This is an excerpt from the sixth edition of the India Exclusion Report, a collaborative effort involving institutions and individuals working with a shared notion of social and economic equity, justice and rights. The report seeks to inform public opinion around exclusion and the role of the state and to influence policy-making towards creating a more inclusive, equitable and just society. The annual publication is anchored by the Centre for Equity Studies and edited by its director, Harsh Mander.

Half-torn posters advising “Ghabrasho Nahi, Savdhani Jaroor Raakhiye” (Don’t Panic, Stay Safe) cover the cracks on the compound walls. The paint at the entrance has paled over time. The khat-khat sound of fibre spinning into yarn in the background that pierced the morning calm at Kismat Colony for decades has gone silent.

The name of this neighbourhood in north Surat sums up the aspirations of its many inhabitants: groups of young migrant men from Odisha’s ecologically sensitive, low-income Ganjam district, who resigned to their fate in the country’s textile capital – even before the Covid-19 pandemic rendered them stranded, starving and unemployed since March 2020.

Sixteen-year-old Bikash Gouda was one among them. He had travelled more than 1,600 kilometres from his home in Landajuali village in Ganjam to work in a power loom unit on Ved Road in the city of Surat. With no work available for him in his coastal village and no money to sustain his family, the Class 8 dropout unquestioningly followed his father and older brothers to the world’s fastest growing city. On April 25, 2018, it had been barely 24 hours since the teenager had entered the gruelling world of loom work. Just as he pushed the starter on a machine, a high-voltage current passed through his body, killing him instantly. His father and two older brothers were working on adjacent looms when they saw Gouda’s body freeze, and then turn blue.

Overnight shock

Cut to March 2020, when nearly 600,000 Odia migrant workers engaged in the power looms were rendered unemployed overnight. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed the nationwide lockdown to flatten the soaring Covid-19 curve, textile and powerloom units pulled down their shutters, old dues remained unpaid, food and ration began to run out, borders were sealed, and there was little to no time remaining for the labourers to stake their claim. For weeks together, the Odia weavers were forced to stay indoors in the low-ventilated and space-starved mess rooms.

This time, the room had to accommodate both shifts of workers at once: more than 100 labourers were packed inside a 500-square-foot room. The calls for social distancing, sanitation and hygiene, and staying indoors for safety, were far removed from both, their reality and aspiration in the city. Tickets for the limited Shramik Express trains (Sleeper Class tickets) were being sold by local politicians and touts for a whopping Rs 2,000. Seats on private buses were priced at Rs 4,000.

Food shortages were being reported across mess rooms. In the midst of this chaos in May 2020, 36-year-old Satyawan Swain, an Odia weaver in the Anjani Industrial Estate, was allegedly thrashed by police authorities, as he had gone to look for railway tickets to return to his wife and five-year-old back in Baruda village in Ganjam. Hours after, Swain suffered a cardiac arrest and succumbed to his injuries.

Police in Surat detain stranded migrant workers in May who were demanding that the authorities allow them to go home. Credit: AFP

Even as Gouda and Swain set foot in the power loom industry two decades apart, their final journeys from the looms in Surat back to their families in Ganjam have stark similarities: unexplained, damaging, hopeless and invisible.

Gouda and Swain’s experiences are a part of our chapter From Fibre to Fabric: Everyday Confrontations with Disaster, Danger and Death by Odia Loom Workers in Surat City published in the India Exclusion Report 2020.

Set against the backdrop of the highly celebrated Gujarat Model of Development, the chapter teases out a ground-up, fine-grained account of labour migration of Odia workers from Ganjam into the million-dollar power-loom industry in Surat. It traces the community’s historical compulsions at the source to the labour processes, socio-economic relations and inhuman work and living conditions at the destination. Hinged on the relationships between social identity, labour markets, inequality and extraction, the chapter strives to delineate the active violence meted out on the Odia loom workers by the collusion of state and capital forces under the garb of “Ease of Doing Business”.

