An Understated Tragedy The case of Odia migrants in Surat AIDS is an increasingly normal part of life of the migrant labourers
Rajendra Swain, a school dropout, had left home at a very tender age in search of work. He along with his schoolmate Rajkishor Pallai landed at Surat in South Gujarat. Both were desperate and had moved from place to place. Penniless and nowhere to hide, after spending some sleepless nights at railway station, they got a place to live with a fellow Odia labourer, who also arranged work for them—Rs 1500 per month for filling and binding bobbin in a textile mill.
Within two years both became machine operators and were earning more than Rs 5,000—and more than Rs. 7,000 after few years. When they grew up with both age and money, they were lured to the brothels of the city by their close friends. Like its job market city’s brothels were also appalling for the young migrants like Rajendra and Rajkishor. Both of them were adoptive to the new life in city so was their addiction to the sex life. And within five years when they became 30+ they were carrying Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) which became full-blown AIDS.
When they returned home after prolonged illness they were tested and were suspected cases of HIV+. They lived at home with social isolation, couldn’t be married and finally they died. Both Rajendra and Rajkishor were the natives of Ganjam area of Ganjam district. Even Rajendra’s elder brother, who also joined him in Surat as a machine operator, is said to have died at an early age leaving his two children and wife half way in life. Not only STDs, sometimes dense and dingy living conditions in Surat slums, over hours of working, lack of nutritious food, unsafe drinking water and over-dependence on quakes kill thousands of them.
Similar is the story of Pratap Jena, 28, who belongs to Maulpalli village in Polsora block of Odisha’s Ganjam district. He was working as a textile labour in Surat (Gujarat). He had married two years back of his untimely death and had a son. His sudden death on February 1, 2004, had sent a shockwave through the large migrant labour community and their family members, who toil in Surat’s textile industry. Pratap’s case was not an isolated one. Since then more number of AIDS-related death cases have come to the fore. The HIV+ cases were first found in Ganjam in 1994.
He was identified as an AIDS victim just a few months before his death in an AIDS awareness camp in his village. Identified along with him were 21 others, out of 618 patients tested. In Ganjam district, there were 65 more who were living with full-blown AIDS. The government by that time claimed that there were only 166 AIDS patients in the entire state but non-government organisations assert that there were more than 5,000 HIV positive people of whom at least 400 were AIDS patients. And of these 25 patients had died.
According to the latest government reports compiled up to March 2011, there are at least 20,596 HIV+ cases in the state of them 1497 are AIDS patients and 1276 deaths were AIDS patients. Ganjam leads the death cases with 421 followed by Koraput with 148. Similarly, Ganjam has the highest number of AIDS virus carriers with 491 and Koraput with 158 cases and Cuttack also has 115 cases. As far as HIV+ cases are concerned, Ganjam has the highest number of cases, i.e. 7980, followed by Cuttack 2842, Koraput 1159 Khurdha 926 and Sambalpur 824 cases. Out of 35,000 cross-referral cases in the state 12,000 have both TB and HIV+.
Migration is the major culprit for their condition. There are more than 5,00,000 Odia migrant labourers working in Surat from Ganjam district alone out of 7,00,000 labourers from the state. Although Ganjam is considered a developed district in Odisha, shrinking natural resources, decreasing agricultural land and regular floods and drought have impelled the migration. Ganjam, Bolangir, Sundergarh, Nuapara and Koraput are other districts with high migration.
At least 30 per cent of them are seasonal migrants and the others live in the slums of Surat around the year, in conditions that carry high risks of unsafe sex leading to HIV transmission. The medical community of Gujarat and Odisha confirms the alarming increase in AIDS among migrant labourers. Driven out of poverty Odisha presents a paradoxical picture of poverty amidst plenty.
Despite being endowed with vast natural resources, Odisha continues to be amongst the poorest states in the country. The state’s economic survey shows a heavy incidence and persistence of poverty, which characterises the economy of Odisha. Poverty is also spatially concentrated in Odisha: some regions, such as the south, are poorer. Several anti-poverty and wage employment programmes have been implemented in the state since 1980-81 to create income-generating assets and employment on daily wage basis. But migration goes unchecked.
In a recent statement, State Labour Commissioner Alekh Chandra Padhiary admitted that around 1.8 million people migrated from Odisha every year. Of these, only 50,000 are registered. As a result, it is virtually impossible to ensure that migrants receive a minimum wage, enjoy full labour rights, and receive compensation in the event of sickness or death. The situation worsened due to the colossal damage caused by the super cyclone in 1999 and the subsequent severe drought of 2000 followed by unprecedented floods.
Surat presents a mix of continuity and change in its social character. Its dominant trade-centred city economy of the past is now an amalgamation of a capital-intensive industrial set-up and a wide range of numerous small-scale units associated with production, processing, repairs and services. Job opportunities in the textile, diamond and jari industries have over the past decades attracted workers from distant states like Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.
