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Salute to Surat!

Updated: October 23, 2015 12:15 pm

Before I finished my formal education, many of my friends from my native district were working in Surat and at a very young age they were earning handsome amounts. I had a strong impression that Surat must be a very advanced city of our country as it was providing employment to lakhs through textile and diamond industries. In eighties also almost every month unemployed youths were migrating from Odisha to work in textile sector. Now, many Odiyas are established in Surat with good business proposition. Thanks to the business culture of Surat, it has become now a city of flyovers and infrastructure, and has really taken the front seat. During his public rallies in 2014 Lok Sabha elections in one of the India’s poorest states, Odisha, Modi had acknowledged the efforts and sacrifices of the ten lakh Odia migrants who have migrated to Gujarat and made the economy prosper. He lauded the efforts and said that Surat, along with other cities, owes its prosperity to the hard work being put in by the migrant labourers. Modi added that in his dream of a new India with a uniform development, he would welcome the day when Gujarati youth would migrate to Odisha in search for fresh pastures. Modi was unaware of the fact that Gujaratis too had been migrating to Odisha since 1750, and have left an indelible impression on the economic growth of the state. After the great famine of 1866, there was a substantial movement of Odia labour force to other places.

The advent of the railways spurred the migration to a great extent. After the initial migrants had established a beachhead in Gujarat, in the sixties, it was much easier for the rest to follow. Today, young men from the sending villages just land up at the destination in Gujarat, knowing that a friend or relative will help them find a job. Life in the slums of Surat is tough for the workers from Odisha. Most of the workers hire rooms just to sleep for a couple of hours. The unhygienic surroundings of the cupboard-like rooms make life worse. Sometimes tussle with the power loom owners and the extreme hard labour involving 12 hours of non-stop work in standing position take their toll. Most of the sweatshops exploit them, though comparatively the average worker makes enough to send home a substantial amount. According to informal estimates, migrant workers from Odisha in Surat are around six lakh of which more than four lakh are from Ganjam alone. About 30 per cent of these people are seasonal migrants. Put together, these workers remit around Rs 10,000 crore to the state through local hawala channels every year. Surat is one place where they, without formal education and qualifications, can get reasonably well-paid jobs.

Despite these huge remittances to their home state, and their unacknowledged contribution to the industrial growth of Gujarat, this labour force is denied civil and political rights. The Inter-State Migrant Workman Act of 1979 is not being enforced. Acts like Workmen Regulation Act and Bonded Labour Act too are not implemented effectively. Surat mill owners even do not allow the migrants to form any labour union. Migrants to the city can earn anything between Rs 10,000 and Rs 15,000 per month. A large part of this income has to be remitted back to their villages. For the migrant workers, there are formal and informal channels of remitting money back home. They do use money orders and the banking systems, but an important informal channel used in Surat is that of tapawala.

The tapawalas, as a money remittance channel, have a somewhat long history in Surat. Due to poor accessibility to formal channels, the migrants had been looking for alternate modes of transferring money. Since the early days, a few individuals had been coming to Surat especially to collect money from Odia workers and hand over the same to their families back home. To avoid giving the impression that they were travelling with hard cash, they carried such money in a nondescript tin trunk or a box (daba) and got identified as ‘dabawalas’. Later, the term got popular as ‘tapawala’.

The Government of Odisha is thumping its chest to loudly proclaim that Naveen Patnaik has taken many steps for the development of the state and its people. They could claim so as Naveen Patnaik is running the fourth term in government. But the migrants’ number is not reducing. And there are many Odiyas in Surat who have developed themselves with their talent and skills and they don’t want to return to Odisha because they don’t see better opportunities there. Their hereditary properties are lying vacant with barren fields. In Odisha for agricultural purposes also no farming labour is ready to work. Naveen Babu is providing them rice at one rupee per kg. In urban areas, labours are getting meals at five rupees. Industrial growth and per capita income of Odisha is stagnant. Why I am writing all this is to put a point whether one rules a state for the welfare of the state, or for exploiting the people of the state. If one compares between Gujarat and Odisha, then Gujarat is far more ahead than Odisha, which is one of the poorest states of India. Now, Modi is the Prime minister of India, will he fulfil his poll promises to the people of Odisha of stopping migration of Odiya labour to Surat? Also there is a long-pending demand for CBI inquiry into the multi-crore mines scam and chit-fund scam in Odisha at least for the welfare of the state of Odisha.

Deepak Kumar Rath

Deepak Kumar Rath

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