Risky Romances for the Rejas
A case study of tribal women’s labour

Shahzad A. Khan

Paper presented at the conference Livelihoods and Poverty Reduction: Lessons From Eastern India, 25-27 September 2001
By Shahzad A. Khan, CDS, University of Swansea, Wales


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Background: Reja (Women's labour)
Who are they?
Purpose of the Study
Nature of Employment and Reja Work
Social Status of a Reja worker
Living Condition; housing and health
Income Generation; Huting and Village Links
Policy Implications; Gap between policy and practice in informal labour sector
NGO and Government Assistance; Government Responsibility
Social Institutions; Reja Marriage and Social Security
Sexual Harassment

References & notes


Minerals are one of the major natural resources in Keonjhar District, and a part of the district’s economy is largely based on mining activities. There is a high demand of men and women labourers in the area for mining activities. About 22000 labourers including men and women are working in Barbil-Joda mining area alone.  As a result there are 35 slums have emerged in Barbil Municipality area. Migration is one of the prime livelihood coping strategies for men and women of Munda community. The number of women migrants from Munda community is significantly high in the area. The tribal way of life in the Barbil-Joda area can be clearly distinguished from the main stream of larger social groups in terms of social and cultural obligations. The level of social exclusion of Munda women labourers (Reja) from the larger dominant society in the area is very significant but at the same their contribution in local economics can not be ignored. The existing social situation of Munda women labour needs a critical social analysis that has policy implications to improve the quality of women’s lives.

The paper aims to identify the social problems and working condition of Munda women labourers in the mining area of Barbil-Joda, of Keonjhar district. The paper examines the level of exclusion from the main stream of development due to differences in culture and the way of tribal life. The paper has focused on Munda women labourers working for loading and unloading of trucks and railway wagons in the Barbil Muncipality area. The study highlights the social conditions of women labourers (Rejas) and how the existing labour regulations and welfare schemes respond. The paper also examines how the women labourers (Rejas) are perceived in the locality as having a ‘dubious’ or ‘anomalous’ character. The paper emphasizes the policy implications for the improvement of the quality of women labourers’ lives and social security support.

Background: Reja (Women's labour)

Both the terms Reja and Coolie is widely known as unskilled labour. The term Coolie is an established term for men labour throughout the country. The term Reja is largely known as women unskilled labour in the district of Keonjhar, Jharkhand and in mining and industial area of the eastern region. The term Reja is an abusive term in some part of the Orissa, for example in Sambalpur district; it is an offensive word. It is still not clear that from where the term Reja has derived but the term is in use throughout the eastern region of the country. Interestingly, the women those who work on agricultural farms are known as Muliyani or Muliya in the same region. Male farm labourers are variously known as Muliya, Kuthia, or Halia, but the term Coolie is never used in agricultural farm labour in Eastern region. The nature of Muliya work in the villages is not restricted to only farm work but also applied to off-farm work for example roof thatching, and well excavation. The terms Reja and Coolie are more established in the mining, industrial and urban areas.

Now, it is important to conceptualise the term Coolie and Reja to have a better understanding of their nature of services and work in economic activities. The investigation has confirmed that the term changes from Muliya/ Muliyani to Reja/Coolie some times in a village context also, but largely depends on the type of village and nature of work performed by the labourers. Villages located near cities, town and industries may also recognise these wage labourers as Reja or Coolie for off-farm rural activities. The detailed elaboration of the nature of labour dynamics is essential here because it is not only the issue what they are called Muliya/Muliyani or Reja/Coolie but the nomenclature has a great deal in terms of social values because it defines what exactly they perform. The village and the contemporary society determine the values of a group on the basis of their performance or involvement in particular activities.

This paper emphasises a particular category of Rejas those who work in trucks on the basis of an ongoing study in a couple of ‘‘hutings’ in Barbil, Municipality area. There are 22 recognised ‘hutings’ in Barbil Municipality area.

Who are they?

