How the World Depression Hits Orissa

The recession in US and Europe is having a profound impact on villages in the deep rural interior of Orissa. Well over half a million migrant labourers from Orissa state in eastern India work in Surat city in the western state of Gujarat. Over 400,000 of these are from a single district in Orissa called Ganjam. The recession in the West has hit the export units of Surat and, laid off or pushed out in large numbers, large numbers of those workers are returning to Ganjam which they left in the first place because there was no work to be had. Orissa is the Indian state with the highest proportion of people living below the poverty line (BPL).

“The media write about drought and starvation in Orissa, the channels show a grim picture of agriculture here — and our employers in Gujarat use this to depress our wages,” says Bikala Swain reproachfully. “The malik says: ‘I know you have nothing in Orissa, so don’t complain about what we give you here.’”

Bikala, whose name translates roughly as ‘desperate’ is speaking to us in Lathipada village in the Sorda block of Orissa’s Ganjam district. He is one of hundreds of thousands who migrate from here each year in search of work. Most from this village of some 3,500 people, where there is a migrant from almost every single household, go to Surat in Gujarat to work in that city’s textile units. Some from this region, though not from Lathipada, also worked in Surat’s diamond industry.

With the export-based units there taking a severe hit due to the recession in the West, tens of thousands of workers have returned to villages like Lathipada. A homecoming filled with problems and complexities. Over 600,000  Oriyas are estimated to be working in Surat and adjoining areas. Of these, researchers and the workers themselves believe that more than four lakhs are from Ganjam.

Now, as many as 50,000 have returned to Ganjam — a district that sees labour migration each year from all its 22 blocks. “From 10 of them,” says Lokanath Misra of the NGO Aruna that has researched the subject here, “there is a migrant from every household.” “There is always a steady traffic to and from Surat,” say people in Lathipada. “But this time many will stay back or move on to other places.” Still more might follow those who have come back. And tension is building in the villages. “Who will eat? Who will provide?” asks Ganesh Pradhan who has worked over 25 years at operating looms in Surat. “People left here in the first place because there was no work in Ganjam. Now things are changing in Surat also. Apart from those laid-off, there are countless thousands of others being made to work for much less there.” That in turn hits the villages of Ganjam hard as remittances from migrants run to hundreds of crores of rupees each year.

The recession in the West is having a profound impact on the deep rural interior of Orissa. (At least two returning workers in the village actually used the word ‘recession.’) About a hundred workers returned to Lathipada alone from Surat just days before our visit. “If someone comes home for a few weeks, it’s all fine,” says Achyutananda Gouda. “But if you hang on much longer, there is pressure on the family’s resources.” In Gujarat, says Ganesh Pradhan, “it was possible to earn up to Rs. 200 or Rs. 250 a day. (US $1 = 49 rupees.) You do that by working 12-hour shifts each day under awful conditions that have grown worse in recent months. If you are skilled and can do dyeing and printing or embroidery, you might earn up to Rs. 500 a day. That is Rs. 15,000 a month.” Now, it’s falling apart.

Nilamani Guru has two sons in Surat. “One is skilled and was earning that Rs. 15,000 a month (No holidays, weekends, nothing, you are only paid for the days you work). The other was earning the standard Rs. 200 a day. Since the past few months, the skilled one’s earnings have collapsed to the same level as his brother. The malik says take it or leave it.”

In part, the collapse of the diamond industry has also meant a surplus of skilled and semi-skilled labourers in Surat. “This means that the owners can further push the wages down,” says Kalu Panda, convenor of the CITU, Ganjam, which is working amongst the returnees.

“The employers know we have few options,” says Ganesh Pradhan. “Earlier, there was more money. There was a proper one-hour recess. Quite some time ago, there was even a day off. Now a man handling four machines at one time might have to handle six. Work is up, pay is down. The lunch break has gone. The malik says how we eat is our concern — his concern is that the loom should not stop working for a minute. Not at any time in the day. So if you take a half-hour break for food, the men beside you have to operate your machine till you return. Then you do the same for them. Our 12-hour shifts could be day or night. We’re losing money and strength.”

The fall in wages makes Surat less attractive than it once was. “Here,” say Achyutananda Gouda and Shriram Pradhan. “those who have BPL cards get rice at Rs. 2 a kg. Those who don’t, buy it in the market — at Rs. 12 for that quality. In Surat, it is a minimum of Rs. 22-24 a kilo. Everything there is costlier by Rs. 10 a kilo.”

“Even the rents are climbing,” says Santosh Gouda. “Understand how we live. In those slums, seven to eight of us share a tiny room that we might pay Rs. 1,000 for or more. In any case, the landlord takes an advance of Rs. 5,000 when we strike the deal. (In some cases, workers have rented space in shifts, for sleeping time only.) There is no latrine of any sort and we have to make it each morning to the banks of the Tapi river for that. If many of us hire a very small place with a bathroom, that rent is upwards of Rs. 2,000, often more. And now wages are falling.”

That’s when Bikala speaks about media coverage hurting wages. But many disagree. They want journalists to highlight the desperate state of their village and insist on showing us there now almost-empty water tanks and other problems. And they do not see many ways of halting the village’s loss of income.

Ganesh Pradhan, though, says he will try his luck again in Surat. “It’s not as if we know that things are much better anywhere else.”

