Anita Bhil works in Gujarat’s Morbi industrial estate, 200 kilometres from Ahmedabad, as a sweeper in a ceramic tiles factory. Her husband Ramesh Bhil works as a helper in the same manufacturing unit—in India’s largest tiles manufacturing zone of over 800 units making wall tiles, floor tiles, sanitary wares.
Several units have been closed for using coal over natural gas. India’s largest tile manufacturing and export zone in India is in Morbi, Gujarat.
Inside the tile factory, the coal-fired furnace is run 24 hours a day at temperatures as high as 1,100 degrees Celsius. The Bhils work 50 feet from the furnace in extremely high temperatures, along with 80 other migrants. After working for a decade at the same factory, the Adivasi couple from Madhya Pradesh’s Jabhua together earn ₹300 daily. They lack social security, get no provident fund or health benefits and work without weekly offs.
Providing productive jobs with decent work conditions is one of the key issues the National Democratic Alliance government is on the back foot on as it seeks another term in Parliament. But in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home turf, Gujarat, one of India’s most industrialised states, inside centres such as Morbi, jobs and work conditions are barely discussed in elections as the poorest among workers lack a political say.
Anita Bhil and her husband have not voted in any elections in Gujarat in the 10 years since they migrated here. “Half of Madhya Pradesh lives and works in Gujarat,” says Bhil, at her one-room tenement, referring to the large migrant population that keeps Morbi running like most industrial centres. “But we do not have any voting rights here even after all these years.”
Adivasi workers Anita and Ramesh Bhil have worked without any social security for 10 years. They still cannot vote in Gujarat even after living there for years.
The adjoining rooms are occupied by Adivasi workers from Rajasthan, Odisha, and south Gujarat.
The firm pays little but allows them to save on rent cost, leaving them with more to spend on buying fuelwood—20 kilo fuel a week—and drinking water, they say. “What does the company or government have to offer? One has to struggle to get anything,” said Shailesh Rathua, an Adivasi worker from Chhota Udaipur in Gujarat on the border with Madhya Pradesh. He too will not be voting in the elections, he said, as he cannot get leave to go to vote in his village.
Most adivasi migrants in Morbi’s factories said they spent on fuelwood, water and food while the company provided the accommodation.
A capital-friendly model
Though there has been no mention of it this time, in 2014 elections, the “Gujarat model” of growth was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s top campaign point: if elected as prime minister, Modi would replicate the state’s high state gross domestic product growth and manufacturing all over the country, and the benefits would trickle down.
The absence of its mention in the elections this time could be because the first cracks in the Gujarat “model” were already obvious in July 2015 when lakhs of youth from relatively better-off Patidar community in Gujarat’s villages took part in street agitations demanding reservations in government jobs and colleges.
A second major agitation took place recently in October 2018 in the form of anti-migrants protests after news broke that a migrant from Bihar had raped a 14-month-old baby in Sabarkantha district. Men in mobs targeted non-Gujarati migrant families from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, MP, working in factories, on cotton farms, and as street vendors in six districts. They attacked factories demanding they follow a rule requiring 80 per cent workers be hired locally. The police arrested more than 342 persons for violence.
Labour activists say the protests reflected growing economic insecurities and anger over low wages, for which low-income migrants became a target. Gujarat has one of the highest workforce participation rates in the country at over 70 per cent. However, 94 per cent jobs are temporary, with wages being lower than the national average.
Gujarat’s agricultural wages for both male and female workers are lower than those in Bihar, Assam and West Bengal. Despite being among states with a per capita income above ₹1 lakh, Gujarat has lower than average wage levels for urban workers. The urban daily wage was ₹320 in 2018, compared to ₹380 in Tamil Nadu and ₹780 in Haryana, as per the India Wage Report published by the International Labour Organization.
Sudhir Katiyar, who heads the Prayas Centre for Labour and Action that works among brick kiln and construction workers in Gujarat, said workers’ standard of living has deteriorated over the years. “Real wages are low or stagnant. Instead of addressing this, the government slashed the minimum wage for workers last October citing the price index falling in previous six months.”
“People already live in very difficult conditions and this would only push them to desperation, with many blaming migrant workers for their condition,” said Katiyar.
Economists have shown that despite its high rate of growth, Gujarat has not recorded an increase in productive jobs with decent earnings as a by-product of growth. The state government achieved high-growth rate between 2002-03 and 2013-14 both, by developing infrastructure such as roads, airports, power to cater to industry, and giving significant incentives and subsidies, including common and grazing lands at below market rates to attract corporate investments. But this has left few funds for the social sector, such as public education. The use of large capital-intensive technologies means there aren’t as many jobs, pointed out Dr Indira Hirway, director and professor of economics at the Centre for Development Alternatives.
Dr Hirway has analysed the Annual Survey of Industries data to show that the jobs generated per crore of capital investment and output in the industrial sector have been falling. “From 1998 to 2008, the total invested capital grew by 9.1 per cent, but the number of workers increased only by 2.8 per cent,” said Hirway. “Workers’ share in industrial growth reduced. The share of wages as a percentage of net value added declined from 11.8 per cent in 1998-2000 to 8.5 per cent in 2007-08.”
