In the empty diamond and textile factories of Surat City, a Covid-19 hotspot with1,659 cases and 73 deaths until Tuesday, lies a throwback to an earlier migrant exodus — during the plague of 1994.
Today, 6.89 lakh migrant workers have left Surat on 431 Shramik Special trains for their homes in Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. Another 1.71 lakh have left by bus to various districts within Gujarat. As the lockdown eases, industries are struggling to reopen with a depleted workforce.
In September 1994 when the plague struck killing 49 persons, at least two lakh migrant workers from Odisha fled Surat, then a city of 25 lakh people among whom 1,391 were infected. Then, too, factories had struggled to reopen after the plague ended. And special trains had to be deployed — but to bring back migrant workers.
Plague and exodus
The Chhabildas Mehta-led Congress government was in power in Gujarat while P V Narasimha Rao was the Prime Minister in the Congress-led central government.
Professor Ghanshyam Shah, then director of Centre for Social Studies in Surat, who has researched the plague, says, “With such a large number of deaths in just few days, people were scared; this led to migration. Those who migrated included private practitioner doctors, engineers, textile businessmen of other states, and most important… a large number of labourers working in textile factories. The migration of around 2 lakh labourers was from Surat to Odisha… After one month the transmission was brought under control, cleaning activities started, and slowly the city was returning to normal.”
Although the city was disinfected within 15 days of the outbreak, industries could not reopen as their workforce was missing. Textile industry leaders including the late Arun Jariwala (ex-chairman of Federation of Indian Art Silk Manufacturer Associations), Surajram Bachkaniwala, Baghwandas Jariwala, Vrajlal Dhamanwala, Kamal Tulsiyan, Jitubhai Vakharia and others approached Surat City BJP president Fakir Chauhan for help.
Fakir Chauhan recalled, “We went to BJP MP of Surat, the late Kashiram Rana, and requested his help to travel to Odisha and bring back workers. In the meeting it was decided that a delegation of BJP led by Kashiram Rana would leave Surat for Odisha and make an attempt to bring back the migrant workers.”
Rana, accompanied by BJP slum cell president Purshotam Tripathi (hailing from Odisha), Abhimanyu Sahoo (general secretary of BJP slum cell and also from Odisha), Surat City BJP vice-president Pratap Tamakuwala, and state BJP vice president Arvind Godiwala, left in mid-October 1994 for Ganjam district, home to most of the migrant workers in Surat.
Sahoo, now 65, the only surviving member of the delegation, himself hails from Ganjam. “Tripathi and I coordinated with community leaders in Ganjam district. Our team stayed in Odisha for 15 days during which we visited different talukas. Before our visit, we had contacted village sarpanches and local leaders… We visited 30 talukas and held meetings with village heads and assured them that Surat City had returned to normalcy. We also told them that their journey back would be free.”
Rana sought help from MPs in Odisha to help convince the workers. Sahoo said: “We could talk to them in Odia and that helped. Everything went well. At village level and taluka level, teams noted down names of migrant workers willing to return. We returned to Surat to make arrangements for trains.”
Chauhan said BJP leaders made representations to the state government while Rana approached the central government, for trains to bring back the workers. The Railways eventually deployed three special trains daily from Odisha to Surat. The trip was free for the workers. For ten days, such trains were run and most migrant workers returned to Surat. The industry resumed operations by mid-December 1994.
Then and now
Pandesara Industrial Cooperative Society president Kamal Vijay Tulsian , 70, owner of J P Dyeing and Printing Mill, recalled: “During the plague, the Surat textile industry had a large number of Odia workers, of whom around 40-45% migrated. But today due to Covid-19, the migration is between 65% and 70%. We have started our factories but are running only day shifts, with a strength of 25 workers against a total force of 400. We have witnessed both instances of migration but this time it is critical as a larger number of migrants have gone back to their home states. We feel that like in 1994, free trains should be run from Odisha, UP, Bihar etc, to bring back the workers after the situation becomes normal.”
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Industry sources said the textile industry employs around 15 lakh migrant workers while the diamond industry employs around six lakh. Unlike earlier, today the migrant workforce hails from a number of states — Rajasthan, UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Odisha, Telangana and Maharashtra states. The majority of the labour force in the diamond factories hail from Saurashtra in Gujarat.