And when they look for work, they ride the trains.

“This is the busiest ‘labour-travel’ railway station in Orissa,” says R.C. Behera, smiling. He is Station Manager at Berhampur, Ganjam, from where about 7,000 passengers travel out each day on average. Around 5,500 of those are ‘unreserved’ travellers – overwhelmingly labourers migrating for work in Surat and Mumbai.

Most of those aboard the Ahmedabad-Puri Express are normally bound for Surat. There are at least 25,000 headed for that city each month. Which means that in ‘normal’ times, there could be 300,000 passengers out of this station headed that way each year. And that’s with only five trains weekly to Surat. Locals have long demanded a seven-day service.

That might not happen just now. The recession in the West has hit several textile units they work in as powerloom operators in Surat. It has also fractured the diamond industry there which employs a smaller percentage of Oriya workers. Large numbers have come back and the Ahmedabad-Puri Express empties itself at Berhampur, Ganjam’s main station. The “Sethu” project of the NGO Aruna which works “to bridge migrants from Ganjam and their homes” finds that the “Surat shock” is having a big fallout. “There are always lots of people coming and going at any time,” says Lokanath Misra of Aruna. “But the number at home at this point is way above normal. We estimate some 50,000 are back who might find it difficult to return to the old employment.”

The same project has surveyed Oriya workers in Surat and found “more than 600,000 of them living in 92 slums in that city. Of these, over four lakhs are from Ganjam.” As elsewhere, one of the problems accompanying the migrants home is HIV Aids, something the NGO Aruna focuses on.

This been a high-migration district from British times, particularly after a great famine in the 1860s, and Ganjam’s migrant workers can be found at countless towns within India. But for two decades, the bulk of its labour force has gone to Surat. “It worked for our people,” laughs Simachal Goud in Kamagada village of Aska block. The village has about 500 households and an estimated 650 migrants. “In Surat, unlike if we went down south, no education is required. In Surat we can make Rs. 250 a day.” There is a tendency amongst many workers to slightly exaggerate their earnings in Gujarat. Not so much to impress us, says one local, as “to set their dowry rates higher. So Rs. 250 could mean Rs. 200.” Yet, even the illiterate amongst them managed Rs. 170-180 a day. “Where can we get anything like that in Ganjam?” they ask.

This worry now grips the district. How will it absorb tens of thousands of these workers if they give up on Surat? District Collector V. Karthikeya Pandian, under whom Ganjam topped Orissa as the best performing district in the NREGS, recognises the seriousness of the problem. “Skilled labourers won’t be easy to absorb,” he told The Hindu. Surely not in the NREGS, though that has embraced 150,000 of the district’s 5,00,000 families. In the villages, they agree with the Collector. “Not more than ten or 15 per cent of those coming back can return to agriculture,” says Simachal Goud. “After years of working textiles or the gem industry for years, you simply cannot do that kind of work anymore.”

The Collector hopes the upcoming Port expansion and Indo-Russian Titanium projects will help absorb many skilled workers. He however sees the mismatch in scale and numbers. The returning migrants are too many. He is hopeful, though, of increased investment in agriculture since the returnees have some money and do buy land.

The return of large groups has other effects, too. Group clashes over long dormant feuds has been one of these. A rise in some kinds of crime is another. Family disputes, alcoholism and other tensions are on the rise. And people have returned to a dismal job scenario. As Hindu correspondent Shib Kumar Das points out: “these are still on a low burn, thanks to the elections which kept everybody employed for two months. With those over, worse might follow. “

There might, of course, be new destinations. “You could find lots more of us going to other cities and towns in other states,” says Achyutananda Gouda in Lathipada village. “Many already do. This trend will rise.” He and his friends rattle off the names of at least 20 other cities outside of Gujarat that people from their village already go to. On Surat, Gouda says “It won’t die out. People will still try their luck there, but it will decline.” A few believe some recovery is possible if and when government steps in to bail out the export-linked units.

A surprise destination often discussed here is — Kerala. But why Kerala? “Because,” says a few who have been there, “there are jobs there those people won’t do. The minimum we’d get is Rs. 150 a day. There the work would be for eight hours with a lunch recess unlike Surat’s 12-hour shift without a break. You can also make the roughly the same amounts (i.e. Rs. 170-200) because you will surely get two hours of overtime. There’s no such thing in Surat. In Kerala, there are proper timings and a day off, the labour laws are strictly enforced (because the unions are strong). In Surat we are treated like dirt.”

The money difference is fast shrinking, says Dukhi Shyam in Lathipada, who has operated looms in Surat for 14 years. “Now each of us handles six looms where earlier we managed four. That too is a way of cutting our wages.”

Many ‘returnees’ do not like to see themselves as grounded at home base even if they suspect they are. Many speak of returning to Surat “in some months” and might well try their luck. Others are looking to newer venues. As one old cynic put it in Lathipada. “What is there to stay for? In this region you migrate when you’re weaned off breast milk.” And return, his neighbour chips in, “when the hair on your head, if you have any left, is grey.”

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. He can be reached at:








P Sainath is the founder and editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India. He has been a rural reporter for decades and is the author of ‘Everybody Loves a Good Drought.’ You can contact the author here: @PSainath_org