Now, in India migration has became common phenomena, in every society 

The study reveals that the settlers of the ‘hutings in Barbil, Municipality areas are migrants from Singhbum district of Jharkhand State. The ‘huting’ dwellers are mostly labourers and work in mines, trucks and construction etc., with private contractors and owners. It is significant that most of the Rejas are from Munda tribal group and the percentage of Munda Rejas is quite high in the area. The study has discovered that these Rejas are mostly from destitute, land-less, and marginal households. The study also shows that the women migrate during the agricultural lean period i.e., after paddy harvesting. Of course there are many Rejas who work here round the year.

Here it is important to discuss the situation under which these Munda women migrated to this area and opt to work as Rejas. The basic reason of their migration is the family economic reason but the cultural factor is also very important here in the case of Munda women migration and choosing to work in trucks. The social status of the Munda women is lowered both because they are migrants in the first place and are working in the truck. This also effects the status of the Munda community. As I mentioned above, the Rejas working in trucks are mostly unmarried young women, so this is one of the opportunities where they find suitable matching for long term relationships. As they define, that the working in trucks as Reja is hardest manual work but the prime motivation to opt for this work is a combination of romance and income generation.

Purpose of the Study

The main purpose of this study is to identify the social condition and working environment of women Rejas, working in truck loading and unloading, and the policy implications for improvement in the quality of Rejas lives. Secondly, to highlights the gaps between women labour policy and existing practices in the Barbil-Joda mining area. Finally, to share the issues out of research findings with intellectuals and bureaucrats for advocacy to enforce and exercise the labour regulation in day to day practice.

Nature of Employment and Reja Work

Rejas in Barbil Municipality area are basically involved in three types of work, i.e., building construction work, open mines work and loading/unloading of minerals for trucks and railways wagons. In construction and loading/unloading of trucks or wagons, Rejas carry the head load and Coolies fill the basket and hold the loaded basket to dump in the wagon rack or trucks. It indicates that the Rejas are highly required for head loading work because there are traditions or taboos that the male labours do not take the head loads. The reason for this taboos needs further investigation. They go with the trucks in early morning at 3 to 3.30 a.m and get return late evening by 6 to 7.00 p.m. The main work is to load the trucks with minerals from one point and unload the same at the distance, which varies between 10-30 k.m. They travel a lot in the process of loading and unloading the trucks. They fill the truck with the help of iron made basket (gamala) and the approximate weight of a loaded basket is about 35 kgs.

When they do not get work, usually they go to Jungle to collect the firewood for sale and they get 40 Rs. They only collect firewood from the jungle when they don’t get reja work. Collecting firewood is a more risky option as it is an illegal activity and the forest guard can harass them.

The construction Rejas are also employed by the local small construction contractors but some of them are employed directly by the owner. In case of indirect employment, contractors deduct 2 Rs to 5 Rs from their daily wages. Rejas daily wage rates vary from 35Rs to 40Rs per day and they are paid on weekly basis. They work for 8 hours in a day, from 8.00 A.M to evening 5.00P.M and they break for an hour at 12.00 Noon. The long-term[1] Rejas works are generally available through local contractors. There is a significant difference in wage rate between Reja and Coolie. Coolies are always paid at least 5 Rs more than the Rejas wage. It is important here to mention that there is no difference in wage payment when casual wage labourers are paid by the Government agencies, but significantly, wage rates vary if the contractors undertake the same work. This is again an issue of violation of State labour Act, in terms of gender discrimination in wage payments.

Rejas working in trucks for loading and unloading of the trucks are mainly employed by the trucks-owner and in some cases by the mine-owner. Rejas are paid by the trucks-owner on a weekly basis in Barbil Municipality area. They are paid on Saturday and Sunday is an off day and also the local haat day. They are not paid for off days which is a violation of labour regulation Act.

The study shows that the Rejas working for loading and unloading of the wagons have no specific time for work, it largely depends on the time of the arrival of such wagon. The local contractors employ them through Peti-thikadar who assign the job to gang-sardar.  A gang-sardar consist of 12 labourers – 6 men, including gang-Sardar and 6 women. A group of 12 men and women, load each racks of wagon, each group receives 750Rs for a rack loading out of which 50 Rs. is taken away by Gang-sardar.

