The Migrant Worker in Not So Vibrant Gujarat

Archana Prasad

IT is well known that the mobility of labour is essential for the survival and reproduction of contemporary corporate capitalism. This is particularly necessary to maintain a supply of surplus labour in order to intensify the accumulation process for the big corporate houses. However, widening inequalities and the economic distress arising from the unequal development of such process of big capital led industrialisation led to social unrest and conflict. Ideologies of nationalism and sub-nationalism are used in order to garner a larger portion of the limited benefits that accrue and the deepening of distress only intensifies this tendency. The recent targeting and exodus of North and North East Indian migrant workers from Gujarat should be seen in the light of this dynamics. As reported by the media, migrants fled the state after a girl was raped ostensibly by some ‘migrant’ worker and the ‘Gujaratis’ reacted to the situation. It is important to note, that in the past such rumours and individual crimes led to rioting in cases of communal violence. But the extension of this trend to economic issues and unrest is nothing but a symptom of the crisis of the Gujarat model and the social conflict that this crisis has generated.

The present Gujarat government has been boasting that 75 per cent of all jobs created are in the state. Therefore the state is considered to be one of the top destinations for migrants searching for jobs. It is estimated that there were about 60 million migrants in the state in 2011. Some of these were inter-state migrants consisting of those coming largely from Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Odisha. But the number of these migrants was smaller than the rural-urban migrants from within the state. A recent study published by economist Indira Hiraway shows that in the construction, manufacturing and diamond mining, a large part of the migrants are from the poorer districts of Gujarat itself. Hence the quota policy of providing 85 per cent of jobs in large industries to Gujaratis, does not necessarily imply that local people would be getting jobs. Hence, the question of targeting of migrants also has a complex interface with the idea of ‘being Gujarati’ versus the idea of ‘being an outsider’.  It is therefore not surprising that the profitability of Gujarat industry depends on migrant labour, but most of such informal low paid migrant labourers are from poorer and underdeveloped regions of Gujarat itself.

A further confusion has arisen on the question of non-agricultural migration in the state because it has been argued that the conflict between migrants and non-migrants will resolve itself if the quota policy is properly implemented. As already argued above, this is far from the truth, and not least because there is a substantial rural to rural inter-state migration from other states. It has been estimated by some that the rate of in-migration in rural areas of Gujarat is as high as 16 per cent. This is largely driven by the export oriented agriculture which is largely managed through big agribusinesses and farmers in crops like cotton, sugarcane amongst others. The main recruitment of labour on these farms is through contractors who help in getting seasonal short term migrant workers from neighbouring states. Such migrants are largely distress and debt driven and often end up being bonded labour as shown in studies by Prayas from 2014-2017. Further such distress migration is not subject to any quota policy and rather, is driven by the joblessness in the states of origin. In the light of this, it is difficult to consider the present anti-migrant targeting as merely a product of economic crisis. Rather the economic stress arising out of the Gujarat model of development has itself created a shrill ‘Gujarati Nationalism’ that aims to divert attention from the failures of the present government.

Though the BJP has been projecting Gujarat as a successful model of inclusive development, it is clear from all available evidence that Gujarat ranks quite low in terms of the well being of its poor and vulnerable working class. The industrialisation of the state is based largely on the development of capital intensive industries through promotion of crony capitalism leading to a contraction in employment creation and competition for jobs especially amongst the youth. Further, the development of industrialisation also has an uneven impact on different regions and social groups. This has led to high inter-district migration within the state where many historically deprived people are shifting to urban centric growth centres for employment. Most of these are in informal employment and many of them are seasonal migrants with sporadic and unstable jobs. As economist Indira Hiraway points out, only 6.8 per cent of the Gujarati population was in the formal sector where as the rest was in informal employment. Further it is estimated by the State of Working India Report (2018) that in Gujarat, contract work has increased in comparison with regular full time work which seems to have come down by about 4.4 per cent between 2011 and 2015.

Seen in this context, the migrants function as a labour reserve in the Gujarat model of development. Analysis of wage trends in Gujarat shows that agricultural wages are almost 20 per cent lower than the rest of the country. Similarly minimum wage thresholds in Gujarat are also lower than other states with the same level of industrial development. This means that the presence of the migrants is essential to the maintenance of high intensity of accumulation by corporate houses.  It is therefore not surprising that the ‘migrant’ issue has also exposed the potential tension between narrow Gujarati neo-liberalism. While the Sangh led Gujarati nationalists are targeting the migrants, the government and the industrialists seem to be walking the tight rope between ‘Gujarati asmita’ and the logic of capitalist production that requires a labour reserve to reproduce itself.
The response of the Gujarat government has to be understood in this light. The early targeting of North Indian migrants has affirmed its conservative Gujarati chauvinism. On the other hand, by shifting the blame for ‘divisions’ to the opposition, the government has tried to address the fears of the industrialists as the exodus of migrants will drive up their cost of production. This inherent contradiction in the Gujarat model of development must be accentuated by the working class movements by organising migrant workers for their basic rights. The possible links between the migrant and rest of the working class should be explored through creative forms of organisation so that the anti-worker project of Hindutva led corporate capitalism can be opposed and exposed.

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