Migrant workers, the nowhere people of ‘Gujarat Model’

Migrant workers, the nowhere people of ‘Gujarat Model’

Kiran Desai

Gujarat has again captured the country’s attention for the wrong reasons. The assault and harassment of migrant workers from North Indian states in pockets of Gujarat, following the dastardly rape of a 14-month-old baby, has caused fear and forced many migrants to return to their home states.

Gujarat is hailed for its development paradigm, specifically in the sphere of industry. Since its birth in 1960, various state governments have given impetus to micro, small and medium-scale industrial development by providing incentives to entrepreneurs through the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC). More than 200 GIDC estates have been established till date.

As a leader in neo-liberal policies, the state has been a pioneer in establishing Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and Special Investment Regions (SIRs) to attract MNCs and foreign investors.

All these capital- and business-friendly policy measures undermine the cause of labour and are detrimental to their interests. The major indirect benefit being extended to micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) is minimal labour cost and a freehand in dealing with labour. The set of existing labour legislations is virtually ineffective in protecting, let alone enhancing, workers’ interests.

In other words, a large chunk of economic activities pertaining to production, service and other tertiary sectors fall under the informal or unorganised sector, in so far as what the workers face and endure when they come to work. A very large proportion of migrant workers are employed in these sectors.

In most of the infrastructure-related works, from constructing roads, bridges and flyovers to huge buildings, migrants form the majority of the skilled and unskilled workforces. This is also the case with the workforces of ports, shipyard and wind-mill makers.

In industry, MSMEs, too, have been employing migrant labourers but there is a variation in their composition in different places. In the industrial units of southern Gujarat’s highly industrialised belt, mainly in the industrial hub of Surat as well as Ankleshwar and Vapi, nearly three-fourths of the workforce, encapsulating almost all the operations, are made up of migrants, both from within the state and mostly from outside it. 

A case-study of industrial activities of Surat covering all the major industrial activities in MSMEs, namely weaving, dyeing-printing, embroidery and diamond-polishing has revealed that eight out of every 10 workers are migrants. But they are divided by industry.

A substantial portion of diamond workers are migrants from the Patidar caste, an intermediate social group belonging to Gujarat’s Saurashtra region; the weaving sub-branch of the textile industry largely employs OBCs from Odisha; migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, with Muslims constituting a significant proportion of them, account for a majority of the workforce in the dyeing-printing sub-branch. In the chemical industry of Vapi and Ankleshwar, the two industrial towns of South Gujarat, a majority of the workforce is migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

This sort of segmentation is noticeable even in other non-industrial livelihood options in the informal or unorganised sector. Construction activity all over Gujarat is a case in point. Most of the labour-work is carried out by tribal migrants from specific districts of central Gujarat and neighbouring Madhya Pradesh. Similarly, colouring-work is handled by teams of migrants from UP, whereas those from West Bengal have established a niche in plumbing. Autorickshaws are largely driven by migrants from UP whereas immigrants from UP, Madhya Pradesh and Nepal are in a majority in security services.

This segmentation serves the function of work security in the unorganised sector wherein legal protection is by intention and design unavailable to help serve the vested interests of employers and capital.

Segmentation happens as employees bring in relatives, friends, acquaintances from native places whenever job vacancies arise. And this system works as a security device in what is a highly competitive employment market.

In a sense, in a specific work-sphere, a particular group, based on regional or ethnic identities, creates an exclusive domain wherein members of other groups cannot enter and seek work. It suits employers, too, as the workforce remains under tight control.

The issue of reining in the labour-force tightly is pertinent to labour practices prevailing in the unorganised sector.

The conditions in all the activities of the unorganised sector, industrial or non-industrial, are highly exploitative, oppressive and hence, reprehensibly inhuman.

The migrants from far-off states are preferred as only they are willing to work under such pathetic conditions, working not out of choice or due to specific traits as is often being argued, but because of compulsions pertaining to their extremely weak and vulnerable social and economic status and the conditions back home. To qualify this huge migrant labour force further, studies denote that their economic status is extremely poor in terms of land-holding and other assets, besides which most of them also belong to lowly-placed social groups.

They hail from sub-regions of states with extremely unproductive agriculture and lack other gainful employment opportunities. No wonder the political leaderships of these states are not forthcoming in condemning the assaults on migrants. And this relates to the social location of these hapless masses of migrants. They are nowhere people, the invisible masses. They are a burden for the political class of their native states as they cannot be absorbed in the employment market which can foster unrest and disturb the power balance.

In Gujarat, the prosperity of a minor section of the affluent class is due to the inhuman exploitation of these vulnerable migrants who are forced to toil in a subservient and exploitative way in order to survive.

They do not have any social space and dignity in the “host” state even though they are the backbone of the apparent prosperity and successful ‘Gujarat Model’. As a matter of fact, the labouring poor have vanished entirely from the present-day discourse on ‘development’.

This is therefore a model that cannot bring prosperity for all and, as it intensifies the social and economic divide, is likely to lead to immense social strife in the days ahead.

(The writer is with the Centre for Social Studies, Surat)

(Syndicate: The Billion Press)


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