The exciting finding of this study is that there is no discrimination in distribution of wage earned by the group of men and women labourers.  The money earned is divided equally among 12 men and women labourers. The private owners and employer make the discrimination in wages payment of men and women. This indicates that the male labourers realise the values of women labour and they have a clear perception that women are capable of equal labour. The discrimination is at the level of the employers, who used the excuse of gender inefficiency for their own benefit.

Social Status of a Reja worker

Locally, Rejas are recognised as hard working women. They are perceived as very tough and physically strong women. On the other hand they are perceived as an instrument for the local society to dispose the hard and tough work. The recognition of Reja work in the locality has got very lower status in terms of skill of work. The character of a Reja is always perceived as anomalous because of the nature of their work. Rejas work openly together with their male labourer counterparts in trucks, mines and construction. The social status of Reja women is low in the local society because they are migrants from distant villages and stay in ‘hutings alone without families and elders which is not common in contemporary hindu society. It is important to emphasise here that the Rejas are generally young women and work freely with men outside the village. The another main reason of their lower status is because they are very independent and liberal in terms of choosing their partner and work. The study also reveals that the Rejas live with their partner without a very formal marriage. The incidence of more than one marriage among ‘huting’ Rejas’ is very high which is largely perceived by the local higher social groups as having a suspicious and ambiguous character. The virginity of a young Reja is always seen as doubtful, since sex before marriage has a tremendous implication in a hindu society. It is also important here to note that the level of regard and respect for tribal cultures in general does not seem very high in terms of social association in Indian society. The standards used to gauge social status are the existing standards in hindu culture and rituals. The level of social exclusion on the basis of caste and ethnic also matter to the recognition of social values in the society.  

Living Condition; housing and health

The living conditions in the ‘hutings are very poor in terms of basic amenities like sanitation and drinking water facilities. Rejas lives in rented houses made from earthen plaster (Buckle-ghara) on the erected walls with the help of wood and bushes. There is no sanitary facility available in such houses. They collect drinking water from a couple of water tank provided by the Barbil Municipality but for washing and bathing they go to the nearest stream. In some of the ‘hutings’, Barbil Municipality has provided street lights but many light post have been broken. The majority of houses are having only one room, which they use for kitchen purposes also.

Keonjhar district has been identified, as a malaria prone area and the available data in the district medical headquarter indicates that there are 37 death cases already recorded for 2001 till the time of writing. Malaria is one of the most common diseases in hutings. The study has determined that most of the households’ members suffer from malaria at least thrice in a year. There are no health centres in these hutings and superstitions exist among Munda and other tribal groups. Rejas consider malaria is one of the most deadly diseases which stop them working for at least a couple of week once they victim. They also reported common suffering from headache and body pain due to hard physical work. The sickness and suffering is one of the major constraints for the working Rejas because it affects their ability to work and generate income for subsistence.

The habits of over consumption of handia (country rice beer) is another factor which causes sickness. There are 29 handia, and 15 illegal country liquor sale centre in Garha-huting consisting 285 households. Rejas consider handia as a food and they consume it at the work place also. 

Income Generation; Huting and Village Links

The income of Rejas varies, and depends on the nature of work they are currently involved in. For example there are three major kinds of work they generally do for their livelihood subsistence. The income generation of Rejas can be divided largely in four categories:

a)      trucks loading unloading.

b)      railway wagon loading

c)      mining work

d)      construction work.

The availability of work in trucks is reported higher than any other work available to them. The income of ‘Truck’ Rejas’ is better than that of  Rejas working in wagon loading and construction work. They perceive construction work as less strenuous and stressful but the availability of work is not as good as on trucks. On an average, Rejas get hardly 15 days of work in construction in a month. The senior and married women prefer to work in construction and wagon because it allows them to look after their children and family.

Rejas weekly Average income in (Rs)

Trucks loading unloading Rejas

Railway wagons loading

Construction works

Mining works





The level of income difference varies from 150Rs to 350Rs per week. The level of variation is higher in wagon loading work where as the income generation is lowest in construction work. The uncertainty of income is much higher in case of wagon loading and construction work.  

