Surat is the textile hub of India. It is also the center for diamond cutting and polishing. Most of the businesses conducted here are a part of the informal sector and are predominantly owned by Gujaratis. The workforce for the diamond industry primarily comprises of Kathiawadi, a Gujarati community from Kathiawar followed by a minor proportion of migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan.
As per 2011 India census, the population of Surat is estimated at 4.5 million. It is believed that close to 100,000 migrants come here for work every year. The government claims that the total number of migrants from other states to Surat is about 0.5 million, but off the record, it could be 1.5–2 million. Majority of the migrants come from Ganjam district of Odisha. Due to a lack of opportunities there, they travel almost 2000 km from the eastern coast of India. A lot of them come from Telangana and its neighbouring places. Most of these Odia- and Telugu-speaking migrants work in power-loom units. Embroidery, dyeing and printing, dhaga (thread) cutting, sales and retail are other parts of the textile industry.
The power-loom units can be found throughout the city. Ved road and Gotalawadi areas in the interiors have a lot of those, resulting in congested narrow roads with garbage scattered everywhere. Surat Municipal Corporation identified the city as a green zone and has made efforts to shift most of the power-loom units outside the city. As a result, the industries have moved to the outskirts. The machines run 24×7, making deafening noise all day.
When I made my first visit to a power-loom factory, I was astonished to know that a worker has to work 12-hour shifts every day amidst this noise. After half an hour, when I went to a quiet place nearby, I could feel the noise still echoing in my ears.
The machines are placed next to each other in such a way that it seemed impossible for me to move in between them. I hesitated to go too close to the machines as I was afraid that some part of my body might touch it and then it will suck me in. This fear was also probably developed during the visit because I was informed of the deaths that have taken place due to faulty machinery here.
These are 4-5 storey buildings on either side of the road. Each floor is packed with different sorts of machines that can be classified based on the purpose they’re trying to meet such as yarn–kachcha maal, binding, TFO processing, warping, bheem–pachchad, sancha machine and folding/ melding. The owner’s office is usually air-conditioned and soundproof, on the ground or first floor. They have an adjacent working kitchen used mostly to make tea or coffee. Inside the office, one would find the owner and a TV set to keep an eye on CCTV cameras. This is comparatively more prevalent in new factories on the outskirts of the main city.
The age of the workers varies from 18–50 years. Each floor would have 30-40 power-loom machines with three workers, each one of them taking care of 10–12 machines. One machine is capable of producing 30-40 metres of cloth in 12 hours depending on the quality of cloth and the age of the machine. A worker gets paid ₹1.25–2.10 per metre of cloth.
So, a Sancha machine worker who works 12 hours a day continuously with power failures in between and manages 12 machines which produce 35 metres of cloth each, earns ₹500–600 a day. Most of them work with Sancha/power-loom machines. In a month, one manages to earn ₹15,000 on an average. All the other workers working on other machines earn somewhere between ₹12,000 to 20,000 if they work 12 hours every day of the month.
After working long hour shifts with deafening noise in non-ventilated rooms, the workers suffer from physical as well as mental stress.
It’s mainly the Odia migrants who work in this sector followed by those from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Telangana. They stay close to the factories to be able to save time and money. Most of the Odia migrants first come to the city as single migrants, with the hope of earning money and sending a major part of it back to their families in villages. As a result, they tend to keep a minimal approach toward their lifestyle. They try to spend the least and hence, compromise on the quality of food, accommodation, hygiene and sanitation.
The first generation of migrants can be seen living in mess rooms, a 700–800 sq. ft rooms where 100 people can accommodate in turns. When 50 workers sleep, the other 50 are doing their 12-hour shift at power-loom units.
These rooms were usually built to run power-loom machines, but due to some reason, that did not happen, and now, these windowless poor ventilated rooms are used to accommodate workers. Generally, the mess rooms are owned by someone who is not the power-loom factory owner. Each one pays about ₹500 to stay and ₹2000 for two meals a day for a month. There are separate rooms for food; an open washroom and a semi-open toilet at the entrance. There is hardly any boundary to distinguish one area from another. As a result, water from the washroom and toilet enters the resting area.
