An excerpt from a report I did on migration and HIV for an international NGO.
The issue is topical as recent data reveals that migrant workers and their wives have emerged as one of the groups at ‘high risk’ of contracting HIV in India. A few years ago, I spent several days interacting with migrant workers in several states and documenting their lives. Here is a peep into the real world of India’s migrant workers.
On the migration trail
The colourful bedspreads, pillowcases and dishcloths that his factory exports to Europe are part of Ram Karan’s fantasy world. Like the Bollywood posters in his room. There is,however, a real link between the grim existence of this migrant worker from Rajasthan’s Shekhwati region, and middle class homes inthe West. His story is like that of so many young men from Churu, Jhnujhunu and Sikar in Rajasthan and elsewhere to India’s big cities.
Ram Karan, a lean man whose weary eyes belies his 28 years, mirrors the other side of romantic Shekhawati. Unable to eke out a living in Rampura, a drought-ravaged village in Jhunjhunu district, the impoverished farmer left for neighbouring Gujrat. Like most migrants, he knew someone who worked in a big textile factory in Piplej in the outskirts of Ahmedabad, capital of Gujarat. Soon after he arrived in Piplej, Ram Kiran landed a job in the same factory. He says he doesnot get a salary at the end of the month. There are no Sundays nor holidays. The pay is based on the number of items he stitches. The official work hours stretch from 9 a.m to 6: 30 p.m.
Ram Karan’s ‘home’ is a tiny 10 by 8 feet cubbyhole shared with three other migrants working in factories around Piplej. Everyone sleeps on the floor. For entertainment, there is a small black and white TV set. A neighbourhood video parlour screens popular films, including “adult entertainment” late in the night. “ Some of us have pooled in money and taken a cable connection (satellite TV)” says Ram Karan. There is no primary health centre or government doctor in the neighborhood. But the job, for whatever it is worth, fetches around Rs 4500 a month ( approx US$ 100). That is a lot more than the 28 year-old could ever hope to make back in his village in Jhunjhunu.“It is a lonely life out here. But we have to carry on. One is so tired! If there is a woman helper working next to you during the night shift, many things can happen. You cannot get alcohol in the state legally but people carry pouches (containing illicit liquor) to work, especially if they are on the night shift,” says another worker in the large bleak building in the outskirts of Ahmedabad where many migrants like in barrack like accommodation. Every one is not entirely ignorant about safe sex practices but the influence of liquor and fatigue often works against better sense. “When you are drunk, few use condoms,” says Ram Karan.