Wage dispute

The Asur Adivasis, India's first metallurgists, now struggle for daily wages in Jharkhand's mines

At the New Amtipani mine, workers must mark their attendance on the biometric system four times a day or forego their wages

It was lunch break at the New Amtipani bauxite mine, operated by the Aditya Birla Group subsidiary Hindalco, in the flat-topped plateaus of Jharkhand’s Gumla district. Several Asur Adivasi men who worked there waited in a line outside the supervisor’s office, instead of heading home to their village in the nearby forest for their afternoon meal as they usually did.

Almost all the Asur Adivasis in Jharkhand's Gumla district work as daily-wagers at mines.
Almost all the Asur Adivasis in Jharkhand's Gumla district work as daily-wagers at mines.

Three months ago, the supervisor had installed a fingerprint scanning machine in the office and instructed the miners to mark their attendance on it.

The biometric-based system, increasingly common in offices in cities across the country, had arrived in remote Amtipani deep inside Gumla’s Netarhat forests as well. But while office-goers mark their attendance when they reach their workplace in the morning or leave for home in the evening, the Amtipani miners had to get their fingerprints scanned on the little black machine four times every day, or they would lose the day’s wage.

Workers line up at the biometric device to mark their attendance at the New Amtipani mine.
Workers line up at the biometric device to mark their attendance at the New Amtipani mine.

Budhna Asur, a middle-aged miner, said he woke up at 4 am every morning to work on his small plot of paddy. He then reached the mine at 7.45 am to mark his attendance. “Then at 12.45 pm, before we go for lunch, we have to scan our fingerprints on the device, and then do it again at 2 pm, and then at 6 pm,” he said.

Jeevan Asur said the mine management had installed the biometric system after all 170 employees had struck work for a month last August to negotiate an increase in their wages. “We told the management, we have worked in the mine for eight years, increase our pay from the unskilled work grade of Rs 247 per day to at least Rs 500,” said the miner. “They increased it to Rs 307, a semi-skilled grade and just half of our demand. On top of that, we were told that if you don’t put your thumb into the new machine four times a day, be prepared to be paid the old rate.”

The miners must get their fingerprints scanned four times a day, or lose the day's wages.
The miners must get their fingerprints scanned four times a day, or lose the day's wages.

Ancient metallurgists

The Asur Adivasis draw their lineage from the buffalo demon Mahishasur, and were portrayed as demons and enemies of gods in prominent Hindu texts. They are also credited with being the country’s first community of iron smelters. Today, they are one of India’s dwindling Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups, and one of the smallest Adivasi groups in Jharhand. Asuri, their language, is on the verge of extinction, with less than 8,000 people speaking it.

New mining technologies, and forest laws that restrict the forest-dwelling Asur from burning wood to produce the charcoal used in their smelting work have slowly made their traditional means of livelihood redundant. For the last eight years, the 200-odd Asur Adivasi families living in the villages of Ghorapahad, Sekuapani and Amtipani in Gumla have worked at Hindalco’s bauxite mines. The Asur inventors, the kings of the forest kingdom, have become daily-wage workers in their ancestral land.

Sudhna Asur's index finger was crushed in a mine accident. He spent Rs 10,000 on medical treatment.
Sudhna Asur's index finger was crushed in a mine accident. He spent Rs 10,000 on medical treatment.

In Ghorapahad, nearly all the men work at the mine. The women and children spend several hours a day carrying water from three kilometers away, and tend to what remains of their agricultural land, covered under layers of excavated red mine dust. Phaguni Mundain, one of the women, said the produce has dropped by a third over the years.

Pusa Asur, who works at the New Amtipani mine, still remembers watching his forefathers “smelt iron out of stone”.

“We made our own tools – khulaarhi, paal, pharsa, teer (axe, plough, spade, arrow) – for hunting and farming,” he said. “There are still two to three men in Ramdharia hamlet who know how to smelt stone and extract metal. Any tool you can think of, they could make.”

But now, the manual process would be too slow and its results too small compared to the current rate of production, he added.

Fellow miner Budhna Asur, who worked at construction sites in cities for a few months some years ago, said he had seen the tools Pusa spoke of. “The tools the Asur and Birhor [a nomadic group] made are displayed at the Ranchi museum,” he said. “I saw them in 1995 on a trip to the city.”

Lunch break over, it was soon time for the men to head back to the mine and line up to mark their biometric attendance, again.

All images by Anumeha Yadav

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.