Friday, September 23, 2016

East and West - a slice of Odisha in Gujarat

Surat is a bustling, prosperous city, known for its diamond cutting and polishing industry, as well as for the largest production of man-made fibre in India. It has one of the largest wholesale textile markets in the country, and has thousands of powerloom units for production of cotton and synthetic textiles.
Surat the textile city, by night.

Last Sunday, I was given a glimpse into a part of what makes this city the capital of India's textile industry.

Raju's Dance Academy in Meena Nagar
Meena Nagar is one the areas where powerloom mills abound. Its busy streets and narrow lanes are all bustling with activity - with no women to be seen. This is one of the hubs of migrant workers from Odisha - an estimated 700,000 of them in the textile sector alone.

Raju (name changed), who shows us around, wears jeans and a full-sleeved T-shirt. He is thin and wiry, with bright eyes and a cheerful smile. He is also from Odisha, and proudly points out his shop on the first floor of a larger building. This is the Realy Dance Academy which he runs and says is doing well. (It teaches hip-hop, Bollywood, Canterbury, Kathak, Break, Step-up, Fri Style, Sambalpuri, Classical, Pop and Bebop). He moved to this after he saved up some money working on the looms. He was fortunate not to have family members needing support and is one of the very few who could move out of working on the looms at a young age. He is most probably a second generation migrant in his family - many migrants have brought their families here and settled down, creating a mini Odisha, complete with Oriya schools and cinema theatres showing Oriya films.

We first go to see the "mess" where the loom workers live - one is through a narrow dark , damp corridor, up three flights of crumbling, sometimes slippery, narrow stairs with no railing to hold on to. At each landing is a smelly toilet overflowing with water (and perhaps worse), which sometimes drips onto the landing below. The smell is overpowering and nauseating.

On the third floor we enter the kitchen where enormous quantities of rice and daal are being cooked. I see no signs of any vegetables other than potatoes and onions. The mess in charge is here, who manages the kitchen as well as the facilities for the migrants - water and electricity and the rent. The building is rented by him from the owner. He charges Rs. 2200 per month from each man for stay, and for the meals. The floor above the kitchen is where the workers live - over a hundred of them in a room barely 100x40 feet in dimensions. There are no windows to this room. Clothes lines criss-cross across the room, sagging beneath the weight of wet and dry clothes. Along the wall are tin trunks and rexine bags holding the belongings of the men who live there. Several are fast asleep, but about a dozen gather around us to talk. They have just completed a 12 hour shift in the looms, and have had a bath. They will now eat and sleep for most of their shift off. For entertainment they watch movies loaded onto their cellphones in nearby shops for a small fee.

They are all from Ganjam district in south Odisha, and are surprised and pleased to know that I know the language, and that I have lived in Ganjam for four  years.They range from 18 to about 45 and have worked here from five to twenty five years and more. They say the work is tough - 12 hour shifts with no days off; no sick leave or leave to go home to Odisha. They go at their own cost once or twice a year, not earning when they are away. Each month they send some money home through small shops that facilitate money transfer through banks. These shops charge a steep Rs. 25 per Rs. 1000 that they need to send home, but it is convenient for the workers to hand over money to these entrepreneurs. The banks are reluctant to keep transacting small amounts of cash each month from the worker to their account in Odisha. Besides, most are asleep during banking hours.Still, the pay here is better than what they would earn at home. A novice is paid around Rs. 8000.00 per month after he has spent some months learning the job (when he is not paid at all, but usually a senior family  member who is already working on the looms looks after him). More experienced workers earn upwards of Rs. 15000.00 per month. I listen in silence, wondering how we as a country can be utterly indifferent to how workers in our factories work and live and eat and earn.

There are many such messes in this part of the city.

Raju next takes me to see some of the looms. We go into the next street, into a series of three and four storeyed buildings which are crumbling and have not seen a coat of paint in years. The path in between the buildings is littered with knots of synthetic fibres that have been discarded after the weaving process is done. There is a steady clack-clack-clack sound emanating from the buildings, which only gets louder as we draw closer. Visiting one of the powerlooms takes a fair amount of negotiation with the supervisor who checks with the owner that he has been informed of our visit. Finally we are allowed in.

The noise inside is deafening and throbs through you, as well as through the floors and walls of the building. The building seems to be vibrating too, and I wonder whether it will collapse on our heads - it seems decrepit enough. On the floor are a row of powerlooms, each with a red light glowing as the machine works and the shuttle races back and forth across the loom between the frames. When the thread breaks, the light goes off and `the machine stops. The worker then has to restore the thread and start the machine again. Each worker monitors twelve looms. We can barely hear ourselves speak as the noise of the looms drowns out all sound - indeed, all thought as well.
Thread being wound onto the spindles for weaving.
The floor above has rows of machines which wind the thread from large reels onto the spindles that will then be used in the looms.

I tried to discreetly record a few seconds of the sound inside the loom - a bad recording with my low-end cellphone, trying to keep my clothes from getting caught in the machinery. To get an idea of what it is like, play this sound clip on the maximum volume your device will allow. The sound is much, much louder than this.

Twenty minutes inside the powerloom shed and we came out with our ears ringing and a temporary deafness. What does it do to people standing there for twelve hours every day, day after day, week after week, month after month without a break? Noise induced hearing loss for sure; stress due to the long hours and the high level or noise (Powerlooms typically generate 90-100 db of noise, whereas city traffic noise level is about 85db, and ordinary speech is 55 db). Every 10 db increase means a doubling in loudness. At the noise levels in powerlooms, and working for twelve hours at a stretch, hearing loss is guaranteed. Additionally, noise induced stress as well as inability to concentrate are well known.

All the powerloom sheds have officially less than ten employees, thus keeping them out of the purview of the Factories Act where certain rights and privileges of the worker are guaranteed by law. Most of these workers are in the informal sector, vulnerable to exploitation by the employer.

Power looms like these are also now struggling to keep up with the competition provided by more efficient water jet looms and newer designs of looms. Hence the lack of investment in upkeep (apart from the minimum to keep the machines running), and the reduction in the workforce (where earlier one worker tended to four machines, now each worker looks after twelve looms), in an effort to cut costs.

I left Raju at his Academy after visiting three powerloom sheds and two messes, marveling the hope and joy in youngsters who have enrolled in his dance academy, even living in this environment of displacement across the country for hard work, poor living conditions, and even poorer wages. I feel angry and depressed too.

Driving back to the hotel, the glittery buildings and the flyovers of Surat are not so impressive any more.


  1. The Ganjam style - dingy, dull, devouring dance of migrant life!

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