“Contractors have asked us not to let anyone inside. If you (journalists) come inside, you will know how bad the conditions are,”

Migrant workers in Kerala are living in horrible conditions and theyre not the only ones suffering
news Wednesday, June 22, 2016 - 21:47

The Kerala High Court’s ruling on a petition on a labour camp in Ernakulam exposes the faults of a system where individuals may find justice but unjust systems are left untouched.

Eighteen months ago, MA Jose, a resident of Ambalamedu in Ernakulam district approached the Court seeking redress. A labour colony had come up near Jose’s house about two years ago and would now be removed thanks to the High Court order.

It was Jose’s daughter-in-law first who noticed a problem: the water tasted different. “We felt no difference because we used the water every day. But later, a foul smell emanated from the water and the well water turned black,” Jose said. The water remained a black colour even though they had the well cleaned.

The family decided to get the water tested at the Kakkanad regional analytical laboratory. Coliform bacteria was present at the rate of 1,600mpn/100ml, but the permissible limit according to WHO standards is less than 2mpn/100ml.

“We were shocked. Later, we realized that the labour colony did not have septic tanks, and that the waste goes into pits dug in the compound,” Jose said. His house is right next to the camp and one of the toilets is very close to the well.

MA Jose

The three-storied building near Jose’s house was rented out to a contractor and has 30 tiny rooms. About 250 people are crammed into these rooms and share around four toilets between them.

Practically every house in the Ambalamedu area has a similar story to tell.

Johnson and his family moved to a rented house in Aluva, even though they owned the one in Ambalamedu. “We too lived near a labour camp which housed around 300 labourers. Our well became contaminated due to sewage waste,” Johnson says.

60-year-old Thresia, who lives near Fertilisers and Chemicals Travancore Limited (FACT) also says that their well water has a foul smell, and that it contains black particles.

Besides FACT, the industrial area near Ambalamedu has several large units such as Cochin Refinery, and Bharat Petroleum. Contractors supply workers to these units and house them in buildings that are no better than chicken coops.

In all the colonies that I attempted to visit, workers refused to allow entry.

“Contractors have asked us not to let anyone inside. If you (journalists) come inside, you will know how bad the conditions are,” said Mahesh, speaking to me outside one of the colonies.

Manjeet, who hails from Gaya in Bihar, says they have no choice. “What can we do? Our contractors make living arrangements. Sometimes 50 people are put in a small room. We can’t even breathe properly. There are very few toilets,” says the 32-year-old.

“Sometimes we sleep in the area in front of shops, since there is no space in the camps. But we have to work here. Only then can we feed our families,” Manjeet said. He walked away, saying that no one should know that he had spoken to journalist.

The presence of a large number of labourers has made the other residents of the area wary. The general lack of hygiene only adds to the distrust. Johnson says that the labourers spat on the walls as they chewed pan and khaini.

Jose however, recognises that the labour colonies’ residents live in pathetic conditions. “We cannot blame the labourers they too struggle. They are asked to sleep in the verandah. They go through a lot to earn a living,” he says.

A labour camp 

But he is glad that the efforts of 18 months will mean a sanitary environment for him and his neighbours. He has spent many hours in the panchayat and taluk offices and police stations trying to find a solution. “I have the court order at last. But the damage caused to the well cannot be undone easily. It will take a few years to get clear water.”

Many of the labourers in the colony near Jose’s house have been moved to another colony a kilometre away, where nothing would have changed.

Before parting with the case on Monday, Justice K Vinod Chandran had said: “An enlightened society has to take steps to assimilate the migrant population into their adopted community, instilling in them a feeling of oneness, which alone could result in working together towards regional aspirations and development… Isolating some and treating them as second-class citizens can only lead to backlash by way of crimes against civil society and result in deleterious consequence of widespread public harm and injury, including spread of epidemics, which latter consequence is highlighted in the present case.”

He has referred Jose’s petition to a bench headed by the Chief Justice of the Kerala High Court. It remains to be seen whether that brings about any change in the lives of the residents of the labour colonies.

Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.