Simply put, the state’s high GDP did not create enough jobs, and the gains from manufacturing profits were not sufficiently shared with workers in the form of poverty or hunger reduction.
At his office in Ahmedabad, Bharat Pandya, BJP secretary and spokesperson in Gujarat defended the government’s record on employment. “This ‘poor jobs’ question comes up only in the last five years? Was it not so earlier?” he said.
Pandya, however, acknowledged that the clamour for jobs was related to lack of adequate social protection in the jobs even in large factories. “To address this, when Modiji visited in March, we launched a new co-contribution pension scheme for workers in the unorganised sector. Now, it is only a matter of increasing workers’ awareness and we are engaging various agencies to publicise information among workers.”
He added: “It is true that everyone wants government jobs, but that is not possible. We want that both government and industry’s needs are honoured. This is why we have tried to promote self-employment with loans through Mudra scheme.”
“We have also been organising Maharozgar Mela where we distribute job certificates. We gave 25,000 women contracts for temporary work in private companies,” he said.
Fear for security, not demands for livelihood
While in interior industrial areas such as Morbi where lakhs of migrant workers do not have voting rights, factory workers in older industrial estates of the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC) said they had got voter cards in the last assembly elections. Most residents held temporary or part-time jobs.
On Doodhsagar road, on the outskirts of Rajkot city, in Jai Hind Nagar, which the locals refer to as “Bhaiyabaadi” because many of its residents are second-generation of families that migrated in the 1990s from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Shesh Nath, in his early 20s, said after dropping out of school in high school, he had worked in an automobile gear ancillary workshop. His father had migrated from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh 30 years back. Nath’s job was exhausting and repetitive: to put a part of the gear in the machine and hold and turn it every few minutes. “I stood for 9-10 hours continuously, and made 1050 pieces a day. At the end of the day, I was paid 52 paise for each piece I made,” he said. He added if he made a thousand pieces, the wage was good but it was difficult working in 50-60 degree Celsius in the workshop, and he could not sustain it. He had now found work in HJ Steel, a gear-making factory that paid him ₹300 as daily wage.
24-year-old Shesh Nath said the Patidar demanded jobs because they are unwilling to work in the kind of jobs he did as a manual labourer in Rajkot.
Rajkot was one of the main sites of the Patidar jobs agitation in 2015 and Nath had followed the news on it. He linked the agitations to the nature of jobs now available. “The Patidar youth are educated. Anyone who has been to college, started wearing eyeglasses, they can no longer work hard physically,” he quipped. “There are jobs, but they do not want to work like us. That is why they want reservations.”
Most families in Jai Hind Nagar said they found it difficult to sustain in a city on ₹300 daily wage. Many supplemented daily wage work in factories with piece-rate work at home for ancillary industries.
Women and elderly members of the community work on ancillary industrial tasks from home. They make brass bangles for a jewellery factory for ₹1 a-piece.
Raima Gupta, whose husband came to Rajkot 15 years back from Mhow in UP and found work in a factory said with three children attending school the family could not sustain on an income of ₹9,000 her husband earned. Besides cooking and cleaning at home, she earns a piece-rate wage scraping waste plastic out of washing machine nozzle caps using a blade provided by a factory in GIDC. Each nozzle she cleaned for the company earned her 50 paise but the sharp blade often cut her fingers and she found the work tedious. “I sometimes have fights with my husband that I have an MA degree, I do not wish to do this,” she said. “But my oldest son Suraj is now in Class X, and we need more income.”
Raima Gupta cleans nozzles of washing machines for ₹1 a-piece to supplement her family’s income.
Gupta who has a voter card and will be voting for the second time this election season. She did not think the government could help improve jobs or wages, she said. The main issue she wanted to be resolved was the lack of a road inside Jai Hind Nagar.
Gupta was away in UP for a relative’s funeral when the anti-migrant attacks took place six months back. Only her eldest son was home, and she was relieved that nothing had happened to him—with the police visiting Jai Hind Nagar every two days during the weeks the violence lasted.
She would vote the BJP, she said, because Modi and Vijay Rupani, Gujarat’s chief minister had created an atmosphere of security in the state.
“Six years back, when we first moved here, Congress was in power in our local ward, Muslim men would steal cots from here, wielding blades,” she said. “But after BJP won the ward council, they have stopped.”
When asked how did she find out that it was Muslims men who had stolen the cots, she said she could not be sure if it was true or if it was a rumour. “It is true that many Gujaratis also claim that Bhaiyas (a derogatory term for North Indians) are thieves. Two men from UP were even murdered in Shahpur where we lived earlier over the allegations,” she said. “It is difficult to say what it is true or not, but we support Modi.”
Dina Nath Shah, a 24-year old furniture factory worker said his father had migrated 40 years back from Deoria in Uttar Pradesh. He had voted twice so far, for the BJP in 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the Congress in local civil elections. He said in this vote he too would vote for the BJP, not because of “issues of security.”