hours and falling sick. There is another reason she wants to stay home. Last time she travelled with her family, she was sexually harassed by the other men at the camp. “My father is too drunk to help. Which is why this time I did not go,” she says, worried about the repercussions.

Rekha, 18, who migrates with her family for work said that women are bullied and harassed. “If we used to sit down for a minute to take a breath, the middleman would come shouting asking us we will not get money,” she says.

Most employers and contractors offer very basic facilities for labourers, some not even that. “There are times when we don’t even have facilities for food. We are not even given mattresses, just a room to sleep in,” says Rekha.

Rajasthan has a Balika Distance Education scheme that was introduced last year to give an opportunity to girl students pursuing UG, PG, or diploma certificate courses. The selected girl candidates are supposed to receive fee reimbursement for the course.

But the girls say they know nothing about any scheme for women.

“There is no government representation in the village to tell us that there are such schemes available. If the villagers know, they don’t tell anyone,” says Rekha who has finished her college education, and wants to pursue a teaching course. But with no resources, she has to either migrate for work or do household chores.

“I want to prepare for the government teaching course and the village has no facilities. So, we usually have to go to the town. However, the rent and other expenses become difficult so my parents have said that I don’t need to study,” she said.

Social activists have raised the issue and demanded a better implementation of schemes and policies for women. “We need to end the distress. The focus of government policies should ensure that women are not forced to migrate for livelihood. There also needs to be a better implementation of the existing schemes,” says Kamlesh Sharma, programme coordinator at Ajeevika Bureau.

Many women that Behanbox spoke to had just one major complaint: “Political leaders simply don’t care about women’s issues,” says Anita, who lives in Berawal.

The complaint resonated with the echoes of other women. “Candidates only interact with men and give them alcohol as a bribe. Most of the women vote for candidates who their husbands ask them to,” says Rekha.

Only 25 of the 200 seats (1.25%) in Rajasthan are reserved for members of the Adivasi community. Local tribal parties, such as the Bharatiya Tribal Party and Bharat Adivasi Party, despite their limited resources, are trustworthy, say members of the Adivasi community interviewed by Behanbox.

“It is about time we understood that elections are not the only time women issues need to be raised. There is hardly any representation of women in politics,” says Naruka.

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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