Wednesday is Haresh Lalu’s favourite time of the week. It is the day when textile factories in Gujarat’s Jetpur town remain closed on account of weekly load-shedding (planned power cuts), and Lalu gets a chance to unwind with his friends and his phone.
“Factory work is exhausting, but it pays Rs 300 a day,” said Lalu, a 21-year-old from Sardarpur village, seven km from Jetpur. “I would love to have a better job outside the factory. But I don’t have an education, and there is no money in agriculture, so I don’t have a choice.”
Lalu is among scores of young men from the Darbar caste in Sardarpur who dropped out of school to start working in Jetpur’s textile mills. In the middle of the largely agrarian Rajkot district dominated by the Patidar caste, this Rs 2,000-crore industry employs thousands of labourers who dye yarn, manufacture low-cost saris, and print batik fabric that is exported to Africa.
Like Lalu, many of these labourers belong to Other Backward Classes groups like the Darbars, Khants and Vanans. Those in their late teens and 20s have little education and neither the hope nor the desire to make a living out of agriculture.
Like the Patidar majority of rural Rajkot, farmers from the Other Backward Classes have been hit hard by a three-year drought, scarcity of irrigation water, elusive crop insurance and low minimum support prices for their cotton and groundnut crops. Across caste groups, young men are seeking employment or business opportunities beyond their fathers’ farms.
Unlike the Patidars, however, most Other Backward Classes farmers in Jetpur are not too disgruntled by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s 22-year reign in Gujarat. While Patidar leader Hardik Patel has turned a large section of his community against the BJP – he leads a campaign demanding caste-based reservations for Patidars in higher education and government jobs – OBC leader Alpesh Thakor, who is contesting the upcoming Assembly election on a Congress ticket, is merely another name in the headlines for the backward caste groups of rural Rajkot.
There are at least two major reasons for this. Patidar sub-castes are more easily unified by their primary caste identity as land-owners, but the OBCs are a collection of disparate backward caste groups who do not necessarily have much in common with each other. Alpesh Thakor’s influence is largely restricted to the Thakor caste of Rajputs in Gujarat’s northern districts, and his election constituency of Radhanpur is 300 km North of Rajkot district.
In Jetpur, young OBCs under the age of 22 – a generation that has grown up entirely under BJP rule – are happy to maintain the status quo. Even in the face of bullying by their Patidar neighbours, most first-time OBC voters claim they will choose the BJP when they participate in their first Assembly election on December 9 and 14.
“Everyone in my family has been voting for BJP all these years, so I will do that too,” said Haresh, who had his voter identity card made a few months ago. “Not because of [Narendra] Modi, but because of the vikas [development] he has brought.”
Sitting in the shade of a tree in Sardarpur on their day off, Haresh Lalu and his friends Bhavesh Bheda and Mahipat Lalu were vague when they described the development that they believe the BJP has brought to their region.
“The roads are better than before,” said Bheda, a 19-year-old textile factory worker from the Khant community. “The government has set up good schools and colleges. The BJP MLA here is a good man, so we will vote for him again.”
He added: “My community gets reservations, but I know many OBC students who have not taken it.”
Growing self-conscious about the crowd of Patidar villagers around him, Bheda said, “I am a 10th fail [he failed Class 10] so I am not studying further, but everyone who deserves reservation should get it.”
The Patidars have been agitating since 2015 for reservations under the Other Backward Classes quota.
The trio became more animated while talking about agriculture, and here their report card for the government grew harsher. Most groundnut and cotton farms in the Saurashtra region yielded poor harvests during the drought years from 2014 to 2016, but many farmers are yet to see the benefits of the Prime Minister’s Fasal Bima Yojana or crop insurance scheme.
“My father got the insurance for his groundnut crop that failed last year, but we are still not getting insurance for our cotton crop,” said 20-year-old Mahipat Lalu, whose family owns four acres of farmland.
