Boiling Over

Gogunda’s culinary workers fight back against exploitation

Bhanwarlal had to struggle against official indifference to obtain a pension for his son. reetika revathy subramanian

After a hard day’s work, 15-year-old Bhurilal Gayeri was ready to call it a night. Over the course of that day in March 2011, Bhurilal and his co-worker, who was 16 years old, had fried 500 kilograms of farsan—a Gujarati catchall term for salty snacks—at the Sheetal Farsan Mart in the Vapi industrial estate in Gujarat. The owner had locked the doors from outside, to ensure that the underage workers he employed could not escape.

In order to make room to sleep, the two teenagers struggled to move their large kadhai—wok—out of the way. Suddenly, Bhurilal slipped and fell, into 35 litres of hot cooking oil. “I have no memory of what happened after,” he told me when we met in October 2018 at his house in Nandeshma village in Gogunda, a former feudal estate in southern Rajasthan that is now a tehsil in Udaipur district. “I fell unconscious. When I woke up several hours later, my entire body felt numb.”

Bhurilal sustained permanent burn injuries. His chest was scalded. He could no longer bend his left knee. His left wrist was deformed. Three fingers and two toes had to be amputated. “Had I been at home when that lohar came to recruit him, I would have never let him go,” his father, Bhanwarlal, said, referring to Bhairulal Lohar, the labour contractor who signed up his son. Bhanwarlal had been out in the fields with his herd of goats and sheep when Lohar, also a resident of Nandeshma, arrived at his house and convinced Bhurilal to immediately set off for Vapi, with promises of free accommodation, a regular monthly salary and an eight-hour work day.

An estimated ten thousand labourers have migrated from villages in Gogunda to work around the world in the food-processing and catering industry. While head chefs are drawn from the dominant Brahmin and Rajput castes, the cleaners, waiters and vegetable cutters are recruited mainly from the Bhil–Gameti and Garasiya tribes.