When in the year 1880, North Bengal had still not witnessed the pangs of civilization and it was a mere ‘jungle’, with swamps and marshes here and there, the expansion of the Jute Industry suddenly offered the place a new identity. Rapid industrialization had occurred, factories were established and large number of people gathered near the area in the hope of work and a better living. All was well and life was good until 1920’s.
The workers of the factories were the ones who migrated from the adjoining states in search of work in the then Capital of India: Kolkata. However, the continual influx of the migrant labourers had led to the insolvable issue of increased population. The result had been the stagnation of employment. Bengal suffered the same fate that Europe did after the Enclosure Movement. The Enclosure Movement gave Europe her new dawn: Industrial Revolution. But the pangs of poverty, ruthless exploitation had been monumental- that had been the epitaph of the Industrial Revolution.
Bengal suffered the same fate and till date has been suffering nothing dissimilar. Within the city, that is currently marked by high rising buildings, shopping malls and an aura of development, there echoes the voice and the presence of another Kolkata, that is infested with immigrant labourers. Lured by the promise of ‘high wage’ and better living, the migrants have shifted their base to this city. These unsettled settlers who earn a daily wage to sustain their livelihood are the migrant labourers. They are the face of the ‘other’ Kolkata.
The present scenario is alarming with the ‘bastis’ or slums shuffled all over in the major Industrial areas and by lanes of this city. Bad housing conditions with little ventilation, open drains and public toilets add a hellish ambiance to the poverty stricken life of these labourers.
Bengal Scenario: Past
In Bengal alone, at the beginning of the century, no less than a million migrants appeared from the nearby states. Calcutta’s Jute industry was partly responsible for this. Rather than employing the locals, labourers were imported from Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, and Bihar. Even now the pattern of migration is in vogue owing to the various constructions, real estate projects, etc. Currently, in the Construction sites, it bhatas, several large, small industries, these migrant labourers work, who have left their dear homelands and migrated to Kolkata in search of basic amenities of life. Back home, some were unable to get enough land to cultivate and many jobless and even many were lured by the dream of a better life. Enticed by the dreams of city life and a regular income, they started working as labours in the city of Kolkata. Most of them are casual construction site workers and a lot-the rag pickers. Lack of employment opportunities in rural areas has led to the flu like migration. From the less agriculturally developed states like Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan there has been a noted, shifting to the Green Revolution faced area -West Bengal.
Bengal Scenario: Present
Ansar Ali, is one such migrant labour among many who have his roots planted firmly at Saran in Bihar. He is currently residing at Rajabazar, where busy morning chores and dingy environment has very little to cheer these uprooted souls. An Urdu speaking Muslim by birth, Ansar arrived at Kolkata in the late eighties. Kolkata gifted him a reliable source of regular employment, a new language to speak-Bengali and saved him from those tormenting days of starvation back home. He earns 100-140 Rs a day at times when the season is peak for the construction site labours. Spending his twenty years of life in this city, he is an old soldier in the labour,race now, who is experienced with the tidbits of labour life. Ansar admits, he has not witnessed the birth of his sons or the death of his wife. His sons hardly know their father; let alone remember him. To them, he is the bread earner, the father that sacrificed his twenty years only to procure daily food to them.
Sitting in his room in the faint light that forces itself from the thatched roof, Ansar retorts that the main problem here is housing. Water supply, sanitation, sewerage and electricity are the major problems that he and his clan faces. An illiterate by circumstantial pangs, Ansar is hardly aware of the labour laws or the Fundamental Rights. Yet he knows about the ‘Netas’ who visit their gullies before the Vote Pujas, promise the clan a better sewage condition, regular water supply and is seen no more after the voting procedure ends and the promises mingle and vanish with the thin plume of dust triggered by the Neta babus car’s wheels; never to be seen anymore until the next elections.
Beside Ansar’s house, there resides Urmi, a co-immigrant and currently a labour. She is a 14 year old who has already borne the burdens of sexual assault, child labour and temporary sex trade. A product of inadequate nutrition, Urmi is unaware of a ‘normal’ life. She fled to Titagarh from her native Uttar Pradesh and fell a prey to the notorious body of the sex trade. How she fled from there and finally housed herself to a resident of Salt Lake who not only used her economically by making her a full time house maid, but even sexually exploited her adolescent body: is but a long story. Even the most conscientious expert at the Child Welfare would know, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Urmi is a daily earner now and works at the much famed construction site that is all set to emerge as one of the cosmopolitan pullers: a shopping mall. Urmi is unaware of the concept of shopping malls. Yet in her yellow Salwar and braided plaits she informs of her new found happiness: a stable income and a boyfriend whom she met at the construction site, another immigrant from Bihar.
In spite of numerous thought evoking write ups and food for thought about these less privileged folks, very less has been done for them. At times it is indeed painstaking, even to imagine a Kolkata where high-rise’s and slums juxtapose reinstating the factor of haves and have not’s, privileged and unprivileged. But this is the bitter truth about the city of joy; the hard core reality that we love to carefully avoid and even overlook at times. The country that boasts of the Right to Education as a Fundamental Right and where every child between the age of 6-14 is to be provided free and compulsory education; it is indeed scary and intimidating to hear stories such as the one of Urmi. Even questions linger about the true nature of success of the ‘The ‘Sarba Shiksha Avijaan’, the Labour Laws, and the Child protection Rights. Little amounts of sensitivity, effort and a helping positive approach towards their problematised conditions and struggle for existence can go a long way. Let’s hope, down the line of approaching times, next Diwali or Id brings true happiness and hope for Anwar, Urmi and the rest gifting them ‘concern’ from those in power.
By Adrita Dey Ghatak
Image Source: Justice for Migrant Workers, J4MW@Facebook