Sunday, January 29, 2023

The Exodus

The Exodus
Migrant labourers have been fleeing Gujarat in hordes, using every possible conveyance/Photo: Twitter
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Above: Migrant labourers have been fleeing Gujarat in hordes, using every possible conveyance/Photo: Twitter

Politics seems to be behind the fleeing of labour from this highly industrialised state, giving the BJP jitters as it goes to polls, and forcing the PM to pull up Chief Minister Vijay Rupani

By RK Misra in Gandhinagar

From Vibrant Gujarat to Migrant Gujarat, the native state of the Mahatma and now, Modi, has come full circle. What began as majoritarian politics through communal cleaving two decades ago has now turned into narrow regionalism with the singling out of migrants.

Their mass exodus from Gujarat turned into a torrent recently. This has paralysed trade and other services during peak business time—Diwali. And there is little hope of their returning anytime soon.

Industry owners in Gujarat fear this exodus will take a heavy economic toll. The Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and Industry president, Jaimin Vasa, has shot off a letter to Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, requesting him to ensure the safety of migrant workers who form the bulk of the workforce in industries here. “This season is a major business opportunity for industries, especially MSMEs. Most businesses are running at full strength to meet the order deadlines and such disruptions will cause a major dent in the momentum,” Vasa wrote.

Rupani was quick to order the police to act even as he moved to reassure the fleeing migrants. He said: “The situation is under control. The Gujarat police force has been proactively deployed. We are committed to maintaining law and order, and people can call the police in case of any trouble. We appeal to the people for patience to allow the law to take its own course.”

The appeal failed to stem the outward flow. In fact, Rupani may have inadvertently fanned regionalism. The reverse migration began a fortnight after his announcement that it will be made mandatory for industries or service sector companies to provide up to 80 percent jobs to locals, including 25 percent to those from related areas. Rupani had merely raised the percentage of reservation and was doing nothing different from other governments before him.

There is more than meets the eye in the events that panned out after September 28, when a 14-month-old girl belonging to the OBC Thakore community was raped in Sabarkantha district of north Gujarat, allegedly by a migrant worker of Bihari origin. The man was arrested within a few hours. But the incident was a trigger. There have been incidents of violence targeting migrants before this, too, but they remained largely localised. On October 6, the Election Commission announced the dates for polls in five states—Rajasthan, MP, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram. The same day, migrants from Hindi-speaking states started getting targeted in north and central Gujarat and the trickle began. It was preceded by a social media campaign exhorting locals to get rid of migrants. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but the same day a national Hindi news channel released a pre-poll survey that showed the Congress having an advantage over the BJP in the states of Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh.

Clearly, for the BJP, this is ill-timed. Most of the migrants are from these poll-bound states and are most likely to carry back unflattering tales of their ordeal in the saffron-ruled state. That Rupani chose such an inopportune time to enhance regional chauvinism and state that Gujarat will not part with its lions (which MP has been demanding and the Supreme Court has ordered) only adds to its woes. These migrants had come in handy for the BJP to paint a rosy picture of its rule in Gujarat, UP and Bihar. This will have repercussions now.

A panicky BJP has sought to pin the blame on the Congress. Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi, Gujarat Minister of State for Home Pradipsinh Jadeja and state BJP Vice-President IK Jadeja have been quick to point fingers at the Congress. “We will not let peace be disturbed by a handful of elements who want to tarnish the image of the state,” said Pradipsinh Jadeja.

The Congress opposition reacted with its Gujarat party chief, Amit Chavda, charging the BJP with orchestrating the violence with an eye on the forthcoming elections. “It began as an emotional outburst of local emotions over the rape of a minor, but thereafter, it has been fanned by the BJP, which knows it is facing defeat in MP and Rajasthan. This is a conspiratorial attempt at fanning petty regionalism for electoral gains,” he added.

After the Bihar deputy CM blamed the Congress and singled out Alpesh Thakore, AICC secretary for Bihar, retaliation was quick to follow. The OBC Ekta Manch charged the Gujarat deputy CM, Nitin Patel, with fanning regional hatred. In support of their claims, they said Patel had opposed admission in medical colleges to students from outside the state. Soon after, an old video of Patel saying workers from UP and Bihar were responsible for increased poverty in Gujarat, went viral. Thakore, on his part, denied all the allegations. “What prevents the government from putting up relief camps for the workers? Who is stopping BJP leaders from going to railway stations and bus depots to persuade the migrants to stay back?” he asked. He even went on a day-long sadbhavana fast in Ahmedabad.

Thakore, Patidar quota leader Hardik Patel and Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani are in the crosshairs of the BJP. Clearly, the political slugfest between the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress is at its peak. Caught in the crossfire after posters surfaced in Varanasi asking “Gujarati Narendra Modi to leave Banaras”, the prime minister is reported to have given a piece of his mind to Rupani and directed a two-member team to go to the state, besides BJP President Amit Shah.

With migrant workers fleeing the state in hordes, using every possible conveyance, worry is writ large on the faces of the chief ministers of the affected states. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath reportedly called up their Gujarat counterpart to voice concern.

As push comes to shove in the “leave Gujarat” rush, the BJP government is cracking down even as it prepares for its magnum opus biannual event, the Vibrant Gujarat Global Investor Summit in January 2019. Over 500 people have been arrested, social media is being monitored and the police is out in strength with 18 augmented companies of the State Reserve Police on guard.

The government also intends to approach the High Court to set up a fast-track court for the trial of the rape accused and has provided compensation of Rs 4.5 lakh to the next of kin of the victim. Meanwhile, the state Human Rights Commission chairperson, Justice Abhilasha Kumari, has sought a detailed report on the attack and the exodus of migrants within 20 days.

Migrant labour is estimated to be around 20 lakh in Gujarat and over a lakh or more have left. Industry sources say that around 50-70 percent of the labour force in most manufacturing industries, including chemicals, dye-stuffs, plastics, textiles ceramics, auto parts and component makers, comprises migrants. A top business leader of the state said: “Fanning flames—communal, chauvinistic, regional—comes easy to politicians, but it is the state and its people who pay the economic and social costs.”

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