Gujarat, vibrant to shaking

Jobless in Gujarat: Rising anger of youth was behind the recent attacks on migrant workers   

The September 28 rape of a 14-month-old baby in Gujarat by a Bihari migrant triggered an unequal outrage against all and sundry from North India with thousands of migrant workers employed in small and medium scale industrial units as well as in errand jobs fleeing the state -- some lock, stock and barrel; many with the hope of returning some day when things were calm.

Even as thousands fled by the first bus and train available, the issue sparked a political slugfest between the BJP, which rules Gujarat -- for nearly three decades now -- as well as all the states these labourers belong to, and the Congress. More so because of the approaching crucial assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, while Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are vital in view of the big 2019 battle.  But the social, economic and political restlessness in Gujarat runs deeper than the immediate politics. The angry outburst clearly has little to do with the rape. For one, the attacks on the migrants began around a week after the incident, and two, the crude onslaught in the social media speaks about frustration over denial of jobs to the locals in favour of the North Indians belonging to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.

Though few labour laws are followed and minimum wages are a distant dream for them, these labourers still have been eking out a decent living for decades in Gujarat in comparison to how they would have fared in their own home states.

But this is for the first time that they are facing such a Maharashtra-type reprisal against them. The story lies here. Cut to August 2015, when a 22-year-old lad called Hardik Patel rose like a phoenix on the socio-political horizon of Gujarat demanding reservations in government jobs and educational institutions for his community. The huge crowds of youngsters he drew initially from among the Patidars or Patels had soon swelled into a veritable catholic community of job-seeking unemployed youngsters by the close of the Gujarat assembly elections in December 2017.

The impact was loud and clear. It isn’t without reason that the BJP in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s prized state was left so much scrounging for every seat that it won by only seven seats short of defeat -- and in this too, 25 BJP victories were with an apologetic margin of less than 5%. And this again, amid serious allegations of manipulation of the electronic voting machines.

The numbers speak for themselves to explain why Hardik Patel with his demand for jobs to the Patidars, Alpesh Thakor with his bogey of jobs for the locals in industrial units, and Congress president Rahul Gandhi raising the unemployment issue during the run-up to the 2017 elections all found a huge connect with the rural and semi-urban masses.

Unemployment and farmer distress are real issues in Gujarat, all of which fly in the face of claims of a vibrant and thriving economy. According to Statistical Outline of Gujarat, 2016, published by the Gujarat government itself, as many as 23,806 factories closed down in the state in two years from 2014-15 to 2015-16, each employing an average of 52.81 workers. This rendered over 12.57 lakh workers unemployed, besides nearly seven lakh educated unemployed youth registered with the State Employment Bureau.

So, the total number of people looking for jobs was estimated to be 19.57 lakh workers as on 2016. Officials disclosed that on an average, 10,000 to 12,000 factories— mostly in the small scale and unorganised tiny sector— have been shuttered every year during the last five years. According to government reports, 11,873 factories closed down in 2014-15 and 11,933 in 2015-16.

This does not include the figures after demonetisation and the shoddy implementation of Goods and Services Tax (GST), which left many more thousands of businesses closing down. No official numbers are available but according to industry estimates, no fewer than 15 lakh more workers lost their jobs due to demonetisation and GST.

Nor is joblessness only an industrial phenomenon. “Gujarat has 77 lakh families, or 3.83 crore, people identified under the National Food Security Act. We can safely conclude from this number that at least one person per family is half-employed or under-employed,” says senior economist Prof. Hemanthkumar Shah. “Read this together with the fact that there are 68.39 lakh agricultural labourers in Gujarat. Many of them, too, are migrant labourers. Now, 55% agriculture in the state is irrigated, 45% is unirrigated. Farmers in areas under the latter category can reap only a single harvest, which means for the rest of the year the workers as well as the farmers engaged here are half-employed or under-employed.”

The discontent over locals not getting jobs in Gujarat has been there since the nineties but this is the first time it has exploded into a storm because of unprecedented — and now very visibly felt — economic adversities all over. 

First-time Congress MLA Alpesh Thakor and his Gujarat Kshatriya Thakor Sena, comprising lakhs of youngsters from the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), have been at the forefront of agitations demanding jobs for locals in Gujarat’s industries. He has often held massive rallies and courted arrest over this. And he belongs to North Gujarat, where the rape took place and the exodus began from. Thakor, who represents the Radhanpur constituency, has repeatedly said following the recent violence: “The anger was directed at the state government and the industry for not complying with the promised rule to employ 80% locals in the industrial units.”

He is the principal target of the ruling BJP, with Minister of State for Home Pradeepsinh Jadeja asserting that, “It is Alpesh Thakor and some other local senior Congressmen who provoked the attacks on the migrants. We will expose them.” Thakor, obviously, denies that his Thakor Sena was involved and says it is out of political vendetta that scores of his men had been arrested.  The allegations may fly thick and fast, but this is certainly not a good omen for the ruling BJP in the North Indian states nor in Gujarat in view of the immediate assembly elections and the crucial 2019 battle for survival in Delhi.

(The writer is Editor, Development News Network, Ahmedabad)

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Gujarat, vibrant to shaking

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