Policy Implications; Gap between policy and practice in informal labour sector

The Indian Constitution provides for Directive Principles of State Policy to improve and protect the working conditions of women as per Article 39 and 42 of the Constitution. Article 46 directs the state to promote with special care the education and economic interest of the weaker sections of the society. It also suggests that employment opportunities and working conditions for women should be improved.

According to Labour Regulations there are only few Acts which can be applied in case of Rejas working in informal sectors like construction and trucks which are as under:

a)      The Orissa Shops and Commercial Establishment Act, 1956

This Act provides some basic regulation for the labourers and determines the norms like working hours, weekly holidays, sick leave and gratuity etc. But in practice they are paid for six days in week and there is no sick leave – no work, no pay.  

b)      The Mininmum Wages Act, 1948

This act support for minimum wage payment defined and enforced by the State Government time to time considering the market index price. According to legislation, the minimum rate of wages must be paid irrespective of extent profit, financial condition of the company or availability of the workmen at lower rate. Hence, the provision of Act is a pointer towards ensuring social justice to the workers. The minimum wage is the lowest wage in the scale below which the efficiency of the worker is likely to be impaired. The minimum needs not include only the bare necessities but also the minimum comfort conventional necessities.      

The International Labour Organisation has also played an important role for the welfare of women workers. The Organisation came in to existence in 1919, after the formation of this body a number of laws were passed to protect women labour in the country. Mines Act 1952, Employees’ Provident Fund Act of 1952 and the Plantation Labour Act 1957 provide the physical amenities like provisions of separate toilets and bath for women. The maternity benefit Act of 1961 provides periodic cash payment in case of confinement or miscarriage or sickness arising out of pregnancy for a maximum period of twelve weeks, six-week prior and six weeks after. Apart from these there are various other labour legislations, such as the prohibition of night shifts for women workers.  In practice the enforcement of all these regulations are far away from the practice in the informal labour sector.

The application of such regulations has been confined to the Government and corporate sectors only. The provisions according to labour regulation is not in practice in many institutions and the situation is worst in case of tribal women labour (Reja) working in informal sector. The representation and advocacy for such regulation has not been properly addressed in Orissa and elsewhere in India. The study does not witness such regulations in practice especially in informal sector of women labour. The application of such regulation seems remote incase of truck Reja working for loading and unloading for private trucks owner and mine owner.

There is a lack of understanding of the social situation of Rejas for which to enforce labour regulations. There is an urgent need to account the following factors for better policies and livelihoods improvement. 

i)   Illusions in Rejas income; the income looks above BPL (Below Poverty Line) in the initial periods of Rejas career. There is an impression that the Rejas generate a good income, which is more than the subsistence. Such impression has diverted the attention of the bureaucrats from them.

ii)  The incidence of destitution is very high among Rejas due to desertion after marriage and children.

iii)  The social and health hazards costs are never taken in to account. The level of social exclusion, drudgery and the risk of injuries and accidents are very high.   

NGO and Government Assistance; Government Responsibility

The labour of tribal women labour is one of the neglected sites of the government due to social and cultural reasons in terms of discrimination on the basis of social rank and also the lack of representation. There are significance differences in terms of physical assets existing in the hutings and those other parts of the town where affluent community live in the same Municipal area. There is no NGO working in the ‘hutings of Barbil Municipality area accept some welfare support in terms of providing books and dresses to the very destitute households in Garha-huting by the local Catholic church. Barbil Municipality has given a couple of water tanks in the huting for drinking purposes and also light posts. 42 households are given green cards, which allows the cardholders to purchase subsidised rice from Public Ration Shop. There is one Indira Awas[2] given to a destitute family in the ‘hutings.   

Social Institutions; Reja Marriage and Social Security 

The study determines that social norms are comparatively less effective in hutings due to diverse population in the settlement and wide interaction. But social network is very significance in terms of information of work availability, support during sickness etc. Mundas in hutings extend support to the new Rejas comers. They come through some social net works, and in most of the cases they accompany with some of experienced Rejas who already worked in the area. The hutings have also been divided with different ethnic groups.

