Gujarat’s industrial zones and its shipping, fisheries and handicraft sectors, besides its medium, small and micro entreprises (MSMEs), employ lakhs of people from across the country. Census 2011 says there are 2.9 crore intra- and inter-State migrants in Gujarat. Surat in southern Gujarat, a hub of diamond cutting and polishing as well as textile trade, is a draw for workers, both skilled and unskilled, from within and outside Gujarat. An estimated 70 per cent of Gujarat’s informal workforce is based in Surat.
When the lockdown was announced, many employers in the Surat belt apparently promised to look after their workers during the shutdown. As the weeks went by and the lockdown kept on getting extended, employers reneged on salary promises citing financial constraints. Workers began to get restive as they ran out of money and it became hard to pay for food and board. Eyewitness accounts say thousands of men slept on Surat’s pavements or tried to find shelter in public spaces.
The government made a few feeble attempts at feeding and setting up camps for migrants. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and citizen volunteers tried to fill the gap, but the scale of the crisis was too overwhelming. The breaking point came in early April when migrant labourers went on a rampage on the streets, setting fire to carts and public property. About 80 migrants were arrested. A month later, lakhs of migrants were still stranded in Surat. Three more incidents of violence were reported, the worst on May 9 when thousands came out on the streets when they learnt that the Odisha government had cancelled three trains assigned to take back migrants. Some 200 workers were arrested.
A study by the Gujarat government’s Centre for Social Studies and Department of Education shows that Surat’s powerloom industry and textile sector employ around 12 lakh workers, of whom 7.5 lakh are from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha. An estimated 2 lakh construction workers and 1.5 lakh unskilled labourers find employment in the industrial zone of Hazira.
Ashok Shrimali from SETU: Centre for Social Knowledge and Action, an organisation based in Ahmedabad, said that workers in Gujarat were grouped according to their skills. For instance, the entire workforce of construction labourers may come from one district of Bihar or Uttar Pradesh.
In mid May, some NGOs and Jignesh Mevani, independent Member of the Legislative Assembly, brought to public attention how 70,000 workers were being held captive by their contractors in the Mora-Hazira belt near Surat. Mevani told Frontline that he had spoken to several workers and their condition was grave. In a letter to Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, which Mevani shared with the media, he said:
“We [he and a few NGOs] have found that all of the workers who we spoke with have not received wages since the lockdown. The industries are running at a low capacity, and the few workers working there during the lockdown receive only lunch. The panchayat support has been woefully inadequate—some workers report that they received only ten days of ration in the lockdown which has extended for over 50 days. Many of the workers have been threatened by their landlords that they will be evicted. In one case, the water supply of the household has been cut off. The administration has stalled the returning process for over 10 days. In addition to that workers are saying that they are being charged Rs.700 per head to go back home. Instead of ensuring their timely payment of wages and adequate ration, we have been responsible for keeping them poor, hungry and desperate to go home. A worker said to us that he would rather have ‘namak and roti’ with his parents than suffer here.”
With little help from the governments of Gujarat and their own home States, migrant workers in Surat began the long march home. Those who saw them on the highways say it was a humanitarian crisis of the worst kind. Anand Mazgaonkar from the Gujarat Sarvodaya Mandal said: “It has reduced to a trickle now, but in the early days there were hundreds on the road. The saddest thing was that during the day it was too hot to walk, so they waited until night. At night the police said there was curfew and would not allow them to walk. Many began walking through fields and finding small byroads to get on the highway. They are ordinary workers. Why should they have to sneak through at night like criminals?” He spoke of an incident where the police promised to help transport workers to the next town but then left them in the lurch in the middle of nowhere without any explanation.
“There has been a complete breakdown in the State’s machinery,” Mazgaonkar said. “In Surat, the municipal corporation provided them [migrants] shelter in what appear to be homes for beggars and the homeless. We went to some of them but did not find any migrants. Contractors had been assigned to find people and house them in these shelters. Even that seemed to be a racket. On speaking to several migrants, we found that they had registered wherever they could as they were told this was the process to get on a train. It is anyone’s guess what happened to those forms, because only those who could pay or had some connection via their labour contractor could get on a Shramik Special. In fact, train schedules were not revealed even when NGOs tried to help with online services. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most have found their way home on their own. Truck drivers were giving lifts and it seems like the administration has turned a blind eye.”
A tehsildar in Ahmedabad told Frontline that it could take months for the government to send back the migrants as one train carried a maximum of 1,200 people. “We are hoping the lockdown lifts and workers can go back to work and this problem is off our hands,” he said.
Shrimali from SETU said: “The migrant labour issue in Gujarat has been simmering for some time. SETU has been working on the trends and patterns of Gujarat’s migrants for several years. We believe that because contractors violate registration rules, the issue was never understood until the pandemic came and this invisible workforce made its presence felt.” He explained that construction labourer is, for instance, required to be registered with the State’s Building and Construction Board. Yet very few are registered, which enables the contractor to violate labour laws. Companies perpetuate the practice by turning a blind eye.