AHMEDABAD/MUMBAI: Mukesh Patel’s factory making decorative lights sits eerily silent during what should be one of its busiest times of the year.
Work at the plant in Ahmedabad, the largest city in India’s western state of Gujarat, has come to a standstill just ahead of India’s crucial festival shopping season as dozens of his workers have fled the state.
Their departure in recent days followed news of violence in Gujarat against migrant workers from the central states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
Tens of thousands of them have fled in recent days, and many of the small factories and businesses they work in have come to a standstill in one of India’s most industrialized of its 29 states. No one knows if or when the workers will come back.
“There aren’t enough people, so how will we continue?,” said Patel, sitting in the reception area of his office opposite his factory building.
In addition to businesses, many of Ahmedabad’s street food stalls are closed because they were mostly run by people from the three states to the east of Gujarat.
The exodus began after the rape of a 14-month-old girl last month, allegedly by a man from the state of Bihar, sparked anger among locals, who threatened, and in some cases physically attacked, migrant workers from the three states.
No one was killed and injuries were relatively minor, but the threats caused panic.
Local media reports said a speech by an opposition party politician, who vowed to take revenge for the crime if police did not act, may have stoked some of the violence.
Police arrested the man accused of the rape, but messages and videos of the threats spread quickly both via vigilante mobs and social media. Authorities have tried to defuse the crisis – police say nearly 500 people have so far been arrested and charged with rioting, assault and cyber crime, in relation to more than 50 reported offences.
But the workers are fleeing back to their villages despite assurances from business owners and protection from the police.
“For more than a week, migrant workers have been leaving the state in jam-packed trains and vans everyday,” said Shyam Singh Thakur, who heads an association representing migrants.
He estimated more than 70,000 workers had fled Gujarat since the beginning of the month but said it was difficult to provide any concrete data.