About 86 per cent of Odia migrants in the city are from Ganjam district alone and most Andhra migrants from its Warangal and Nalgonda district. Low agricultural productivity in many of the South Odisha and Telangana villages and an almost total lack of alternative jobs have led to a large-scale migration of younger males to Gujarat. In many of these areas, the failure of developmental programmes, persistence of poverty and a continued marginalisation of rural poor, especially those belonging to the lower caste groups, led peasant and farm households to send part of their male labour force to the city.
Many workers were attracted by the possibility of being absorbed in specific sectors where people from their villages were already working. Migrants to the city can earn anything between Rs 1,500 and Rs 4,000 in a month. A large part of this income has to be remitted to their villages. Around Rs 3,000 crore per annum flows into Odisha by way of remittances from workers working outside the state. Of this, nearly Rs 1,000 crore is from Gujarat, Rs 100 crore from Andhra Pradesh and the rest from other parts of the country and abroad. But there is no smooth way of getting the hard-earned money to dependent families. Migrants still use the toppawalla network, peer networks and money orders to send money home. There is no banking network/system in place, and migrants are denied bank passbooks because they have no identification papers.
Many are working to retrieve their mortgaged land or acquire some land in their native villages that can sustain their families. This city’s organised slums now house more than 17 lakh migrant labourers from, Odisha Andhra, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu besides wage labourers from Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Maharashtra and Gujarat itself. Dense and dingy living conditions, long working hours and oppressive work environments make the lives of many migrants a living hell. The location of their slums is determined mainly by nearness to worksites, available patches of land along the roads and rail tracks, open spaces adjacent to factory walls, low-lying areas and river and canal banks.
Lakhs of migrants from Odisha have chosen Surat in south Gujarat as their place of work. Surat boasts of a lucrative job market and is a booming industrial, textiles, and diamond/jari hub. According to estimates, at least 7,00,000 people from Odisha are employed in Surat, mostly in power looms. The average wage per month is around Rs 3,000-7,000. Almost 75 per cent are not registered—they do not have basic privileges like provident fund, gratuity, bonus, pension, holidays, etc. They are not even issued an identity card or pay slip. They don’t enjoy facilities like a basic minimum wage, standard working hours, safe dwelling, clean drinking water, health facilities, basic education for their children, or job security.
Although many migrants live away from their homes for months, sometimes years (very few with their families), they are not provided a pucca house to live in or basic facilities. They live in Surat’s slums, without clean water, sanitation or electricity. And because they do not know the language, their children cannot go to school and are forced to work. The few Odisha schools there are, established under Odia Samar’s initiatives, lack buildings (classrooms), teachers, and textbooks.
Health is a major area of concern. Because of late working hours, inadequate shelter, poor nutrition, unclean drinking water, and poor sanitation, migrants contract a number of illnesses like cholera and viral fever. HIV/AIDS and other STDs are fast spreading among migrants to Surat.
Brothels flourish as much as jobs and this is the only reason why Surat is a sitting duck for an AIDS bomb. Surat is the only city in Gujarat with an organised “red-light” area. Large-scale proliferation of premarital promiscuity, multiple sexual partnerships with commercial sex workers and high homosexuality are part of labour life here. Today, even police records show that there are around 5,000 commercial sex workers in Surat, a large number of whom are AIDS carriers.
The menace of AIDS is graver than usually understood since migrant workers return to their native places taking the risk across several hundred kilometres to their families. There are no specific actions or programmes undertaken by the government to curb unsafe sex, but NGOs in the region, with some financial support from state AIDS cell and funding agencies, occasionally conduct health camps in rural areas.
The response to AIDS awareness activities, however, continues to remain low due to the social stigma and embarrassment related to the disease. Compounding the problem is the lack of counselling skills as well as absence of sufficient equipment for the Elisa test, relating to HIV identification. Keeping in view the rising number of suspected AIDS cases among Odia migrants the health department of the government of Gujarat and the district administration of Ganjam signed an agreement to issue health cards to migrant labourers. A promising initiative turned futile because a system to identify and mobilise migrant workers could not be put in place.
“Distinguishing between forced and voluntary migration can be a challenging task. Migration sometimes starts as a partially voluntary process, but becomes a compelled process when natural resources are depleted, or when land becomes uninhabitable. Both render livelihoods impossible and make developing policy options even more difficult and complex. Over time, the line between forced and voluntary migration often blurs”, says a briefing paper of Asian Development Bank (ADB)
With an estimated 2.31 million people carrying HIV+ virus in the country and migration both by force and choice has been a trend, then what would be the way out to tackle the menace which is taking an epidemic form in many places?
By Sudarshan Chhotoray from Bhubaneswar