By Madhumita Dutta and Jagdish Patel*
Amidst a plethora of articles published, trying to explain Narendra Modi’s nation-wide popularity leading to BJP’s eventual electoral win in the 2014 parliamentary elections, a column by Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar (click HERE to read) caught our attention. In his usual style, exuding confidence, Aiyar attributed Mr Modi’s victory in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to “the message carried home by migrant workers in Gujarat”. Apparently Aiyar found his “biggest, credible explanation” (for Modi’s win) while on a pre-election tour in these states where he quizzed the villagers about Modi. Villagers who were otherwise skeptical of the “vultures who came around promising the moon at election time” were swayed by the ‘tales of good governance’ that migrant workers brought home from Gujarat.
While Aiyar doesn’t explain what these ‘tales’ are since he confesses that these are ‘not very detailed or specific’, one wonders who are these migrant workers that Aiyar refers to? And might it be possible that there are other ‘tales’ that are never fully told by the workers when they come visiting families after long periods of time?
In their recent analysis of the much touted Gujarat ‘model of development’, economists CP Chandrasekhar and Jayati Ghosh pointed out that while per capita income in Gujarat is 20% higher than rest of the country, the average wages in the state is much lower compared to other states with similar per capital income. Statistics reveal rural wages in Gujarat to be 20 per cent lower and urban wages to be 15 per cent lower. The two economists further looked at the prices of essential consumption items and calculated that if a male casual worker in rural Gujarat finds a job for 25 days (a miracle by itself) then his wage could support only 3.1 people at consumption above the poverty line, which is slightly above the lowest which is 3.0 (in Chhattisgarh),whereas the all India figure is 4.6.
A look at the working conditions in some of the places where the migrant workers work and live, tell a far grimmer tale than what Aiyar’s informants might have told him.
The Alang shipbreaking yard in Bhavnagar, located in the coastal Saurashtra region of Gujarat, is one of the biggest such yards in the world. Old ships—oil tankers, freight carriers, luxury cruisers, defence ships from all over the world come here for scrapping to recover steel and other recyclable/reusable materials. An army of over 30,000 migrant workers tear down the ships with gas cutters, saws, hammers, pulling massive steel plates and iron blocks with chains. Local workers don’t work in these dangerous yards. Migrants from Gorakhpur district in Uttar Pradesh, Ganjam district in Odisha, Munger, Saran, Gaya districts of Bihar, different districts of Jharkhand come to work at Alang.
In a year 15-20 deaths are known to occur in these yards besides a large number of accidents every month. As recently as March 2014, two workers were killed and 3 critically injured when a huge steel plate fell on them while they were working in the night at one of the plots in the yard. The dead workers were from Ganjam district of Odisha. The most common causes for fatal accidents in Alang are falling steel plates, falls from great heights and fires while cutting open the gas or oil filled pipes in the old ship. Besides the accidents, workers in these yards are exposed to high levels of toxic fumes and chemicals from paints and oils in the ships and deadly asbestos fibres that are used in the engine rooms for insulation.
A report by a two member Supreme Court appointed committee in 2006 had revealed that 16% of workers in Alang may have contracted asbestosis, a debilitating lung disease caused by exposure to asbestos fibres. The National Institute of Occupational Health, Ahmedabad diagnosed 16 cases of asbestosis in Alang in 2006. But till date its not known whether the workers have been compensated or the status of their health since all information has been stonewalled despite repeated Right To Information (RTI) requests by Raghunath Manwar, a former power plant worker and occupational health activist.
In Godhra town of Panchmahal district in Gujarat quartz stone crushing units are wreaking havoc on the environment and health of workers. As early as 1980, a study by the National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOH) revealed that the levels of silica dust (released during the process of crushing) in the working environment was so high that workers employed there for even six months will contract a fatal lung disease called Silicosis. Workers in these units are mostly migrants from Alirajpur and Jhabua districts in Madhya Pradesh, from Banswada in Rajasthan, Chhotaudepur and Dahod districts in Gujarat. They work under unhealthy work conditions and get exposed to high levels of fine silica dust and are sent home after they fall sick.
Many don’t get ID cards or any proof of employment in these units or pay slips. Despite being covered under Employees’ State Insurance (ESI) Act, most workers are not issued ESI cards or even know that they are entitled to get coverage under the Act. In cases where proofs exist of employment, the employers falsify the attendance muster to show less than 180 days of work, which means workers can’t seek ESI assistance as the Act mandates 6 months or 180 days of work to seek compensation under the Act. Reports about their illnesses get noticed, if any, when the workers start dying in their villages.
Peoples’ Training & Research Centre (PTRC) based in Vadodara has been tracking some of these cases of migrant workers who come to work in Godhra. In 2011, PTRC filed a complaint before National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) regarding five migrant workers (all tribals) from Dahod who had been diagnosed with silicosis and had died without receiving any compensation from ESI. NHRC after hearing the case for two years in 2013 directed the Gujarat government to pay Rs 5 lakhs compensation to the families of the dead workers. In April 2014, PTRC filed a RTI request with the Chief Secretary of Government of of Gujarat seeking information about the status of the compensation and was informed that the state government has decided not to enforce the NHRC directions without giving any reasons.
In another complaint filed by one Juwan Singh from Madhya Pradesh with NHRC, the Commission had directed the Government of Gujarat to pay Rs 3 lakhs each to the families of 238 migrant workers from Madhya Pradesh who had worked in Godhra and died due to Silicosis. Even in this instance, Gujarat govt. refused to implement NHRC directions arguing that the workers from Madhya Pradesh may have worked in some other state and contracted the disease and therefore Gujarat govt. will not pay any compensation as it is not responsible. In Chhotaudepur, over 1000 workers have perished without proper diagnosis and more may have contracted the disease and are dying a slow and painful death in obscurity.
Incidentally, Godhra happens to be the same infamous town where burning of a coach of Sabarmati Express train led to the Gujarat pogrom of 2002. Till date Modi refuses to take any responsibility for the riots and the mass murders and rapes. For over 30 years now migrant workers in large numbers are dying slow and painful deaths in these death traps of stone crushing units in Godhra. And even in this instance Mr Modi refuses to take any responsibility for the deaths of the workers by denying them any compensation and justice. Nor is the media interested. There is no blood and gore when breathless workers cough themselves to death.
So that’s the tale that remains untold by the workers when they come visiting their families. The glitter and shine of Gujarat model eclipses the dark truth of disease and deaths of thousands of migrant workers in these dangerous workplaces.
These workers (Damor Fakira Veersing, Kamol Kokila Tansing and Kamol Chimanbhai Nathiabhai) from Dahod district of Gujarat died of silicosis after working in the stone crushing units of Godhra. The Gujarat government refuses to compensate their families despite National Human Rights Commission directions (Pix: Jagdish Patel):
*Madhumita Dutta is a labour activist and researcher based in Chennai. Jagdish Patel is an occupational health activist and director, PTRC, based in Vadodara. This article has also appeared in kafila.org