Chandigarh: Barely three weeks ago, in sheer distress, 40-year-old Pappu and his family fled Ludhiana on a Shramik Special train bound for Patna, to get back home.
On June 6, Pappu and six co-workers alighted from a plane at Ludhiana’s Sahnewal airport, having been flown in by their employer Bobby Jindal, owner of the Ludhiana-based Shri Balaji Processors, which manufactures blankets.
It took Pappu just five hours to cover a distance of 1477 km (with one stop at Delhi). Somewhat dazed, he told The Wire, “I couldn’t even dream about travelling by air on my meagre wage of Rs 600 per day. Call it a crisis or opportunity, it just happened.”
In fact, the sheer comfort of the journey made him remember the less fortunate migrant workers who couldn’t get a place in the Shramik special on their journey home. “My guess is that more than one-third of those who travelled home to Bihar during the lockdown walked most of the way. It took my chacha’s son, 13 days to walk from Surat in Gujarat to Bihar. He faced great hardship on the way,” said Pappu. “I hope things improve soon,” he added.
Like Pappu, 35-year-old Sikandar Kumar, caught a Shramik Special from Ludhiana to Rohtas district, in Bihar, a month ago, and was flown back by Jindal. “The journey home by train was full of hassles, but coming back was so easy and comfortable,” Kumar said. “Who would not like to travel more often by air, but I know it is not possible on my meagre earnings.”
Jindal told The Wire that flying in the workers was the only option he was left with – there was a long waiting list for trains and chartering a taxi from Patna to Ludhiana was way more expensive than airfares as a two-way fare was being demanded.
In a no-nonsense manner, he Jindal his predicament: “I produce blankets but currently do not have enough skilled labour to handle the knitting, dyeing or designing job in order to optimise production. The arrival of these workers will ease my beleaguered production line somewhat, but the fact is that I need more workers.”
Panic in India’s Manchester
Ludhiana, Punjab’s largest city, aptly named ‘the Manchester of India’ for its dominance in the manufacture of hosiery products, knitwear, and textile, is in the throes of a deep crisis.
In happier times, June was the month when Ludhiana’s 117-year-old famous hosiery industry – big or small units – booked orders for winter products and ran factory operations at full capacity so as to flood the market before November.
This time there is an all-pervading panic in the industry which normally employs about 10 lakh migrant workers, most of whom left the city during the lockdown – many on foot, some on cycles and others on crammed Shramik Specials.
Vinod Thapar, president of Ludhiana Knitwear Club, said that after the easing of lockdown restrictions, factories are gradually coming back to life and want to get on with the production of winter wear, but there is not enough labour to satisfy the labour demand of the city’s 30,000 hosiery and textile units.
Industrialists, Thapar said, have been pushed to the wall due to labour shortages and hence the move on the part of many of them to explore all means to bring the workers back.
Following in Jindal’s footsteps, another industrialist, Dinesh Bajaj of Bajaj Knits, has booked train tickets for seven of his employees from Lucknow to Ludhiana for the following week as the waiting period was long. Whether they board the train or not – they live 100 km away from Lucknow, in Rai Bareli district – remains to be seen.
The lockdown and the distress faced by the migrant workers has given rise to many real-life stories. Ankur Khanna of Khanna Processors narrated an incident where an industrialist sent a mini-bus to fetch 20 of his workers from a place near Allahabad, in Uttar Pradesh (UP), but the bus returned empty. The workers did not return. The exact reason for their action could not be ascertained.
There are also instances of workers returning as well. Gurmeet Singh Kular, who represents the Federation of Industrial & Commercial Organisation (FICO) in Ludhiana mentioned that one unit, Seeco Strips Private Limited, brought labourers from Saharanpur, in UP, by taxi. “There are numerous such examples in this city. What options do people have?” asked Kular.