The Covid-19 pandemic, even as it continues to unfold, has further deepened inequalities and exposed existing vulnerabilities of caste, gender and capital, among other experiences. “Before the lockdown, I used to earn Rs 2.25 per metre,” said Dinesh Pradhan, an Odia loom worker, who managed to return to Surat after battling six months of lockdown-induced unemployment. “That rate was also already very low. Now, with several looms shutting down and the employers also knowing that the labourers are desperate for jobs, they have further cut down our wages.”

Upon his return, Pradhan incurred a non-negotiable 20% wage cut. His living expenses including boarding and lodging, however, have increased.

To Surat, from Ganjam

While the path from Odisha to Gujarat has begun to emerge as a corridor for hectic labour mobility over the past six decades, the economic trajectory of the two ends exhibits major contrasts. With its billion-dollar diamond polishing, textile, ship-building and petrochemical industries, Surat is touted as the world’s fastest growing city in the 2019–2035 period (Oxford Economics, 2018), and glowingly referred to as the “El Dorado” of Gujarat, the “lambi minar”, the tall tower.

Strategically located along the west coast of India, between Ahmedabad and Mumbai, the mercantile city has historically served as a crucial trade link between Southeast Asia and West Asia. In the matter of scale, the power loom and textile production industries continue to remain the largest recruiters of migrant labour in the city, and a significant contributor to Gujarat’s economy. The industry has an estimated Rs. 50,000 crore annual industrial turnover, according to a July 2018 report by the Federation of Gujarat Weavers Association and its subsidiary, the Pandesara Weavers Association.

The country’s textile capital produces what is popularly called “art silk”, accounting for around 40% of the total synthetic fabric produced in the country. This art silk is used to make Indian garments, mainly saris, which are sold in bulk to wholesalers across the country and overseas. At present, the textile city is home to Adivasi migrants from southern Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

In terms of history and numbers, Odia weavers, mainly from the economically backward coastal Ganjam district, continue to play a crucial role. On account of the huge influx of a cheap migrant workforce, Gujarati workers constitute only one-fifth of the total workforce in the textile industry.

People in Surat wait for food being handed out by a voluntary organisation in April. Credit: PTI

Located at a distance of nearly 1,600 kilometres, an estimated 35-hour-long train journey away, present-day Ganjam features among the top 20 districts identified with a high level of male inter-state out-migration intensity in the country, as per a “Report of the Working Group on Migration” published by the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation in 2017. In the past decade, the district has further reported a major ecological decline with more frequent and intense floods and hurricanes.

An August 2017 report titled “Labour Conditions in Surat Textile Industry” by the People’s Training and Research Centre, a Vadodara-based non-governmental organisation, states that although Ganjam is considered a “developed district” in Odisha, the “shrinking natural resources, decreasing agricultural land and regular floods and drought have impelled the migration”.

Over the past decade alone, the coastal district, comprising Brahmapur, Asika, Sorada and Chhatrapur regions, has suffered monumental losses on account of Cyclone Phailin in 2013-’14, drought in 2015-’16, pest attacks on rice fields in 2017-’18, and Cyclone Fani in 2018-’19, which severely affected crop production.

Emphasising the condition of infertile lands as a core factor that pushes migration, Mohan Swain, a loom master working in Ved Road in Surat, said, “Continuous floods and cyclones have made most lands infertile…it is a dead investment. Moving out remains the only option. At least we earn money to send back home even if it comes at the cost of living away from our families in such conditions.”

Swain first came to Surat in the 1990s to work on the sancha (weaving) machine. Since then, he has brought his cousins, nephews and neighbours to the textile city. Like Swain, most Odia migrant labourers own none to very little land back in their native villages.

Hanging by a thread

The Odia loom workers live and work in the city’s textile corridor, clocking in 12 hours of work for 365 days of the year. The looms are also a site of alarming number of minor, major and fatal injuries among workers, many of them Odia migrants. The People’s Training Centre report says 84 fatal events that killed a total of 114 workers were reported between 2012 and 2015 in registered textile processing units in Surat.

