An overpowering clatter of power looms pervades the lanes and bylanes of Surat’s Fulwadi, drowning out not just political noise but also the grim realities of its residents, mostly migrant workers from Odisha, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh.
Back in March, when Prashant Kumar Swain’s left index finger got stuck in a mechanised power loom machine, he let out a scream. As his cries for help struggled to rise above the din, Swain writhed in pain.
“My finger got stuck. When the shift manager realised what happened, I was taken to a local health centre, which referred me to a bigger hospital. The employer bore the expenses of the immediate treatment. Later, I was sacked without any compensation,” says Swain, who is from Odisha’s Ganjam district.
Fulwadi, a haphazard industrial estate along the banks of the Tapi in Limbayat in Katargam constituency, is full of such harrowing accounts of grievous injuries suffered by workers and their elusive search for justice that rarely, if ever, find space in the agenda and promises of leaders canvassing for votes.
Fulwadi, along with Pandesara on the city’s outskirts, is among the migrant hubs in Surat that witnessed fierce clashes between workers and the police after the imposition of lockdown in March 2020.
Ahmedabad-based lawyer Pratik Rupala, who appeared for many workers who were booked, says around 50 workers were charged with attempted murder. Those booked have obtained bail, Rupala adds.
“Around 35 of us left in a truck covered from all sides. We were charged Rs 3,000 each. While we managed, many got stranded and were sent back to the cities. In the bigger trucks, up to 200 people squeezed in. The conditions were hellish,” says Anil Paul, a resident of Kanpur Dehat in UP.
However, as the pandemic gradually ebbed, the units started filling up with workers, who turned up in far greater numbers, reflecting economic distress, according to Sharad Zagade who played a key role in setting up the Pravasi Shramik Suraksha Manch for safeguarding the rights of workers in the city.
Dhirendra Dakua, also from Ganjam, a region which has fuelled the industry with a steady supply of workers over the decades, also lost a finger in an accident on the shop floor.
“Poora ungli kat gaya (I lost my entire finger),” says Dakua. Left without a job, his son, Nibasha (22), has now joined the same industry to run the family, which is landless. In fact, boys, as young as 14 years, are employed in units across Fulwadi.
“I lost both my parents young. As a result, I had to start working early,” says Shyamal Patra (name changed), who arrived in Surat last year.
Over the years, a section of the workers, who arrived decades back, enrolled as voters in Gujarat, which has finally helped them draw some attention from the parties. For instance, Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who hails from Odisha, interacted with a group of workers from the state on Saturday.
In his speech, Pradhan lauded the contribution of the Odia community to the growth of the textile industry in Surat. Violation of labour rights and laws, however, found no mention in his nearly 20-minute address.
“We are migrants after all, with no votes in Gujarat,” points out Alok Pal, who comes from Kanpur Dehat. His fingers, covered with thick grime, mutely testify to the long hours of work in punishing conditions.
The work hours are punctuated by little breaks during which workers catch some breath over sugary tea, sold in corner shacks, also set up by migrants from other states. “Our shifts last 12 hours, with small breaks for food. The average earnings range from Rs 12,000 to Rs 30,000 for those with long experience,” says Munna Mohanty, who shares a cramped room with fellow workers in the same area, overrun by garbage and odour.
Also, most workers who suffer injuries are forced to return to work within months due to a lack of opportunities back home. “I was applying grease when the tip of my fingers got crushed. The company left me to fend for myself after giving me some money for immediate treatment. That said, I have no choice but to return soon,” says Rabi Sankar Dakua over the telephone from Ganjam.
Sanjay Patel of the Ajeevika Research Bureau, which works on labour rights and migration in the area and helps workers in distress, explains how most industrial units escape labour laws by registering themselves under the Shops and Establishment Act instead of the Factories Act.
Adds Zagade, “The owners show less than 10 employees under them to remain under the Shops and Establishment Act to escape strict labour laws. It is an open secret. During polls, parties offer hollow assurances when we approach them.”
At Fulwadi, meanwhile, autos mounted with loudspeakers enter occasionally, blaring the campaign songs of the parties that have hired them and littering the area with leaflets mentioning poll promises.
But inside the factory units, it is business as usual as the daily grind unfolds amid the unceasing khat khat of the power looms. “Hum to isharon mai baat karte hai, andar koi awaaz hi nahi jaata (the noise is loud inside that we communicate through gestures, we don’t get to hear anything inside),” says Ramcharan Mahato who is from Nalanda in Bihar.