Chennai, an important point of transit for migrant workers returning to their home-state, has become a hotspot for the exploitative ‘exodus economy’, and government action is stripping them of their dignity.

Migrant workers in Chennai wait outside a shuttered shop
Coronavirus Lockdown Sunday, May 17, 2020 - 13:04

Three months ago, 21-year-old Anuji Baskey was flipping burgers and making sandwiches as a ‘Master’ at a restaurant in Thrissur, Kerala. With the little money he made, he was able to survive and send some money back home to his parents in Jharkhand, who he says are poor farm workers. “We all have the same story,” he says with a quivering voice, “we left home to make money and support our families. Now we are at their mercy to return home, they have had to send us money,” he says, sitting on a pavement in Moore Market, just behind Chennai Central railway station. 

Anuji and five of his friends – all of whom were working at restaurants in Thrissur and are now stuck in transit in Chennai – left Kerala in late March. They had a roof over their heads and some cash in hand, but they feared the novel coronavirus. “We thought that if we left immediately, we could get back home safely,” Anuji says. But the day they arrived in Chennai, the nation-wide lockdown came into effect and they were left stranded. 

Mansions of exploitation

The six of them started staying at a room in one of the many mansions in the by-lanes behind Chennai Central, paying Rs 1800 a night. For almost 45 days, they haemorrhaged money. Apart from the rent, they had to pay for food and water, and phone recharges, so they could continue to get information online and stay in touch with their parents. “We requested the mansion owners to charge us less because we were running out of money, but they refused," says 22-year-old Niranjan, who is accompanying Anuji.

These six weren’t the only ones fighting the battle with mansion owners. Shreela M, a lawyer and volunteer with the COVID Migrant Labour Fund in Chennai, says that mansion owners have been heartlessly exploiting and harassing migrant workers who are stuck in Chennai with nowhere else to go. “We have been repeatedly asking for the government and police to step in, to request mansion owners to allow the poor workers to stay for free or at reasonable costs. There has been some impact, but not all of them have agreed to do so," she says.

“Boarders are being allowed to stay only after they scrape together all the money that they can. Their families have borrowed heavily, some have had to choose between rent and their immediate nutritional needs, including that of their babies. Quite a few were roughed up by the police, who sided with the lodge owners, and have had to vacate their rooms in the middle of the lockdown,” she says.

Anuji and his friends say that a few days ago, the mansion reduced their rent to Rs 1000 a day. But even that has been too much for them. Since arriving in Chennai, the six of them have spent more than Rs 1 lakh in expenses. “All our savings are over, and now some of our parents have sent us money. All I want is to get home, I don’t want anything else,” Anuji says. On Saturday morning, they were asked to vacate the premises. They were told that since no staff members were available to take care of the property, they had to leave.

At a mansion a few hundred meters from the railway station, manager Fareed says that they are not exploiting workers, but protecting themselves. “What can we do? We are worried about getting infected, and we also have businesses to run. But I do feel for the workers, they are suffering a lot,” he says. He says that his mansion is not open for business anymore. “Only the boys who are working here are staying, and they are also raring to leave,” he says.

But leaving Chennai is not an easy task. Outside Chennai Central, hundreds of workers are sitting on pavements, waiting for a ticket back home. Most of them, like Anuji and his friends, have registered for the Shramik Special train service online, but they are yet to be allotted a berth. They are not allowed inside the train station without a confirmation SMS. “We don’t know what to do,” Anuji says, “We can’t stay in the mansion, we can’t get into the railway station, so we are just sitting here now figuring out what to do.”

Government officials have been arranging accommodation for some of the migrant workers, but as one would expect, they are not comfortable enough. “We get regular complaints about mosquitoes and stale food, apart from several other issues,” Shreela says.

Migrant workers outside Chennai Central

On Friday, thousands of such desperate workers came to Chennai Central hoping they will get a ticket to leave. But eyewitnesses say that they were all lathi-charged and forced to leave. “Many were sleeping on the pavement last night, with nowhere to go. The police roughed them up and asked them to leave,” says Uma, a street-vendor in Moore Market. She also hopes that the railway system returns to normalcy. “That’s the only way I can make money,” she says. Social workers also corroborate reports of migrant workers being roughed up by the police.

Not enough trains

The problem is simply this: there just aren’t enough trains.

As of now, the only way out of Tamil Nadu by public transport is by Shramik Special trains. The district administrations are coordinating with the railways department to arrange for tickets. The district administration collects details of migrants - names, ages and where they are from - based on which they will help them get a place in the trains. Migrant workers who want to go back can also register on www.nonresidenttamil.org, which will also be compiled by the districts.

