On one side of a canal in Ahmedabad district lies Changodar village, housing one of the largest GIDC (Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation) industrial estates in the state, with 1,550 units, and dominated by the Thakor community. On the other lies Saraswatinagar, a colony of migrants, making up 80-85 per cent of the workforce that keeps the wheels at the GIDC turning.
Even before the recent violence by the Thakors against migrants across Gujarat, following an incident of rape, Saraswatinagar existed as an island, with nearly 8,000-9,000 migrants cramped in 100-odd houses.
Now it is an island under 24X7 police watch, hoping to draw back the nearly 80 per cent people who have fled since the violence started on October 2, including into temporary quarters provided by factory owners.
Uday Bhan came to Saraswatinagar as a 16-year-old high school dropout, from Naya Khera village near Rae Bareli in Uttar Pradesh, 1,220 km away. On his uncle’s recommendation, he got a job at Kabhi B, one of the largest bread plants in the Changodar GIDC estate, for Rs 1,100 a month. Twenty years later, having got married and become a father of a two-year-old, and having risen through the ranks, he makes about Rs 20,000, and knows no life apart from that factory and Saraswatinagar.
Over the years, three of Uday’s brothers joined him to work at the same factory, including Chandra (42), Suraj (30) and Vijay (26). Only their eldest brother remains back in the village. There are as many as 16 people from Naya Khera in Saraswatinagar now.
At the colony, the brothers share two rooms with five-six other men in each. Theirs is the only three-storey building in the colony, with 12 rooms on each floor. The toilets and bathrooms are shared. Since they do different shifts, this is not an issue, smiles Uday.
The room he lives in is almost entirely taken up by two folding cots, a table fan, their few items of clothing, an LPG cylinder and stove, a television, some kitchen essentials and one suitcase. Like most of the migrants, the brothers cook their own meals.
His most precious belonging in the room, Uday says, is a framed photograph of his father, who died two years ago. Next to it lie a photo of Goddess Durga and the only thing Gujarati in the quarters: a small photo of local deity Khodiyar Mata.
Most men, like the Bhans, live alone, with families back home. The few women in Saraswatinagar stand out in how they wear their saris, which is different from the Gujarati way, and their long vermillion streaks.
Saraswatinagar has no drinking water supply, though it gets electricity. Most children go to a private school in the colony, Saraswati Vidyalaya, that has English- and Hindi-medium classes. Principal Jeetubhai Kapadia says their 600-odd children are largely “Hindibhashi”. Vinay Prakash Singh, who came from Deoria in UP 13 years ago, says they pay Rs 20 per bottle for water for drinking and cooking. For the rest, they go to nearby handpumps and borewells.
There is little money to spare, and whatever is saved, is sent to the village. Among their few indulgences, Uday says, is a party on their children’s birthdays. “We don’t celebrate own birthdays, but that day, we get 2-4 kg bhajiya (pakoda), cold drinks and cut a cake.”
Among Gujarati food, bhajiya is his favourite, Uday says, adding that he longs for the yellow kadhi his wife makes. “They make kadhi here too, but it is white and sweet… We rarely go out for meals. Maybe once in a year.”
His biggest annual spending is on clothes that he purchases for the once-in-a-year trip back home. Last year, he went to Surat to buy clothes for his entire extended family. He ended up spending Rs 7,800, Uday laughs.
Letting in on a secret, he adds that Rae Bareli has cheaper clothes, but he can’t deny his family the pleasure of gifts from a place they have never visited in the 20 years he has been here. “If I tell my wife a sari is for Rs 1,200-1,300, she scolds me,” he chuckles.
While shaken by the violence, the first time against them, the Bhans are hopeful of things normalising soon. The brothers have been living on their factory premises since October 2. “There are jobs closer home too, but we know that if we work there, we would go to the village every two-three months and not save much. Here we go home once a year and save Rs 70,000-80,000,” says Suraj.
The workers are entitled to two offs in a month, which they can avail after intimating their supervisor in advance. Apart from this, they get 18 days leave in a year.
Uday says this means that they spend most festivals in Saraswatinagar itself, saving their leaves for family events or other work back home. In 20 years, he would have spent perhaps two Diwalis, two Holis at home, he estimates. “Apart from a marriage or death, it is rare we brothers go home together.”
The manager of the bread plant where the brothers work, Rajesh Dixit, who has around 200 workers in his staff, hopes his migrant labourers will stay, pointing out that they do most of the hard work. “While the migrants work in the production units, locals are employed in offices etc. The night shifts are taken up by the migrants too.”
Uday, who is among those in the night shift, says there is one daily ritual he never misses. Every evening after dinner, before leaving for the factory, he calls home, “spending 30 minutes to an hour talking”. Since the violence began, they have been getting frequent calls from family members. “They repeat the same thing… return once it is safe.”
While Ahmedabad DSP Rajendra Asari assures that there is calm now, it is the words of Bahadursinh Thakor, the de-facto sarpanch of Changodar, which console Uday more. “Insaaniyat se bada koi dharam nahin hai (There is nothing bigger than humanity). That girl who was assaulted was from our community but a migrant attacking her does not make all of them wrong,” Thakor says.
Still, once there is peace again, Uday does not expect things to change much between him and the locals. Twenty years after he came, he still does not speak Gujarati, and neither do the other migrants at his factory. “Our interaction with locals is very restricted. It is only factory to the room for us.” On the days there is a holiday due to a festival, they may go to places where the locals hang out or shop. But mostly, they lie in their dingy rooms.
Uday regrets one more thing. “Earlier we would at least play cards, but now everyone gets busy on their phones. Everyone has downloaded games… we play them.”