WAYANAD (Kerala): The bus journey from Mananthavady in Kerala to Kutta in Karnataka is a tense one for B.J. Mani. His colleagues are missing. In the estate where he must labour on the Karnataka side of the border, Mani won't be allowed to work without the three-man team he promised. "If the others don't show up, I have to go look for them," he says. "Which means I will lose even more on bus fares and, quite likely, the day's wages as well."

Thousands of people from Wayanad are crossing the border into Karnataka and Tamilnadu every single day, looking for work. Several do this journey two or three times a week, sometimes more. Mani is just one amongst dozens jostling for space in the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation bus that carries us at this moment. Wayanad's rich cash-crop economy has fallen apart, shattering employment in the district. This single 6 a.m. bus from here to Kutta in Karnataka's Kodagu district clearly captures that process.

Bus conductor Lawrence Jacob, who has been on this route since 1997, has watched it unfold. "There were six trips a day to Kutta in 1995. Today, you are on the first of 24 trips daily - a 400 per cent increase." Prior to 1995, the KSRTC did not have a bus on this route.

Lawrence, who is also an activist and local CITU leader, links the explosion in the traffic to Wayanad's ongoing agrarian crisis. "The people in this bus will work in Kodagu district at half the wage they used to get here. That is, on those days that they do get work. Many are trapped into fake agreements which their new bosses have no intention of honouring. But they have no choice. There's no work in Wayanad."

Five years ago, says Lawrence, the bus was dominated by poor adivasis. They are still the main travellers and their numbers have grown. But now there are also many masons, carpenters, electricians, students and traders. Then there are non-adivasi farm labourers in large numbers. And small and medium farmers, too. A few of the latter trying to lease land cheaply in Kodagu to cultivate ginger and other cash crops. At home, it's all in a mess.

"When there was work in Wayanad," says Mani, "I got a daily wage of up to Rs. 120. Now I work for Rs. 80 a day in Kolikuppa." It's worse than it looks. "My bus fare to the place is Rs. 34 - one way." Mani tries coping by doing the journey only three times a week and staying over the other days. "It means I spend very little time with my family. But what's the way out? This slump in pepper and coffee prices really hit us."

P. K. Siddique is an estate worker too, heading for Kodagu. He gets Rs. 75 a day. "And no bus fare," he laughs. Which means he pays the Rs. 27 it costs to his particular stop and back. Besides him sits Shinoj Thomas, a mason. With his skills, he can make up to Rs.150 a day in Karnataka minus the Rs. 30 he spends on bus tickets. "But I get a maximum of 15-20 days work in a month," he says.

"All work in Wayanad has come to a standstill," says Thomas. "Just see the countless unfinished houses in the district. These houses were begun when farming was doing well. Once the crisis came along, construction ceased. No one had any money to continue. That's why we work across the border for much less than what we used to earn in Wayanad."

We're just past the second stop and the bus is already more than full. It has 48 seats, but with over 20 standees it now carries around 70 people. Not all 24 trips travel this full, but 55 to 60 would be the average, says conductor Lawrence. "there's at least 1200 people on this route daily," he says. "And that goes up quite a bit on market day. Mind you, the ticket cost (Rs.13.50 till Kutta) is higher now than it was a few years ago. Yet, the numbers of people going has shot up in these past two years."

"Construction workers used to come to Wayanad, not leave it," K. Nirmalan, a KSRTC workers' union leader at the Sulthan Bathery depot had told us. "Then construction stopped. Plantations drew a lot of workers. Then those went into lockouts and closures. Earlier pepper was booming. Now that's gone. Even this rise in outgoing buses doesn't tell the whole story. There are many services other than KSRTC's. Those of the other states, and also a host of illegal ones."

Many on the bus, like Shinoj Thomas, had not ventured out before 2002. Now they do so in thousands. Buses on most outgoing routes have doubled to cope with the flow. That from several centres - and not just to Kutta. The basic story is one of comprehensive collapse of employment in Wayanad. Each traveller out of the district reflects that in his or her own way. Thousands of people, their earnings halved or worse, seek unsteady work across the border.

A little over an hour later, in Kutta, a dejected B.J. Mani says his colleagues have not shown up for work. "I'll have to go back looking for them. "My whole day will be gone, not to speak of the bus fare." He boards the return bus an hour later. Meanwhile, new loads of workers descend from the incoming bus. People mill around waiting for transport that will take them further into Kodagu. A group of seven young carpenters from Wayanad is amongst them. "I've been doing this for two years," says A.M. Biju from the group. "We will stay a month in Karnataka in a room provided by the man we are working for. Before, there was a lot of work in Wayanad. Now there is none, so here we are. That is our story."

On the bus to Kutta, everybody has a story.