Take Harish Kairpal of VH Hosiery and Textile mills who also offered train tickets to his workers. He said that he will not achieve even one-third of his 30 crore annual turnover this year, but in view of the fact that labourers were scarce, achieving that vastly scaled down target was also seeming a tough proposition.
The lack of labour, in particular skilled workers without whom knitting or embroidering is not possible, is a big issue, Kairpal said. It was his view that either the government of the state or at the Centre needed to give the matter some thought.
“June is the time when factories begin operations for the new [winter] season. But I have not more than 30-40 workers when I need 200,” he pointed out. Yet, said Kairpal, everybody was hoping against hope that the winter sale would be a shade better than the summer season which was a complete washout due to the lockdown.
Punjab minister garlands returning labour, but industry wants more relief
Amid this crisis, Punjab Industries Minister, Sunder Sham Arora, rejoiced at the return, on June 6, of 30 migrant labourers to Hoshiarpur (75 km from Ludhiana). He garlanded them the moment they stepped off the bus specially arranged for them by local industrialists.
The migrant workers had come all the way from Kishanganj and adjoining areas of Bihar.
The industries minister was quoted as saying in an official government press note that the migrants are “strong pillars of our economic stability” and will continue to contribute towards Punjab’s progress.
However, leading exporter, Rahul Ahuja, who is also the chairman of the Punjab chapter of Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), had a slightly different take on the issue. According to him, the first mistake that was made by the government during the lockdown was to say that migrant workers would be able to travel by the Shramik Specials for free of cost.
“One can understand if a migrant labourer who was unemployed or did not have enough food was sent back on humanitarian grounds. But this lure of a free ride spurred even those who were paid salaries by factory owners during the lockdown to go home. They thought they went home anyway once a year and here was an opportunity,” Ahuja said.
His view is not widely shared in the industry, though. In the course of conversations, many reputed industrialists mentioned that there were instances when migrants who had not been paid fully were in distress and as the pandemic induced lockdown kept getting extending, it created a sense of panic which led to the desire to reach home one way or another.
But Ahuja maintained his position on the issue: “How will industry run if labourers continue to be sent back?” He said that there were many workers who left for their villages on a routine home visit before the lockdown and wanted to come back now. “The way the government arranged trains to transport the migrant workers home, can’t it bring them back for the sake of industry that is unable to deliver due to labour shortage,” he stressed. The government, he stated, was noncommittal about it. “They say, give us data. But it is common sense – you pick them up from where they were left.”
“All Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh has to do is announce on national TV that our trains will bring migrant labour back free of cost from major stations in UP and Bihar, say, from June 14. The government can then open a portal and ask them to register,” said Ahuja.
As of June 7, the Punjab government had spent Rs 28 crore in running 391 trains to send five lakh migrant workers home from various places in Punjab – out of these 200 trains were sent from Ludhiana alone, followed by 77 from Jalandhar, 32 from Amritsar and the remaining from other cities.
While the state government maintained that a sizeable number of migrants had stayed back after the easing of restrictions on industries, the panic in industrial cities like Ludhiana belies such claims.
The industries are worried that too many things are working against them. As it is, bank interest rates, cost of transport and even the cost of raw material is having a hugely adverse effect on them; the added cost of bringing the migrant workers on their own expense would escalate their costs even more.
Speaking to The Wire, industries minister Sham Sunder Arora did not commit if the state was ready to bring the migrant workers back on its own expense.
But he said that the state has already written to the Union railway minister, Piyush Goyal, to start more passenger trains after the factory owners in Punjab told him that their workers have been continuously calling them, saying that they are sitting idle at home and want to come back.
“The labourers are bound to return, even if not immediately, but the problem is that the industry needs a major relief package. The Centre talks about extending loans to the industry, but what the industry wants is an interest waiver for at least six months,” said the minister.
He added that crores of funds have accumulated in ESI accounts. It is a contribution of both workers and industries. “Why can’t the Centre use this money to bring industry back on its feet,” he asked.
