Surat Diary
Vikraman Pillai | 30 Mar 2008

An understated tragedy AIDS is an increasingly normal part of the life of the migrant labourer. The author explains Pratap Jena, 28, belongs to Maulpalli village in Polsora block of Orissa’s Ganjam district. He was working as a textile labour in Surat (Gujarat). He married two years ago and has a son. His sudden death on 1 February 2004 sent a shock wave through the large migrant labour community and their family members, who toil in Surat’s textile industry. Pratap’s case was not an isolated one. He was identified as an AIDS victim just a few months ago at an AIDS awareness camp in his village. Identified along with him were 21 others, out of 618 patients tested.

In Ganjam district, there are 65 more who live with full blown AIDS. The government claims that there are only 166 AIDS patients in the entire state but non-government organisations assert that there are more than 5,000 HIV positive people of whom at least 400 are AIDS patients. And of these 25 patients have died so far, sources said. Migration is the major culprit for their condition. There are more than 600,000 Oriya migrant labourers working in Surat from Ganjam district alone out of 900,000 labourers from the state. At least 30 per cent of them are seasonal migrants and the others live in the slums of Surat around the year, in conditions that carry high risks of unsafe sex leading to HIV transmission. The medical community of Gujarat and Orissa confirms the alarming increase in AIDS among migrant labourers. Driven out of poverty Orissa presents a paradoxical picture of poverty amidst plenty.

Despite being endowed with vast natural resources, Orissa continues to be amongst the poorest states in the country. The state economic survey shows a heavy incidence and persistence of poverty, which characterises the economy of Orissa. Poverty is also spatially concentrated in Orissa: some regions, such as the south, are poorer. Several anti-poverty and wage employment programmes have been implemented in the state since 1980-’81 to create income generating assets and employment on daily wage basis. But migration goes unchecked. Unofficial sources say that of the 10,00,000 Oriya migrant workers in different parts of the country, more than 500,000 are in Surat.

The situation worsened due to the colossal damage caused by the super cyclone in 1999 and the subsequent severe drought of 2000 followed by unprecedented floods. Surat, slums and sweat Surat presents a mix of continuity and change in its social character. Its dominant trade-centred city economy of the past is now an amalgamation of a capital-intensive industrial set up and a wide range of numerous small-scale units associated with production, processing, repairs and services. Job opportunities in the textile, diamond and jari industries have over the past decades attracted workers from distant states like Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. About 86 per cent of Oriya migrants in the city are from Ganjam district alone and most Andhra migrants from its Warangal and Nalgonda district.

Low agricultural productivity in many of the South Orissa and Telengana villages and an almost total lack of alternative jobs have led to large scale out-migration of younger males to Gujarat. In many of these areas, the failure of developmental programmes, persistence of poverty and a continued marginalisation of rural poor, especially those belonging to the lower caste groups, led peasant and farm households to send part of their male labour force to the city. Many workers were attracted by the possibility of being absorbed in specific sectors where people from their villages were already working. Migrants to the city can earn anything between Rs 1,500 to Rs 4,000 in a month. A large part of this income has to be remitted back to their villages. Many are working to retrieve their mortgaged land or acquire some land in their native villages that can sustain their families.

This city’s organised slums now house more than 17 lakh migrant labourers from Orissa, Andhra, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu besides wage labourers from Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Maharashtra and Gujarat itself. Dense and dingy living conditions, long working hours and oppressive work environments make the lives of many migrants a living hell. The location of their slums is determined mainly by nearness to worksites, available patches of land along the roads and rail tracks, open spaces adjacent to factory walls, low lying areas and river and canal banks. Narayan Bahera, a seasonal migrant worker from Orissa’s Gangpur village working as a weaving master and machine operator, asserts that Oriya labourers have chosen Surat because jobs here have not demanded educational qualifications, training or experience. Narayan claims “Our jobs are temporary and casual and we live in apprehension of losing them. Surat’s power loom industry is growing fast and despite job hazards and labour disputes we have to adjust rather than enter unions. We don’t want to lose our jobs, hence we ask our fellow Oriyas not to be involved in any union activity.” AIDS running amuck It is against this background of hardships that Surat will soon have a dubious first to its credit in the state – the city with the highest incidence of AIDS. Doctors believe that more than 300,000 suspected carriers are working and living in the city. Brothels flourish as much as jobs and this is one reason why Surat is a sitting duck for an AIDS bomb. Surat is the only city in Gujarat with an organised “red-light” area.

Large-scale proliferation of premarital promiscuity, multiple sexual partnership with commercial sex workers and high homosexuality are part of labour life here. Today even police records shows that there are around 5,000 commercial sex workers in Surat, a large number of who are AIDS carriers. The menace of AIDS is graver than usually understood since migrant workers return to their native places taking the risk across several hundred kilometres to their families. There are no specific action or programmes undertaken by the government to curb unsafe sex, but NGOs in the region, with some financial support from state AIDS cell and funding agencies, occasionally conduct health camps in rural areas. The response to AIDS awareness activities however continues to remain low due to the social stigma and embarrassment related to the disease. Compounding the problem is the lack of counselling skills as well as absence of sufficient equipment for the Elisa test, relating to HIV identification. Keeping in view the rising number of suspected AIDS cases among Oriya migrants the health department of the government of Gujarat and the district administration of Ganjam signed an agreement to issue health cards to migrant labourers. A promising initiative that turned futile because a system to identify and mobilise migrant workers could not be put in place.