Lack of windows means no sunlight or ventilation, which results in a damp room leading to germs and diseases. For an outsider, it becomes unbearable to stand in a mess room as one needs time to get used to the darkness, less oxygen with a bad odour to breathe and the sticky floor. It’s hard to understand how these people live in such conditions after working for long hours in the factory, which makes it obvious that they are desperate to save money. They don’t have the luxury to think about the toll this lifestyle takes on their body. In spite of spending a lot of money on health every year, they don’t consider living in better human settlements so that their health doesn’t suffer.
The current generation of migrants who come with no acquaintance around, prefer to stay in mess rooms initially. They then make friends and shift to shared rooms in a bunch of 3 or 4. The number of first-generation migrants is decreasing, but that of young migrants is on an all-time high. The shared room has a water supply and a provision to take a bath. About 6–8 rooms have a common toilet. The young generation prefers this kind of accommodation where a group of 3–4 friends pay ₹2000 for a room and cook their own food. Often, the room owners have their own shop on the ground floor, and they force their tenants to buy ration from there, on higher rates.
After a few years of work, these workers get promoted. They continue to work on power-loom machines with added responsibilities and a higher salary. Some of them can then afford to think of bringing their families to Surat. They look for societies to reside, and once they find a suitable rented room, they leave their old pack and move in with their families. People back in shared rooms, who do not wish to bring their families often do not get any roommates. Hence, their share of expenses increases, resulting in them going back to a mess room.
For a few migrants, the quality of living gets better with time while for others, as they earn more money and send more back to their families in villages, to maintain the same amount of expenses as before, they happen to go back to living in worse conditions.
Once the families settle in a society, the women also earn money by doing dhaga cutting which means to remove the uncut threads from a designer sari or a churidar after embroidery has been done. Additionally, they take care of children and household activities. As a husband brings a fresh lot of 150 saris or churidars every day, on his cycle or motorbike, the rest of the family helps in bringing another ₹3000-4000 per month which they mainly use for children’s education.
Apart from the textile industry, these migrants work as vendors, hawkers and as workers in shops. Most migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Odisha do not have plans to settle down in Gujarat. Hence, they do not intend to buy their own house here and instead, continue to pay rent until they go back to their villages. They dream of earning a sufficient amount of money and returning as early as possible. Meanwhile, due to huge expenses on weddings, healthcare and other emergencies, they take loans through informal channels. To pay it back, they have to work for extended years and eventually, get stuck in the process.
Most of the migrants from Telangana are found in Limbayat region of Surat. They brought their families to Surat, generation after generation, and have managed to buy homes by taking loans. In place of rent, they paid installments and have even built a community center. Every year, they choose leaders among themselves, who take care of their religious practices and well-being of people. This community has built a Telugu medium school, a temple and a market place. The second generation who grew up in Surat is literate and works in formal as well as informal sectors. One can find some of them in a power-loom factory. The first generation workers have mostly retired and are now selling their houses at good prices to go back to their villages.
Construction sector contributes a major part to a city’s growth. Migrants from different villages of the neighboring states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh form the majority of the construction sector here. They come with their families and can be seen in major market places in the morning, from where they’re chosen by contractors to work on sites. Usually, both the man and the woman work while their children stay around. They typically do not rent any house and rather, stay close to other families who have migrated with them from their village. In their own community, they look for open spaces to build their makeshift homes. Often, they are asked to leave and as a result, keep shifting from one place to another. A lot of them have agriculture lands in their villages, and they take breaks to go back for irrigation, as per the cropping season.
All these migrants who come to work from different parts of India to work in informal sectors in Surat, come with a dream to earn enough money as soon as possible and then go back. But, they get stuck in different challenges such as finding regular work, a dignified place to live, a hygienic and healthy lifestyle to lead, exploitation at work, staying sane and dealing with mental pressure.
About the author: Sayeed Mohammad is an India Fellow from 2019 cohort, placed with Aajeevika Bureau in Surat, Gujarat as a part of his fellowship. He is working to build the capacity of the local team, and taking part in research and documentation activities to improve the efficiency of initiatives with migrant labor.