While migrant labourers see price rise as their primary concern, they still rate caste and religion as determining factors in their voting decision

After the rural poor, farmers and the urban middle class, political parties are now seeking to make a vote bank out of migrant manufacturing labourers. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s election manifesto promises the concept of “Industry Family” between workers and factory owners, but does not elaborate on the same. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi recently told The Hindu: “We are committed to ushering in a manufacturing revolution… over 70 crore people who are above the poverty line but below middle class income levels…My effort is to unite these … carpenters, artisans, weavers and plumbers... to identify and develop a uniting political character for this group, based on their income level, basic rights and aspirations.”

Migrant political behaviour

Who are these Indians and what do they want? We visited three manufacturing hubs across India to understand the emerging political class of migrant workers. We found that despite sharp variations in the working and living standards of migrant workers across these hubs, their political behaviour is fairly similar: it is driven by local traditional politics rather than by issues back home or national discourse. Therefore, the task before parties is not to carve out a fresh vote bank but to reorient conservative politics of caste and religion.

Migrant workers we met were emphatic that “development,” “jobs” and “price rise” and all the issues highlighted in BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s blitzkrieg are indeed what could change their lives. And yet, hardly any one seemed inclined to depart from traditional voting behaviour.

“I have no faith in politicians when they say they will deliver jobs and development, but if they could I would vote for Modi,” says 25-year-old Iqbal, a worker’s contractor in a footwear unit in Agra. He earns anything between Rs.8,000-Rs.10,000 a month and said he would vote as per the decision of his village and family clan. The choice, he said, was between the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party — whoever was better positioned to challenge the BJP, a party inimical to Muslims, according to him and his community.

For all the migrant labourers we interviewed in Agra’s footwear export factories, price rise was the primary concern, even though the short supply of skilled hands has led to a rise in minimum stipulated wage rates by three times in the last 10 years. They, however, rated caste and religion as the single determining factor for voting. “Even if I vote for the BJP candidate, he will never believe I did as I am from the Jatav caste,” says Iqbal’s colleague Dayaprasad, who earns about Rs. 4,500 a week. His son is pursuing “a BSc” and preparing to apply for a job in the Indian Air Force. He will let his daughter, now in standard 12, go to college if she can exhibit an aptitude for graduation. Agra’s migrant labour is largely from within Uttar Pradesh.

Unlike the Agra footwear makers who are bound by stringent labour standards mandated by their international clients (it includes a bus ride to and from home daily, benefits for retirement and school fees for their children), the hosiery units in Ludhiana in Punjab rampantly flout labour laws.

Even then, the migrants are socio-economically better off here than back home. The identity politics of U.P. and Bihar, where the bulk of them come from, does not play out in the same fashion here. Hindus and Muslims from different States are closer here than back home. The migrants in Ludhiana, however, don’t count politically yet, as few are registered to vote.

Religion or caste rarely comes between us, says Muhammed Mujahid, speaking about himself and his two friends, Chandresh Kumar and Mohan Chauhan, both migrants from Gorakhpur, U.P.

The three are hosiery workers. They are vulnerable to the whims of their landlords who hike rents without proper notice. As a result, the dominating concerns for these migrants are more development-related — lack of proper schools for their children, poor health infrastructure and inadequate housing.

Says Lalit Kumar, 44, who had migrated from Rae Bareli, U.P., to Ludhiana 30 years ago: “Local issues take precedence for me over caste and class combinations that drive polls back home.” He, like most migrant labourers in Ludhiana, is neither on the registered voters’ list nor on the employee list of the hosiery factory where he works for 16 hours daily. If he could, says Kumar in fluent Punjabi, his vote would have been against inflation. Twenty years ago, he recalls, low-grade wheat cost Rs.35 per 10 kg; “Today, the price of atta has climbed up to Rs.220.” A cutter master’s job used to be well paying but the last 15 years have been marked with stagnancy, he says. Still, he won’t return home.

“I doubt if too many workers even have voting rights in Ludhiana,” says V.K. Goyal, towels and knitted fabrics manufacturer and SEL’s Executive Director and Group CEO. “Conversations do come up at workplaces, especially among Bihari labourers, as they are politically minded…but they rarely take time off to go vote.”

Despite Ludhiana Joint Council Of Trade Unions general-secretary D.P. Maur’s efforts to rally workers employed in the 1,200-1,500 hosiery units in the city, the trade union movement has only weakened.

Job opportunities

The engineering hub of Nashik, home to 6,000 factories including global giants such as ABB and Siemens and ancillary units, stands out as an exception as migrants face local political hostility. The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena’s fierce agitation in 2009 for evicting migrant labourers to secure jobs for locals brought down their population from about 40 per cent of the total industrial workers to about 20 per cent. The “bhayes” (local parlance for people from U.P. and Bihar) in Nashik are thus desperately seeking development, but back home. “If I get [the] same employment opportunity in my native place, I will love to go back. But our region is backward and I have no option,” says 48-year-old Aachhe Lal, who came to Nashik from eastern U.P. seven years ago.

Yet, the numerous migrant workers who travel to manufacturing hubs in search of employment are still not seen as a vote bank. In Ludhiana, for instance, in a recent public session that saw the main candidates from the Akali Dal, the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party, none of the candidates spoke of better lives for labourers employed in the industrial town. “Many of these labourers live in unplanned environments where there is a lack of sewerage or water supply facilities. We will try to bring in a policy to regulate such housing and also bring in apartment and group housing schemes where these workers can be accommodated,” says Shiromani Akali Dal Punjab candidate Manpreet Singh Ayali. “We will take up any issue if it is brought to our notice.”

Still, as Mr. Gandhi says, the ground may be ripe for political cadres to take up. “I will support JD (U) back home but here I will vote for CPI that takes up the cause of labourers,” says Pheroze Master from Sitamarhi district of Bihar, who recalls a visit from one of the cabinet ministers in Nitish Kumar’s government.

Others say issues such as inflation affect them more and Mr. Modi’s campaign has impressed them enough to shun traditional politics.

The key is in defining the task at hand: Will it take a new vote bank or a new kind of politics altogether?

(With inputs from Lalatendu Mishra)

puja.mehra@thehindu.co.in

sowmiya.a@thehindu.co.in

lalatendu.mishra@thehindu.co.in

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