In hutings, among Munda, and other tribal groups the parents do not take marriage decisions. The decisions of marriage is taken by the male and female partners.  There is a practice of serial common-law marriages practiced by both men and women. There are not many formalities, either legal or social, in setting up a marriage.  Once the couple agrees they start living together after performing a very informal ritual like Sindur-tika (red mark on forehead). The study shows that the number of abandoned women in Garha-huting is very high, about 25% of married women are living as single parents. The study also reveals that most of Rejas marry more than once.    

The ability of Rejas to work is reduced to a great extent after getting pregnant and having children. It is almost impossible to work in trucks for a pregnant Reja due to the hard and tough nature of work. Once they are married in hutings they do not go back to their native villages and they feel trapped after getting in to the Rejas work and marriage. Truck Rejas income is comparatively higher than other Rejas work but after having children they begin to work in construction or loading of Railway wagon. The security of work and level of income reduces due to the shift of work from trucks to construction or wagon loading, at the same time, expenditure goes up due to children.

 Government or any institution has made no significant effort to provide social security for Rejas living in hutings. In terms of social security few numbers of green cards have been given to the destitute households through Barbil Municipality. The relatives and friends often come to the rescue to help at the time of sickness and urgent need of cash for treatment or subsistence. The reciprocal help took place at the time of crisis which is largely depends on trust and good will of an individual.

Drudgery is a common phenomenon in day to day Rejas lives due to nature of their work. They never get proper treatment or any compensation for any injuries occurs at working place. It depends on the mercy of employers to provide some treatment or help. Drudgery and injuries not only cause physical pain but it also affects the ability to generate income for subsistence.  There are many cases in the hutings where labourers have lost their lives and many became handicapped in accidents but compensation has hardly been paid to the family of the deceased or injured. The level of social insecurity is very high among Rejas because of the following reasons:

a)      they are poor at the first place that is why they migrate and chooses tough and hard work which involve significant  risk of drudgery, injuries and accident

b)      social instability due to migration and marriage
c)      breaking of link with their native village
d)      ability of work reduced after pregnancy and having children                  


In India the Trade Union Act in 1926 gave a formal recognition to the worker’s right to organise and encourages further growth of the movement. Between 1947 to 1957, there was a rapid growing of unions. In the beginning the women worker did not participate actively in the trade union due to various social reasons, but in late fifties women gradually started joining trade unions.

 There is no significance evidence that the Rejas are members of any specific institutions accept a few who work in a formal sector and pay some monthly remuneration to the Union Trade. In Barbil Municipality area there are a few active trade unions functioning like KWU and AITUC, but Rejas are not aware about the role of these trade unions. They perceive these unions are political bodies who largely seek favours from the labourers. The main reason of this ambiguity about trade unions is that the office bearers of trade unions participate in Municipality elections.    

Sexual Harassment

The level of sexual harassment is a day to day occurrence. More work needs to be done in this respect.


The paper attempt to cites the perception of local people and also how Rejas and other labourers perceive their own work in terms of social and economic values. These perceptions have been based on observation and interviews with many Rejas and the local people of the area including truck owners and officials. The paper has given emphasis to capture the perception of the locality to understand the people’s views over the Rejas livelihoods to determine the social level of exclusion and discrimination.

In the locality Rejas are socially perceived as being inferior in the society and having no social values which are seen as essential in a women for example Pati-brata (devotion to the husband and monogamy) which Rejas do not have. The practices of more than one marriage among Rejas are common. Consumption of handia by women is culturally accepted in Munda community, but is seen as an offence in Hindu society.  

References and notes

B.P. Tripathy and Mrs Madhusmita Samal, advocate, (2001), Law of Mines and Minerals in Orissa, compiled by the legal miscellany, Cuttuck.

[1] Rejas perceive 3 to 4 months of continuous works in one place as long term work. A couple of week work is short term. 

[2] Social housing programme by the Government.