Working class blues: Even cheap migrant labour gets the boot after demonetisation, factories shut at rapid pace in Delhi

Migrant labourers are falling victim to rapacious commission agents to exchange old currency. They would rather starve at home in the hinterland than in the cold of Modi�s Delhi. Photos by Vijay Pandey

Working class blues: Even cheap migrant labour gets the boot after demonetisation, factories shut at rapid pace in Delhi

“I used to send around Rs 8,000 a month to my parents in Moradabad. My family depended on this, it had no other source of income. Thanks to Modi and his notebandhi, I cannot send them money from now,” said Ashrath, a young garment worker in Delhi’s Old Seelampur.

Ashrath works in a small garment factory that makes jeans. “I have 7 siblings. My father is a marginal, indebted and ailing peasant. I was the only earning member of our family,” he said.

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When I met him in his factory, nineteen-year-old Ashrath had a few days left in Delhi. His factory which employed around 25 workers looks like a cemetery after a funeral. “Only two of us are left. All of my co-workers left. We will be going in a day or two.”

[caption id="attachment_337064" align="aligncenter" width="680"]
Ashrath and his friend Alam, garment workers, packing their bags. Photo: Vijay Pandey[/caption]

Ashrath’s case is representative of the large number of migrant garment workers (by rough estimates more than 100,000) in Delhi who are going back to their home in rural India. The textile industrial belt of East Delhi is witnessing massive crisis as an aftermath of demonetisation. Modi’s much-hyped Make in India project seems to be a cruel joke with small and medium factories shutting on a daily basis.

“I used to work from 9 am till midnight. My wages were based on the quantity of work I do (piece rate). I had to do this hard work to ensure that I’m earning between Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000. To save money, I avoided renting a room. The factory owner allowed me to stay in the factory,”Ashrath said.

“I was literally starving in the first two days of demonetisation. I had only old 500 rupee notes. Shop owners and restaurant owners were not ready to accept old notes. After two days, there were agents who were willing to exchange old currency with valid currency. They took 100 to 150 rupees as commission for exchanging old 500 notes. Commission depended on our bargaining power,”Ashrath said.

[caption id="attachment_337065" align="aligncenter" width="680"] Ashrath worried about future....? Photo: Vijay Pandey[/caption]

“Modiji says that if poor people like you cooperate with him, he will finish corruption forever. Don’t you think that Modi’s dream of cashless economy through digital cash would help fight corruption?” I asked. “Digital cash?” Ashrath said.

Vijay Pandey, my photojournalist colleague, explained to him the nuances of digital cash that Modi is extremely fond of.

“You need to know how to read and write properly for using digital cash, right?” Ashrath asked us innocently. Ashrath is one among millions of Indians who have never been to school. “Large numbers of workers in garment industry are illiterate or primary school dropouts,”Ashrath said. “I wonder how workers like me without basic education can use all these new techniques.”

[caption id="attachment_337066" align="aligncenter" width="680"] Sarvar's last day in his Delhi factory at Seelampur. Photo: Vijay Pandey[/caption]

“I have been working since my early childhood. I started with assisting a tailor in Moradabad and then moved to Delhi. Life was hard in Delhi. But the fact that I was able to send money home made me happy. Now I don’t know how I will survive once I go back to Moradabad,”Ashrathsaid, showing me his small travel bag, his only “asset” apart from an old mobile set and some clothes.

Sarvar, a migrant worker from the Katihar district of Bihar, works in a factory near Ashrath’s factory. Sarvar reminded me of child characters of Charles Dickens. Compelled to stop his schooling in Class 5, Sarvar, now 18, did several odd jobs in Bihar and later moved to Delhi’s garment sector. “I’m going back to my village tomorrow. After demonetisation, I had reduced my food intake to two times a day. Now most of us are having food only once. After couple of days, I will have to starve.”

[caption id="attachment_337067" align="aligncenter" width="680"] Abu Navas in his closed jeans manufacturing unit at Seelampur. 
Vijay Pandey[/caption]

“Won’t you starve once you return to your village?” I asked Sarvar. “My father is a landless labourer. When I called home, they told me that there is no work available. I thought it’s better to starve at home rather than in Delhi,” he said.

Kishore Yadav, Sarvar’s colleague from Madhubhani district of Bihar, is angry that his chief minister Nitish Kumar supported demonetisation. “Among Delhi’s textile workers, Bihari workers are disproportionately high. Can Nitishji give jobs to displaced workers?” Kishore fumed. “I really don’t know how I will feed my family once I go back,” Kishore, who is landless, said.

