On May 25 Ravin Carr along with a group of volunteers who were at Chennai Central Railway station, witnessed a scene that would go on to emphasise the gravity of the situation the city is currently facing with respect to its outbound migrant workers.
“The entire area was crowded with migrant workers wanting to leave the city, all of whom had reached Central station in the hopes of getting on a train. In this group, there were about 900 persons from Bihar who were extremely frustrated due to lack of communication. There were no more trains available that day for them to leave home and the authorities were unable to successfully communicate it to the group. It turned into a law and order situation," Ravin Carr tells TNM over the phone.
“I wound’t call it a language gap but a language barrier,” Ravin adds.
Ravi Carr, who runs a software company in addition to being part of the Feed Chennai initiative, along with a group of volunteer friends, formed the Chennai Migrant Task Force to help address this very issue. The group that was formed on May 19 currently has about 40 volunteers working in different ways, some on the ground, some coordinating on phone. Most of them can speak Hindi and other languages and are able to communicate with the migrants much more effectively than the state administration.
Ravin continues talking about that day, “The situation was getting very difficult to handle. The workers from Bihar refused to accept the food and water being given to them. All they wanted was to go home at any cost.”
“Surely they were hungry, tired from the journey, traumatised by the happenings of the recent months, home sick among other things. But all they got were one-word instructions to “sit, stand, line up” in Hindi. It was not helping,” he adds.
It was late evening by the time Ravin and his friends were able to persuade the group to eat dinner and house them at temporary shelters until the trains to Bihar came. “We took help from the Bihar State Association so as to reassure them that the best of action would be taken at the earliest. We were able to move them to shelters for the night and the next day one group departed and on Wednesday the rest too left," Ravin tells TNM.
“But the entire episode highlighted one big issue for us,” says Ravin, “Neither the government nor the Chennai corporation or the NGOs or even us volunteers are prepared for what is to really come. The number of migrant workers waiting to go back home and the protocols in place to ensure they have a safe journey.”
In Chennai so far 75,000 migrant workers have been sent home. According to a report in the Times of India, 20,000 more were waiting for trains.
Sangeetha, founder of Katradi NGO, who is also part of the task force, says, “Most people in Chennai are unaware of what’s happening out there. Some have asked me if it is really happening in Chennai, if the migrant workers are thronging the railway stations and if it has turned into a law-and-order situation. People don't realise the gravity of this exodus in Chennai because they are all at home due to the lockdown."
“I am sure everyone wants one thing - for the migrant workers to be sent home without hassle. The government also wants to vacate its shelters fast. But everything that is happening on ground, the plight of the migrant workers who are spending days on the road, walking in the hot sun with no easy access to food or water… we need to have more empathy when talking to them. It is not that the authorities are unempathetic. There is a systemic lack of an agile operation in place,” she says.
Ravin goes on to point out that even the online site (nonresidenttamil.org) used for registering for passes is tailored only for the Tamil populace. “Just one cursory glance at the website will tell you that it is not for the migrant workers. The fields are either in English or Tamil. Moreover, the lack of communication with the migrant workers only means that they are not fully informed on how to register for passes. Some think that they've received the pass as soon as they receive an acknowledgment message on their phones. They have no one to turn to for advice. The authorities on the ground cannot understand the needs of the travelers without being able to converse with them. The migrant workers have no one to talk to about their needs and requirements and therefore the crisis,” he tells TNM.
The migrant workers are moving out from shelters and crowding the railway stations out of frustration, with hopes of being able to get on trains to their home. A simple way of fixing the communication barrier would help avoid them leaving their shelters in huge numbers in the first place Ravin adds.
“Over the past few days, we have come across people who take advantage of the plight of the migrant workers. There are touts who fleece from the workers saying they can get them passes or shelters. Not to mention the mental trauma the whole experience will cause for the migrants. These are hard working people who toil away in harsh conditions for their livelihood. They do not deserve to be disrespected or treated like they are unwanted,” Ravin explains.
Both Ravin and Sangeetha stress on the need for a team that is able to effectively communicate with the migrant workers. “For now our small task force is bustling to meet all their needs. To pick up food and water being donated to them. So far 2,248 workers we have helped in some way,” Ravin says and adds, "We work very closely with the Greater Chennai Corporation and the collaboration has greatly benefited migrant workers so far. We need to have a similar model with the Chennai City Police by having Hindi-speaking volunteers available at every police station in order to help the police communicate seamlessly with migrant workers and vice versa.”