In the depths of despair

Published : Mar 12, 2004 00:00 IST

IF India is shining, Kheta Ravji Hatila cannot see it. He is blind. And he has been laid off from work for almost a year. There are no wages to support his family and it is difficult for him to find work in a labour market where even college-educated, able-bodied youth are unemployed.

So he took one of the most difficult decisions in his life. He made his 12-year-old son drop out of school last year to support the family by selling vegetables. "Some days he comes home with a little money. Other days, there is nothing," says Kheta. He used to earn Rs.4,000 a month. His nine-year-old son also quit school. "He does not even have proper clothes to wear to school," says Kheta.

Kheta was removed from work during an illegal lockout at his factory in Vadodara. His 24 years of service as a storekeeper did not matter much. Around 400 workers were left in the lurch. Even the government's Labour Department declared the lockout illegal. The factory started again, but it employed new contract workers at far lower wages. The company was willing to take back its original workers only if they signed a settlement stating that they would not demand anything for five years. Some caved in. But 389 workers refused to be bullied into submission.

They went to court against the closure and won even in the Gujarat High Court. But the owners refused to take them back. "The government lets them do anything they please," said Kheta. Even while they were employed, workers in his factory had not got a pay hike for 10 years. The company withheld salary payments for eight months at a stretch.

Although Gujarat is considered one of the most industrially developed States, employment opportunities are shrinking. Organised-sector jobs shrank from 17.69 lakhs in 1999 to 16.22 lakhs in December 2001, the same level it was at in 1990. Unorganised-sector jobs, where employment is insecure and wages are low, are now the norm. Several small-scale industries, the backbone of Gujarat's industrial development, have closed down or retrenched staff. Employment growth rate slowed down in the 1990s to 1.27 per cent, as compared to 3.64 per cent in the 1970s.

After the advent of liberalisation, labour laws have become even more lax. "During discussions, the former Labour Minister admitted to us that only about 3 to 7 per cent of industrial units are implementing labour laws properly," said Rohit Prajapati, leader of the Vadodara Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti.

Kheta and his colleagues even appealed to Chief Minister Narendra Modi when he visited Vadodara for a public function. But they were welcomed with tear-gas shells. One of them was badly injured when a tear-gas shell hit him.

Now, as they appeal to the Supreme Court, all they can do is wait. The company says workers are not allowed to work elsewhere because they are "suspended from service". But they do not even receive the suspension allowance due to them. With no income, several workers have piled up huge debts.

"I am willing to sell my kidney. There is nothing else left to do now. Anyway, we are sinking," said Rameshbhai Vasava, one of Kheta's colleagues. Ramesh's wife is ill. He cannot afford his children's school fees. It is tough scraping together the rent and electricity bills. "I've borrowed money at an annual interest rate of 60 per cent. How will I pay back? The company is also sitting on all our savings in the employees' cooperative bank," he said.

In today's labour market, it is a race to the bottom. "They want to get rid of us, get workers on contract and pay them far less," says Ramesh. "Who says India is shining? Yes, our leaders' faces are shining. But they have blackened people's faces. They have sold human beings."

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