In Search of Saroj….

Yesterday Kannan and I went to Oragadam in search of Saroj. A slightly built middle-aged man, Saroj is a quintessential migrant worker who comes to a distant land in search of work. I met Saroj almost a year back during a trip to Oragadam, Tamil Nadu’s ‘Detroit’. Once a cluster of small villages surrounded by lakes and rice fields, now luxury cars and tyres roll out of the land where rice grew once, cattle grazed…. gone are the ponds where women once bathed and chatted, gone are the trees under which farm workers rested their tired bodies. Now it’s trucks, factories with huge compound walls, dusty roads lined with petty shops and dhabas (eateries) and ‘hindi kaaran’ men everywhere—young and middle aged. ‘Hindi kaaran’(if you go by the term) are the people who speak in Hindi. Well, it’s not just Hindi that most of these men speak—you can hear snatches of Bangla, Oriya, Assamese, Bhojupuri and Hindi. But then to the ‘local tamil walas’ (as the migrants refer to the local villagers), they are all ‘hindi kaarans’, often referred to with a tinge of derision. And there are thousands of them (‘hindi kaarans’ I mean) just in Oragdam alone.  Living in tiny rooms or thatched huts, with no or inadequate toilets or bathrooms facilities—quickly scrambled together by the ‘locals’ in their back yards or in any available empty plots, seeing an opportunity to earn some money by renting out these tiny spaces for Rs 4-5000 a month. A new rentier class is emerging in these fast transforming areas which were once rural and now are hybrid spaces of rural-urban.

I remember when I first visited the area, the place was so charming, a bit laid back in time, with its lakes and fields, green leafy trees providing shade all along the koot road to Swaminathan anna’s village with its little Lilly pond. Now there no trees lining the road any more (100s of old trees have been axed to make the industrial corridor in Oragadam), one of the big lakes (eris) is used by the transporters to wash their trucks, tempos and passenger vehicles and Renault Nissan has built its swanky new car factory on  the other one. All my landmarks to anna’s village wiped out!

Oh well, I digressed from what I started writing. But could not stop myself from penning down my deep sense of loss each time I visit the place.

So Saroj, who is he, where is he? In 2012, during one of my visits to anna’s house, I lost my way. Remember, most of my land marks aren’t there anymore? Sarvana, my colleague, and I had gone with a GPS monitor, thinking we will map the water bodies, whatever is left of them. But we stray into a different corner of the village. I could barely recognize the place. Just rows of small concrete rooms or thatched huts strewn across different plots/yards. Infront of one such thatched hut, stood a man, pleasantly smiling at us. I got off the bike and started walking towards him. He folded his hand and said ‘namaste’. ‘You speak hindi’, I asked. “Hum Orissa se hain, aaiye na”, said the stranger and asked me to come to his ‘room’. One of the four small huts in a row with a thatch roof. As I entered, I noticed about 8-10 other very young men in their banyans (vests) and gamchcha (checked cotton towels), some staring at a tiny TV screen, some listening to transistor and some just lying down staring up at the thatch. Seeing me enter their hut, the men looked a bit surprised and just sat staring.

The ‘stranger’ introduced himself as Saroj and asked me to sit down. Noticing the discomfort of the young men, I suggested we sit outside. So that was my first meeting with Saroj, just ‘by chance’. Saroj is one of 10 lakh migrant workers who ‘live’ and work in Tamil Nadu, if one could call sharing a tiny low roofed 10×10 ft room with 20 others with no toilets or even to keep one’s belonging ‘living’. We sat outside on a mat with Saroj. Saroj is from Behrampur and has a wife and two children back home. Nothing extra-ordinary about his story of leaving home, sending money back for children’s education or the hardship of work, living in a distant land. His story is shared by lakhs of others like him. But there was something special about Saroj. He asked me “how can we change this situation bhenji, do you think forming a union will help?” I was taken aback. Given his precarity, I wasn’t prepared for it. But I immediately said, yes it’s possible. After speaking with Saroj for some more time, exchanging our phone numbers and a promise to come back, Sarvana and I left the place in search of Swaminathan anna.

On the way, I suddenly noticed the little Lilly pond, amazed that it had survived the destruction that is Oragadam today. It was hemmed in on one side by the Renault’s high walls.  I felt a tiny ray of hope—I found the Lilly pond and I had met Saroj who wanted to change things, both surviving all odds.

With the help of local CITU unionists within a span of four months or so, Saroj formed a union and registered the union with 114 members in 2012. In their first meeting, which had to be organized elsewhere fearing the interference of the labour sub-contractors, Saroj, in a very simple and clear language explained to the workers the politics of production. He had not read Marx. He said “these companies want us to survive, they don’t want us to die, or else who will do their work? So they give us just about enough to survive- wages that is enough to buy 2 meals a day and if we have  a wife and children then for their food and whatever little else that is needed just to be able to survive and be productive in these factories. Beyond that the companies do not care. They need our bodies and our labour for production, so they make sure that we get enough to keep these things going. This works for them, this how production works.

Saroj is probably Antonio Gramsci’s ‘home grown intellectual’. There are many Saroj’s out there, but not many come out to translate words into action. Saroj did. And he has paid a price for it, so it seems. We can’t find Saroj. For last few months, our search for Saroj has been futile. Kannan has been trying to reach his phone in vain, visited his hut several times, neither he nor his roommates are in the village. In one of his visits, Kannan was told by a labour sub-contractor that Saroj was a ganja (marijuana) dealer and there was some police case against him, so he has left! Some said he had done some fraud, so he disappeared. I refused to believe this. I felt Saroj was in trouble. I insisted that we trace Saroj, find out what happened to him.

So yesterday, Kannan and I went back to the village. We went door to door, asking the workers Saroj’s whereabouts.  Almost all the faces were new, we did not recognize any of them. Finally, an old lady from a house, where Saroj had stayed for a few months, said she knew Saroj, ‘he was the best of this lot (‘hindi kars’), but he has gone now’. She took us to the back of her house where in an empty plot two thatched huts were constructed. A pleasant looking young man was standing at the door, combing his hair. I went up to him and started talking to him. He was smiling till I mentioned Saroj’s name. His face stiffened and he took out his phone and called someone. We were wondering whom he was calling. Suddenly from the next hut a middle aged man came out- Bishwesar Khuntia (Montu). Montu was once part of Saroj’s union. But as soon as he saw us, he started berating Saroj—‘ he has done fraud, did bad business’ and pointed to another young man standing closeby ‘ask him if you don’t believe me, he is Saroj’s cousin’.  The boy just nodded slightly but did not deny or affirm Montu’s charge. Montu claimed that Saroj disappeared when he realized that the union had come to know of his dubious activities. Meanwhile, from nowhere, a dhoti clad ‘local’ man came where we were standing, he is ‘khas aadmi’ of the labour contractor explained Montu. Polite and courteous, the man asked me why I was there. I did not bother to answer him, Montu did all the talking.

But as we were leaving, Saroj’s cousin told me quietly “Saroj is around, he is somewhere here, but I have nothing to do with him”, did not divulge any details.

Kannan and I left the place. We realized that the labour contractors alongwith some ‘maistries’ (labour gang leaders) had plotted to remove Saroj from the area. Saroj meant business, he was organizing workers, he was on the verge of setting up a trade union unit in the village. He was doing something right, therefore he had to be removed!

Madhumita Dutta, Chennai, 15 October 2013

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