[caption id="attachment_337068" align="aligncenter" width="700"] Bhupendra Rawat, a tensed garment worker in his Tank road factory. 
Vijay Pandey[/caption]

“Panic started from the next day of demonetisation,”  saysAbu Navas, the man who employs Sarvar and Kishore. “Workers were forced to exchange old currency. In the initial weeks commission was Rs300 for exchanging Rs 1,000. Now it’s Rs200. More than 60 percent workers didn’t have bank accounts. And very few had accounts in Delhi. Workers faced serious difficulties in sending money home. There was heavy rush in front of banks to exchange notes. So some of them went by midnight to bank premises and stood in queue.”

Reflecting the priorities of banking sector in neoliberal India, Delhi’s working class belts have low penetration of banks as well as ATMs. Garment industrial areas with very high population and disproportionate number of banks and ATMs are perhaps a telling testimony to the class dimensions of the impact of demonetisation. “Even after a month of demonetisation, all workers are not able to exchange their savings in old currency,” a group of workers told me.  Workers sleeping in the premises of banks during harsh winter nights with a hope to be the first in long, and often violent, bank queues are a common sight here. “We won’t forget Modiji’s harsh winter gift to us,” Irshad, a worker, captured the working class’ anger.

[caption id="attachment_337069" align="aligncenter" width="666"] A closed jeans manufacturing unit in Tank Road. Workers come to factories enquiring availability of work. Photo: Vijay Pandey[/caption]

Textile workers who have brought their family to Delhi are hit very badly, says Kumar Sonu, a young entrepreneur, who runs a fabrication dyeing unit. “There are four types of factory units involved in textile production. They are cutting, fabrication, dyeing and finishing respectively. Almost all cutting and fabrication units are closed. Other two units are about to shut. I have seen workers, who were really hungry. Workers, who have small children are in deep trouble. If the situation is to continue like this,people will die of hunger. Otherwise workers will have to loot the rich to survive,” he pointed out.

When I went to working class “residential” streets, I felt Sonu was not at all exaggerating. “We have drastically reduced food intake. We are not even able to give milk to children,” said Shakeela, the wife of a garment worker. Many families have stopped the customary 3 meals a day. Households have adapted to two meals a day as well as in several cases one meal a day. “Please tell Modiji that we are suffering,” a school-going girl told me.

The famous Tank Road wholesale textile market in Delhi’s Karol Bagh is perhaps the telling manifestation of demonetisation induced manufacturing crisis, said Praveen Arya, a wholesale trader and jeans manufacturer. “I was a hardcore Modi supporter. I genuinely thought Modi would bring development. But demonetisation taught me what his priorities are. Since there is no production in factories, there is no business for us. After demonetisation, I’m doing only one third of business,” he said.

“Atleast one wholesale shop is closed every day in this market. If one shop is closed, all workers associated with it lose jobs. They have to either starve or go back to the villages,” says Devender Madan, general secretary of the Tank Road Cloth Dealers Welfare Association. Showing me CCTV visuals of Tank Road at his office, Madansaid: “Before demonetisation, it was almost impossible for a two-wheeler to enter the market. Because it was that crowded. Now even cars can enter easily. Modiji should understand that textile manufacturing in India is facing an unprecedented crisis.”

[caption id="attachment_337071" align="aligncenter" width="680"] n pre demonetisation time there were more than 2000 coolies in Tank road market. Now shop owners says that less than 10 percent of coolies are remaining.[/caption]

“I tried my best to stay here. But I can’t afford rent and food. I’m going back to my village in Jharkhand,”Akhtar, a worker in a manufacturing unit near Madan’s shop, said. “All workers have given significant amount of money to commission agents to exchange currency. Modiji’sdemonetisation is helping commission agents and brokers,” Akhtar fumed. “Before demonetisation, it was impossible to enter Masjid for Friday prayers. It would be huge rush. Now Masjids are empty,”Akhtar said, when I asked him how many workers have left.

With a deep sense of anger, Aktharsaid how his colleague who got ill had to exchange old currency for 30% commission. “We are not earning huge money. I have heard Modiji is writing off huge bank loans given to rich Indians like Ambani. But through notebandhi, he is taking 30% of our hard-earned money. Why is he doing this? I’m angry but I’m helpless,”Akhtar told me.

A little episode can answer Akhtar’s question. When Mussolini came to power in Italy, he was celebrated as the man who can change the destiny of Italy. When Mussolini tamed trade unions and labour militancy with harsh laws soon after getting power, none other than Sir Winston Churchill eulogised Mussolini as “the greatest law giver of the century”. “The greatest law giver” went ahead with his policies that would threaten the basic foundations of liberal democracy. After Mussolini’s fall, scientific studies established that working classes were the worst-hit by his policies. Mussolini’s tenure registered an unprecedented decline of real wages— by 25%! Another European leader with an extraordinary chest also achieved this. During Hitler’s tenure, the wages the German workers got declined by 25%.

But Modiji, the RSS pracharak-turned-PM, seems to want to leave Mussolini and Hitler, the RSS’s posterboys, far, far behind by decimating India’s industrial working class. The shadows are growing longer and the footsteps fainter in Delhi’s industrial areas.