This year, harvests have improved but farmers are forced to sell their cotton for either Rs 850 per 20 kg in the open market, or for Rs 864 to the government as per the minimum support price.
“In 2014, Modi had promised to raise the cotton MSP [minimum support price] to Rs 1,400,” said Haresh Lalu. “What happened to that?”
He is aware that his father is heavily in debt to several money lenders. “Besides loans for farming, we also had to survive on loans during notebandi [demonetisation] last year, because the factories were shut for two months,” he said. “Now I just hand over my daily factory wages to my father, to help him out.”
‘Who wants to work in the sun?’
Financial loss, however, is not the only reason why young OBC men are seeking futures outside of agriculture.
In the neighbouring village of Pithadiya, Bharat Dabhi and Hiren Majethia, sons of landless farm labourers from the Vanan caste of barbers, are very clear about why they prefer to operate screen-printing machines in a textile factory rather than pick cotton in a farm. “Who wants to work in the sun all day?” said 18-year-old Dabhi, who stopped studying after Class 10 and took up his factory job at 15. “At least there are fans in the factory.”
Even as Dabhi and Majethia described factory labour as more comfortable, they admitted that their sisters continue to work as agricultural labourers.
Didn’t the women get to opt out of working in the sun all day?
“That’s not how it is,” said Majethia. “The factories employ only men because the work is harder. Picking cotton is easy for women’s fingers, so they work in the farms.”
While Majethia is satisfied with his factory job, which pays him between Rs 7,000 and Rs 8,000 a month despite his poor education, he is clear that he does not want his children to follow in his footsteps. “I am saving money so that whenever I have children, they can study and get good government jobs,” said Majethia, who believes his children will face an expensive future even if they are entitled to reservations and scholarships as OBCs. “Right now, even with reservations, I know people who have had to pay bribes to get government jobs.”
Dabhi regrets not being able to complete his education. “I would have studied if my family had the money, but in our village, the boys who go to college are mostly Patidars, not OBCs,” he said. “In general, the Patidars have more money.”
The education divide
The subtle caste divisions in education are evident on the campus of Bosamiya Arts and Commerce College, a private college in Jetpur town that students across the taluka prefer over government colleges. The institute has students from across caste groups, but there is an urban-rural divide.
“Most of the students who come from rural areas are Patidars, not backward castes,” said Rina Sarvaiya, an 18-year-old computer applications student from the OBC Mochi caste. “Most of the OBCs in this college tend to be from Jetpur city.”
Sarvaiya, whose father runs a private business in the town, was born and raised in urban Jetpur. “I didn’t get reservation here since this is a private college, but I am hoping I will get a good government job through the OBC quota,” she said.
Her senior, 19-year-old Ankur Gohil, is also an urban OBC and is not as concerned with reservations. “Even though we fall under OBC, people from my Luhar caste are not very backward,” said Gohil. “Sometimes colleges favour the more backward OBC castes for their quotas, so those who deserve reservations the most do get them.”
‘Modi has done a good job’
Unlike Sarvaiya, who favours the BJP but is uninterested in politics, Gohil knows exactly whom he does not want to vote for.
“This is my first election but I am not excited to vote, because neither the Congress nor the BJP have good candidates in Jetpur,” said Gohil, who is happy with the Modi government at the Centre, but not with the local BJP MLA Jayesh Radadia. “In this town, there has been no development. Look at the roads – they are not up to standard. We have not been given gas pipelines like the people in Rajkot city. I might just vote for an independent candidate.”
Back in Pithadiya, Hiren Majethia and Bharat Dabhi also knew whom they wanted to vote for, but were hesitant to mention it in front of all the anti-BJP Patidar villagers gathered around them. They watched in uncomfortable silence while the Patidars listed their objections to the BJP government, and one man got into an aggressive fist fight with a lone Patidar defending the BJP.
Finally, with an awkward shrug, Majethia said, “Modi has done a good job for us.”
First-time voters in Gujarat
They have only seen BJP government at the state level.