NEARLY 20,000 migrants employed in powerloom units in Laskana area of Surat took to the streets on Friday night, resorting to arson and stone-pelting, demanding that they be allowed to go to their homes, mostly in Odisha. Police arrested 81 people, who were released on bail on Saturday. The FIR also mentions a mob of 1,200 unidentified people. The anger was provoked by Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s decision to extend the lockdown prompted by coronavirus till April 30 in the state. The labourers said they had been getting frantic calls from families to return.
Akshaykumar Pradhan, 23, belonging to a farming family from Gopalpur village in Ganjam district, said he has been working in Laskana for 13 years and would send Rs 8,000 home every month. Since the lockdown started, Pradhan said, his family was unable to venture out nor had it got anything from the government. “Take us home and then you can shut down for a year, it does not matter,” he said.
Pradhan added that the mess they eat in will be shut from April 15, because there is no supply. “A vehicle comes with food, but is able to feed only half the people here.”
Migrant labourers like him usually go home twice a year, on Diwali and Kali Puja, but now there is no work to keep them in Surat while food is running out.
Laskana, located on Surat’s suburbs, has 1,000-odd powerloom factories. Of the lakhs employed in these units, 80 per cent are believed to be from Ganjam in Odisha alone.
Bhagirath Behera, the vice-president of the Surat Odiya Welfare Association, said they got a call from Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who belongs to Odisha, to sort out the issue. “We will ensure food for at least 10,000 people,” he told The Indian Express.
Earlier, on March 29, migrants employed in the powerloom, dyeing and printing units of Surat had clashed with police when it tried to stop them from setting out on foot for home states, including Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Chhattisgarh, as the lockdown was in place.
President of the Gujarat Weaver Association Ashok Jirawala said that the workers had been paid their wages. “We have checked and found that a majority of the factory owners got paid till March.”
Another worker, Chitrasen Bhola, 27, who said he was tired of eating the khichdi being arranged by local volunteer groups, asked where were the people who could help them, like “the factory owners, local leaders, policemen, or municipal officials”. “The Odisha government and Naveen Patnaik should have talked to Gujarat so that we got food and other items. After last night, we are receiving calls from the Odisha government as well as BJP MP Dharmendra Pradhan.”
Another powerloom worker, Kalu Pradhan, said he and four others had been sharing a rented room since the Janata Curfew day on March 22. “There is no ventilation and a single fan. I got Rs 8,000 from the owner on the last working day and paid off the mess dues… Now we are running out of money and even shops from where we could buy snacks and other food items are closed. The mess owner only serves dal-chawal. How long will we survive on it? When we come on the road, police beat us. Our life is pitiable… My parents back home keep telling me to leave everything and come.”
About Friday night’s incident, Surat police said a large number of migrant labourers had come out of their quarters and started pelting stones on bystanders and a police patrol vehicle. Some NGO vehicles distributing food were also attacked. Police called additional forces and used lathicharge to bring the situation under control. Pickets have been put up outside labour colonies in Laskana now.
Surat Police Commissioner R B Brahmbhatt said, “The labourers are getting food, but with no work, they want to go back to their native places. We have made temporary camps outside the labour settlements and our police are patrolling the area round the clock.”
Surat has 28 coronavirus cases, two of them from the labour colonies at Sachin and Pandesara.