A century here, but still not at home

Even as the Balochis of Mumbai rally for an OBC status, not much has changed for this community of migrant stonebreakers in over a century

Balochis were brought to Mumbai to lay the foundation of the railway stations. Most still continue work as stonebreakers
Balochis were brought to Mumbai to lay the foundation of the railway stations. Most still continue work as stonebreakers

In 1901, when the British Government brought approximately 5,000 people from Balochistan to Mumbai via Karachi to work as stone quarrying labourers, Anis Sohrab's grandfather was one of them. "He was just 18 then. His engagement had broken off and he was looking to get away from home. So, he came to Mumbai on a steamer and started working as a labourer here," says the 50-year-old. Back in the day, the grandfather built the Gaondevi temple near Sohrab's Andheri (East) residence. "The then Viceroy, John Gilbert employed him to work on the Khandala railway tracks and tunnel," he reveals.

With no education to back them up, the Balochis continued working as unskilled labourers, helping with infrastructure projects. Today, a century later, life has not moved much for the 1,500 odd Balochis living in Mumbai. Sohrab continues to be employed in the stone business, but now works with heavy-duty machines instead of primitive tools. In the Baloch community, the percentage of illiteracy is 95 per cent due to which, the opportunities for a better life have been thwarted.

Rehman Baluch's family at their Virar residence. With no education or knowledge to back them, the Balochis continue to work as unskilled labourers. Pics/Datta Kumbhar
Rehman Baluch's family at their Virar residence. With no education or knowledge to back them, the Balochis continue to work as unskilled labourers. Pics/Datta Kumbhar

It is perhaps for this reason, that the Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, Ramdas Athawale announced earlier this month that his ministry would lobby with the National Commission of Backward Classes (NCBC) to include the Indian Baloch community in the OBC (other backward classes) list. The Balochistan issue also came to prominence during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Independence Day speech, where he spoke about the atrocities committed in Balochistan.

Missing documents
On August 9, 1995, the social welfare, cultural work and sports department of the Government of Maharashtra issued a resolution to include the Sangtarash/ Dagadfodu (stone breaking) community under the Vadar tribe of Vimukta Jati (Nomadic tribes). The move sought to improve the level of education among the Balochis. "Many from our community applied to the respective departments to obtain the caste validity certificate," says Rehman Baluch, ex corporator from Virar.

As per the department's diktat, the community members needed to provide documentary evidence prior to November 21, 1961 to be eligible for the reservation. "However, as our people migrate for work, it is difficult to present documents. Moreover, they would get paid on a daily basis. There is no documentation, receipt or slips for their services. So applications got rejected," explains Baluch who manages stone quarrying projects.

The other half
On the other hand, for the Bhagnari community of Mumbai, who also originate from Balochistan and date their presence in this city to the Partition, there's no identity conflict. "We are identified as Sindhis. Although we speak Sairaki (a dialect spoken in the southern half of the province of Punjab in Pakistan), there's never been a clash," says Lalit Jham, a businessman and member of the community. According to statistics, there are approximately 2,500 Bhagnaris living in Mumbai. "Since we come under the Sindhi caste, we can avail of benefits like reservation. But, for the Muslim brethren, it's been a tough journey, and if they managed get the OBC status, I'll be more than happy for them," he says.

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