During the same period, 375 workers were seriously injured. This data was obtained after filing Right to Information applications at the Directorate of Industrial Safety and Health, Gujarat. The city also houses many unregistered power loom workshops, and the number of deaths and accidents could be underestimated; no comprehensive official data is available on any of this.

In addition to fatal injuries and deaths, an alarming number of workers reportedly suffer from varying levels of deafness, mainly due to continuous exposure to the high-decibel loom machines. According to a medical examination undertaken by Aajeevika Bureau’s Surat Centre in 2018, a staggering 95% of workers reported hearing loss. The reports were certified by Christian Medical College and Hospital in Vellore.

Migrant workers stage a protest in Surat in April, demanding that they be allowed to go home. Credit: PTI

A key loophole that fosters such exploitation rests in the very licence registration of the powerloom unit. The majority of the power looms in the city are believed to be registered under the provisions of Shops and Establishments Act 2019, instead of the Factories Act 1948, which offers a slightly more expansive range of protections and rights for workers. This is despite the fact that most power looms come under the scope of the Factories Act as they employ more than 10 workers (over two shifts), use horsepower, and are manufacturing units.

Incidentally, the tax from Shops and Establishment Act registration goes directly to the local authority, while the tax paid under the Factories Act is a state-level tax – as a result, the local authorities have an incentive to register power looms as establishments and not factories. Thus, unlike the provisions under the Factories Act, employers registering their units as “establishments” evade the responsibility of providing mandatory social security and health insurance to their workers. They do not maintain a written record of their workers and pay them in cash (as against a bank account transfer). There is no clear employer-employee relationship that gets documented.

By doing so, they are also able to violate the wage norms prescribed under the Minimum Wages Act 1948, and in the case of worksite accidents and deaths, they are also able to completely disassociate themselves from the said worker.

Likewise, the obsolete machinery, and cramped, hazardous working conditions are also a serious violation of the provisions of the Factories Act. Yet, there is a serious paucity of industrial inspections – in fact, the right of a Factory Inspector to enter workplaces at will has all but disappeared. According to a senior official at the Labour Department (interviewed in 2019), there are only three government labour officers in the entirety of Surat District (whose administrative limits encompass but go far beyond the city itself). Inspections are as a result done on a target basis and are randomized, and under Ease of Doing Business there are no more inspections without complaints already made to the department.

Women labourers

This brazen exploitation further gets reproduced and multiplied even at the household level, where, the home-based Odia women workers labour in extremely insecure, unsafe and extractive arrangements. For starters, the women’s work of cutting threads and sticking sequins is not even recognised as labour by their families – and the women themselves – because it is done inside the house.

In several cases (based on interviews conducted in 2018-’19), the women workers did not even know the name of their employers despite working day in, day out for the same company, leaving little to no room for negotiating their wages.

“Every time I have tried to ask the contractor to increase my wage, he tells me that I am anyway working from my home, and the work requires no real skill. It is almost like time pass work,” said Asha Pradhan, 29, who lives with her husband and three children in an informal settlement in Mina Nagar.

The state, too, has clearly marked the borders between “work” and “home”. According to an official from the Powerloom Service Centre in Surat, compensation and insurance benefits only apply to injuries or deaths reported inside the factory.

“Even though it is known that women workers are a part of the industry, it is very difficult to document their work hours, conditions and injuries since they work inside their households for flexible time periods,” said the official. Thus, even as women workers complained of deep cuts, bruises and permanent damage to their backs and eyes – all sustained because of long hours of underpaid work – there is no mechanism to prove any correlation between their injuries and their employment, and thereby seek compensation.

Read the other excerpts from the India Exclusion Report for 2019-’20 here.

Reetika Revathy Subramanian worked as a Senior Consultant with the Centre for Migration and Labour Solutions, Aajeevika Bureau. She is currently a PhD candidate and Gates Cambridge Scholar at the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge UK.

Sanjay Patel works as Executive (Centre Coordination) with Aajeevika Bureau, Surat.