Section of industry feels lack of demand is causing the crisis, not labour shortage
There are other prominent voices in Ludhiana which feel that the root cause of the existing situation is more owing to a lack of demand than labour shortage.
Ajit Lakra, president of the Ludhiana Knitwear Association, said the labourers would eventually return if factories resumed operations at full capacity. Moreover, he said those asking for workers are the ones who had procured winter orders, but that did not necessarily reflect the condition of the entire industry.
“At present, we are not exporting orders. The domestic orders are also not enough for us to operate at full capacity. Honestly speaking, the labour shortage is not hurting us at all in the sense that we will need a full strength of labour only if we have orders requiring us to run at full capacity,” said Lakra.
In his view, if orders were to increase in the next 20 days, there was a chance of the situation improving; otherwise what was needed was a miracle, which seems to be in short supply during the COVID-19 pandemic in the country.
To the question of the extent of business shrinkage this year, Lakra said that the overall turnover of the hosiery industry in Ludhiana was around Rs 20,000 crore, including exports. “This year the situation is bad, so we may shrink to 30-40%,” he added.
Lakra had his own point to make. “During the lockdown, neither the Centre nor the state government did anything to pay the factory workers; they expected the industry to pay them without working. This, it could not manage, which resulted in restless workers returning homes amid an atmosphere of uncertainty never seen before,” he said.
Back home, workers are restless too
If the industries of Ludhiana are in the doldrums, many of the workers who left the city in panic are growing restless as well. For instance, 23-year-old Santosh Kumar, who is at home in Daudnagar, in Aurangabad (Bihar), told The Wire over the phone that a panic situation forced him to leave Punjab a month ago. But he had not been able to get any work locally.
“I want to return to Ludhiana, but there is only one train at present from my home state to Ludhiana, the Durgiana Express that runs twice a week between Kolkata and Amritsar.
Likewise, Birender Kumar, who too returned to his village, 70 km from Gaya, told The Wire that his life has not been the same since the outbreak of the coronavirus. “First panic brought me back home; and now the same sense of panic is pushing me to go back to work in Ludhiana,” he said.
But there are also workers like Pintu, who returned to Aurangabad from Ludhiana. He said he did not want to return to Ludhiana right away. He said he would try to find work in Ludhiana a month later when the situation improved.
Punjab farmers are also arranging buses to bring migrant workers
It is not just industry in Punjab that is experiencing anxiety; farmers too are in panic mode due to a labour shortage ahead of the paddy season that officially begins from June 10.
The Bhartiya Kisan Union (Lakhowal) is leading several farmers associations in the state in its plans to bring back migrant labourers.
Jagseer Singh, who is the Barnala district president of BKU (Lakhowal), told The Wire that five buses have already brought back around 200 labourers. Two buses came from Pilibhit district (UP) and three from Motihari district (Bihar). Another six buses have already left to fetch more workers.
Singh said that farmers in the neighbouring Sangrur district too would be sending buses on June 8, even as Barnala deputy commissioner (DC) TPS Phulka asked them to ensure testing and screening of the labourers before sending them to the field. Singh also asked the DC to arrange the logistics.
As The Wire has previously reported, Punjab’s rural economy is in a vulnerable state due to labour shortage and rise in wages. This has created a rift between panchayats and mazdoor unions over a move to cap the paddy transplant wages that mazdoors termed unfair and unjust. The farmers justified their move, saying that they couldn’t afford a higher cost of production. Besides, the recent hike of paddy MSP was minimal and inadequate.
General secretary of BKU (Lakhowal), Harinder Lakhowal said the trend of farmers getting labourers back would pick up in other districts as well. “But it is sad that we are not getting any help from the official machinery as we face several problems in the process of bringing them back,” he said.
As Punjab’s industries and its farmers labour over their situation, they await the return of the migrant workers who have been flung from one crisis to another in the time of COVID-19.
Vivek Gupta is a Chandigarh-based reporter who has worked for several news outlets including The Hindustan Times, The Indian Express and The Tribune.