Displaced by landslides, migrant workers in Kodagu estates face threat of dismissal

Migrant workers in the district, who have currently taken shelter at relief camps, say they may go jobless if sent back to their home state.
Displaced by landslides, migrant workers in Kodagu estates face threat of dismissal
Displaced by landslides, migrant workers in Kodagu estates face threat of dismissal
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When 23-year-old Shamsun Nahar left her village near Sonapur in Assam due to the floods in 2017, she did not imagine she would find herself in the same situation, the following year.

A year ago, Shamsun, along with her husband Samir Ali, travelled 3,500 km south, to find work at the Durgadevi Coffee Estate at Madapur in Kodagu district of Karnataka.

Shamsun tends to the coffee plants at the estate. Her work also includes gardening, manuring and picking coffee beans, among other tasks. But in the last three weeks, she has had no work.

“It was raining heavily here, and last week, we left the estate and reached the relief camp after being rescued by the army,” says Shamsun, sitting at the Madapura Government High School, which has been turned into a relief camp.

Shamsun is among hundreds of migrant workers,who have currently taken shelter in relief camps after Kodagu district was ravaged by floods and landslides. At the Madapura relief camp, around 119 out of the total 537 people displaced were migrant workers, mostly from West Bengal and Assam.

Kodagu district authorities are making separate lists of migrant workers in each relief camp. “We will be asking estate owners to take their workers back; but if the owners do not vouch for them, we will make arrangements to send them back to Assam,” says PS Mahesh, Tahsildar of Somwarpet taluk.

This has caused panic among these migrant workers, who had no one to vouch for them yet. “Our manager has not spoken to us about leaving so far, but if we are told to leave, we will have to leave,” says Shamsun.

The officials believe that by sending migrant workers back to their home states, they can reduce the existing load on the relief camps in the district. “If they (migrant workers) leave, then the number of people in this camp will be reduced. It will be easier for us to manage the relief operations here,” adds Mahesh.  

Employers remain divided

Estate owners, however, are in two minds. Few owners are considering cutting these workers loose, after assessing the damage done to their estates by the floods and landslides.

“Providing them work will be an issue given the current situation,” says Deepak PC, owner of the five-acre Giridhari Estate near Madapur which produces coffee and pepper.

“Considering the damage to the estate, no work can be carried out at present. It could take a year for the land to be cultivable again. And so, there is no point in re-employing these workers now,” he says.  

Meanwhile, Vinod, who manages Trinity Plantations in Mukkodlu, says that 18 of his workers, who hail from Assam, are no longer needed. “We don’t really need them now. If they want, they can come work for us later, and if not, I would gladly see them leave,” told Vinod to TNM, in the presence of his workers - Zakir Ali and Marpat Ali - who have been working in the estate for three years.

Zakir (22) and Marpat (18) twiddle their thumbs in confusion and anxiety, when asked what they plan to do next, following the ultimatum from their employer. “I have been working in the estate for three years now and if we are told to leave now, we do not know if we will find work back home,” says Marpat.

Zakir Ali and Marpat Ali at the relief camp in Madapura, Kodagu district

Sunil Besra (42), who has been working in Kodagu for as long as 11 years, is not willing to leave his job at the Hattigiri Bakery Estate in the district. As part of integrating with the neighbourhood, he even learned a few Kannada words and phrases.

“We are treated well here. Back home, we are paid the same amount, but we do not get continuous work. We have no money now, not even to go back,” says Sunil, emptying his pockets in exasperation.

Few other estate owners, on the other hand, are willing to take their workers back and give them work in making the land cultivable again.

Almost all migrant workers are paid government-mandated wages of Rs 275 per day, making them an attractive proposition for estate owners in the district.

“The influx of migrant workers to Karnataka began many years ago after locals began charging more than around Rs 500 per day for eight hours of work, even though some workers do not work for an entire eight hours. Migrant workers don't cause any trouble and do their work diligently," says Maleyanda Ponappa, a coffee and pepper grower in Mukkodlu, who estimates that he has lost about 5 acres of his produce, out of a total 22 acres.

The workers don’t dispute the wages they are given, as they prefer the steady flow of income compared to desperate search for work in their home state, where they say, jobs are hard to come by.  

Mukkodlu in Kodagu district after a landslide

However, after the floods in Kodagu this week, these workers will now have to rebuild their lives, possibly away from Kodagu.

While many estate owners don’t intend to retain the migrant workers, they neither plan to replace them with local workers, as they believe there will be little work to do for the foreseeable future following the floods.

"It will take around seven to eight years to re-start growing coffee or pepper in the damaged areas. It will be at least 10 years before they start giving yields anywhere close to the amount that is currently being produced," adds Maleyanda.

The NRC factor

Most of the migrant workers in the Madapura relief camp are from Assam. The workers had just returned to Kodagu early this month, after going to their hometowns to provide documents for the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

“While some names have been included in the NRC list, many had to go back to Assam with all their documents to prove their citizenship,” says Noor Hussain, who has been working in Kodagu for four years.

The draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), published on July 30, excluded over 40 lakh people, who were unable to produce legacy documents from or before 1971.

They will be allowed to file complaints with the authorities from August 30, in order to be included in the draft. The Supreme Court is still deciding on the duration and changes in the process of addressing the complaints. The apex court is currently in discussions with social interest groups and the NRC compilers on the specifics of the process.

Several migrant workers in Kodagu, including Shamsun's husband Samir Ali, had gone to Assam with all necessary documents to file a complaint after their names were excluded from the draft list published in July.

Migrant workers at the relief camp in Madapura, Kodagu 

The workers fear they would not have any important documents proving their citizenship when local authorities from Kodagu visit the camps to make a list of people there. And since they prefer continuing to work in these estates, at least for a short period, this is proving worrisome. “We want to continue working here for at least a year and then eventually go home,” he adds.

An uncertain future

These migrant workers are also viewed with a degree of resentment by the residents of Madapura and its neighbouring villages.

“The owners bring them here for work and they live inside the estates; however, the residents here feel that they are taking away our work,” says Sharan, a resident of Madapura, adding, “Let them stay in the relief camps. We are not saying no to that but we need to find a solution after the rains subside.”

Few areas of Kodagu district like Mukkodlu, Hattihole and Moothoklu, have been washed away by the floods and landslides in the district. The extent of the damage caused by the floods is yet to be assessed by the district administration and hundreds of migrant estate workers in the district are waiting to see if they will be sent back to their home state.

“They need not necessarily be sent back. They can find ample opportunities in the southern part of Kodagu, which has not been majorly affected by the rains,” says Madan Boppanna, who is coordinating relief materials at the Madapura Relief Camp.

Officials in the district, meanwhile, are scrambling to rescue the remaining people stranded in the hills and are focused on keeping relief camps stocked with materials.

The future is uncertain for hundreds of these migrant workers, who have made relief camps their temporary home in the last few days. Having left Assam due to floods, some migrant workers are re-living the situation, only this time in Kodagu.  

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