Jagjit Pal Singh

Dhaani could have easily taken a comfortable seat in the middle of the bus to avoid a bumpy ride in the long journey to his village. He spent the night at the bus stop and when the bus reached its stop early in the morning he was amongst the first few to give a lazy welcome to the noisy machine. Dhaani hails from a small village near Banswara in Rajasthan which rests peacefully in one corner of this country. He was also amongst the first few who left his village in search of rokda (cash) and landed himself as a daily wage worker in the city of Ahmedabad which was industrially prospering.

When I saw him he was sitting in a small tea-shop near the bus-stop smoking a bidi. There was an air of confidence and carefreeness the way he was stirring the morning stillness with the thin smoke from his bidi. As I sat on a stool, a piece of junk actually, near him he immediately straightened his back and started smoking cautiously. I greeted him and he replied with a salesmen-modesty. I started a casual chat and as soon as he realised that I was serious about the greeting he threw away his half-smoked bidi. I didn’t like my intrusion and tried to make him comfortable but the reverence or respect or suspicion he had in his eyes took some time to wane away.

I offered Dhaani a fresh cup of tea and a cigarette. He hesitatingly accepted the tea and humbly declined the cigarette. Apparently, he preferred his filter-less bidi over the neat cigarette. As we moved from one bidi to another, and to a cup of tea, Dhaani started absorbing my presence.

I asked Dhaani why he didn’t take a seat in the bus as in couple of hours the bus will be completely packed. He gave the question a thought, struggled for words and finally said ‘it’s much better on top of the bus’.

I let the conversation take a flow of its own. He told me that migration is not something new in his village. At least one person from every family in his village had migrated to near-by cities. Most of them went as seasonal migrants; some stayed in the cities and never came back. But majority of them have a close family and community connect and have only maintained an economic tie with the cities. The cities have no plans for other ties to take place. When he was a kid he used to hear a lot of stories about the cities and life there but as he grew older the stories lost their fascination and enthusiasm and instead turned into tales of exploitation and horror. The distances also grew. Now people are willing to cross 5-6 states in search of work.

But Dhaani is an optimist with a pragmatic outlook. His frequent movements to Ahmedabad in the last twenty years (he didn’t know the exact years) have taught him the survival tricks. He complains that younger generation doesn’t listen to him. ‘Only when they need to move to the cities for the first time they need my help. But even this has changed as many people from the village who migrated to cities have become petty contractors and can hire workers directly. They also provide small loans in time of needs and later recover the loan by making them work in the construction cities and factories in different cities. I always warn them against taking loans from these contractors but then they are the only option available in times of urgency.’

Let me try to explain (in a simplified manner) one of the many cycles of exploitation. A contractor hire workers according to the demand and bring them to working sites-could be a factory or a construction site or a hotel. There they work under the contractor who himself is hired by a seth (the owner). The seth pays directly to the contractor who then distributes money to the workers. The contractor takes his ‘share’ from every wage he distributes. There are no records in the factory and the hotels which can show that these workers are hired by the company/owner. They live on the mercy of the contractor. In case of accidents, deaths and other troubles, the contractor ‘handles’ the ‘dirty work’. The seths, and apparently the state, is free from any responsibility and for the sake of maximum growth and progress (and now to promote Make in India campaign) they allows maximum exploitation under their nose.

Dhaani is also an outsider in the city but an experienced outsider. ‘If you mind your business, digest regular insults and sometimes physical abuse, keep a low profile, follow supervisors order, life can be peaceful in this city’, Dhaani told me. ‘Only those with too much of self-respect, ego and rebellious nature get into trouble.’

‘What do you do in this city?’
‘I mostly get work at the construction sites as a helper.’
‘And how much do you earn?’
‘Some 300 rupees/day’
‘So monthly you pocket some 9000 rupees?’
‘I don’t know. I am not sure about this number.’

It was while making the calculation simpler for him that he pointed out the basic error I was making in my calculation.

‘I don’t find work every day. Sometimes I have to return from the nakka without any work.’

nakka is a place in cities where men, women and children line up for work in the morning before motorbikes and cars take over the city. Generally a contractor or a seth comes to a nakka, scans the labourers standing in long queues, and took them on a lorry or whatever vehicle he has. Age, built, caste, region, and gender- all these play an important role in the short recruitment process. Younger, healthier, and outsiders get selected first. When it comes to women labourers the choice and taste of the recruiter is crucial. The outsiders are people who have migrated from outside the state or belong to the most backward regions in the same state. The reason they easily get hired is because they are the most vulnerable and desperate of all. It’s easy to discipline and exploit them. This arrangement has become so exploitative that it has become easier to find work outside one’s city or state.

‘Do you like this city?’

‘It’s not a bad place but I don’t think I belong here. I feel suffocated.’

I had visited the living spaces in Ahmedabad where migrants live or spend their nights. People who work on construction sites live in open spaces like footpaths or illegal jhuggis or ‘labour colonies’ and on construction site itself in dreadful conditions. I met construction workers living in challis (small rooms without basic amenities) in Shahpur. In one challi, there were close to 15-20 people crammed together. They cook and bathe inside. It might sound harsh to some people but I have no hesitation in saying that animals live in better conditions. The challis I visited were literally the places where cattle were kept and later with little or no makeover rented. With time it became more beneficial to keep migrant workers than cattle. The owner had opened a small provision store outside where workers can buy their grocery in small packets for one time meal. Some also keep their money with the challi owner. This is the transition from cattle-herders to small entrepreneurs.

Those who work in factories live, sleep, cook, eat and shit inside the factories. Long durations of work, unhealthy conditions of living, wage theft, diseases, insecure jobs and abuse are more or less part of their daily existence. When Dhaani told me that he feels suffocated in the city I didn’t bother him for explanation. India’s rating on the index for ‘The World’s Worst Countries for Workers’ is 5, the poorest grade it shares with countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia. There is an unimaginable gap between countries’ labour laws and their implementation on the ground. The labour departments are indifferent to the illegal activities of the industry and exploitation of the workers. The exploitative contract labour system is flourishing since liberalization and no steps have been taken to regulate and monitor it. The government released an early draft of Labour Code on Industrial Relations Bill 2015 to codify the statues dealing with industrial relations. This is one of the three labour codes being worked at by the government which most experts have criticised as a tool to further weaken the collective bargain of the workers and to make it further difficult to strike lawfully. These are urban jungles, in the dim backyard of our smart cities, where cheap labour is traded and exploited. How do we define Slavery?

The bus honked. Dhaani’s luggage was already on top of the bus in the safe custody of his friends. I asked him when I will see him again in the city.

‘May be, never! My two sons have moved to the city and I have also become old. It’s difficult for me to find work and even if I get work it’s difficult for me to stand for 13-14 hours a day.’ 35-40 years is the retirement age. I asked many workers where do they go after ‘retirement’ and the unanimous answer was ‘they go back to their villages’, they didn’t add ‘with bad health, diseases and signs of old age’. This is another cycle, lacking meaning!

The author is an independent researcher and photographer. He is also an Azim Premji University alumnus and has been involved with different grassroots organizations as a researcher. He can be contacted at [email protected] (mobile – 9711709616)

This article is the result of field research and documentation work the author is currently doing for Bandhkam Mazdoor Vikas Sangh, Ahmedabad, India. The Sangh works with migrant workers in the City of Ahmedabad. Bandhkam Mazdoor Vikas Sangh is part of Aajeevika Bureau which is working on the issues of migrant workers since 2005.