Each state has a nodal officer in Chennai. District officials send the state-wise migrants list to these nodal officers, who then take it up with the destination state for approval. Once they get the approval, they arrange for trains to take them back. Once a destination state approves a train, the applicants get allotted a seat and they can leave.

Every day, only two to four Shramik special trains are leaving Chennai Central, with around 1,200 passengers per train. Apart from these trains, two Rajdhani services between Chennai and New Delhi have been announced. These are announced by Indian railways and ticketing is through IRCTC. They are not accessible for poor migrant workers.

With tens of thousands of migrant workers stuck in Chennai now, the limited services are hardly enough.

There are only two other options for a migrant worker, apart from trains: leave in a private vehicle, or take the long road home by foot. Both these options are grounds for further exploitation.

Travel companies are charging thousands of rupees per head to ply buses and vans to workers’ home states. Lakshman, a welder who was working in Ambattur, was near Bhubaneswar on his way back to Bihar by road, when we spoke to him. He said that he had paid Rs 10,000 for a seat on an SUV to reach home. He had been staying at a mansion in Chennai, and that was getting too expensive for him. When asked how he got the money for the expensive ride back home, he said that his brother-in-law, a CRPF jawan, had lent him the money. Another Bihari worker in Chennai says that a group of 30 workers he knew had paid a travel company Rs 2 lakh to take them back home.

Migrant workers cycling on NH-16

For those who cannot afford it, buying a used cycle is the next option. Used cycles are being bought for anywhere between Rs 500 to Rs 3000, say shopkeepers at Moore Market. Those who cannot afford a cycle, start walking.

Walking with indignity and desperation

On National Highway 16 out of Chennai via Redhills and Gummidipoondi, the usual vehicular traffic is missing, but every few kilometres there is a grim reminder of the ongoing migrant crisis: groups of men walking to their home-states, hundreds of kilometres away. Some of them are on cycles, but a majority of them are braving the scorching summer sun on foot, often without proper footwear. They take breaks under flyovers and trees, save the food they have to make it last for as long as they can. For the past month, NH16 has seen a steady stream of migrant workers, attempting to walk all the way back to their homes in states as far as Uttar Pradesh or those in the North East.  

Also read: A walk with migrant workers: Why these heartbroken people are leaving TN

Rajinish of Green Cross Movement, a good Samaritan near Gummidipoondi, says he has been handing out free food and Kabasura Kudineer to people walking on the highway for about 20 days now. “Initially there were only 200-300 people in a day, now there are more than 1,500 in a day. Every day I hand out at least 700 packets of food,” he says, and adds, “it is mostly men going to Bihar, Uttar Pradesh or Odisha. Sometimes there are women and children too, and it pains me to look at them.”

Migrant workers on NH-16

Migrant workers resting at Elavur

You would think that the government would, at least, let them walk back home in peace. No, they have to face indignity and violence even when they are walking.

About 50 kilometers from Chennai city, on NH16, a group of locals and volunteers from Chennai have set up a temporary resting spot in Elavur. For 20 days, they have been providing workers walking back home with food, water and medicines. They meticulously note down details of those who are walking and pass it on to other volunteers along the way in Andhra Pradesh or Odisha. “Some of our volunteers ‘e-accompany’ them. We keep in touch with them on the phone, and if they face any problems on the way, we try to make calls and sort it out,” says Ananthu, a volunteer at Elavur.

Just when they thought that it could not get any worse, it did. The Andhra police have now started roughing up people and sending them back to Tamil Nadu. “For the past 2-3 days, people walking to AP are being sent back. Some of them were roughed up. They were just forced to get into a lorry driving this way, and they would walk back to us,” says Prasanna. Another volunteer mentions, as we were speaking, that a group of 18 people were roughed up and sent back from Tada, and that they are now making their way back to Elavur.

Ramesh Yadav, who was walking back to Deoria in UP, says he is one among the many who was roughed up by the Andhra police. “We have done everything the government wanted us to do. We waited for 45 days, without any money or support. We went to the Collector’s office and asked for help. We waited in line for trains. But we got no help. Now we are walking out of desperation, and they are beating us up. What are we supposed to do?” he asks.  

Ramesh Yadav

“This is so sad,” laments Ananthu, and says, “it is already sad that they have to walk. But we don’t even give them their dignity in that. They are being beaten up. There is no kindness in our government’s approach. That’s why people have lost faith.”

“It has gone far beyond losing wages and not having a roof over their heads. Workers are fighting for basic human dignity now. I have repeatedly heard words like “izat” (respect) and “garima” (dignity) in their desperate requests for help. Their ordeal has been dehumanising and has exposed our wilfully callous political and administrative systems,” says activist Radhika Ganesh, who has been organising relief for migrant workers in several districts of Tamil Nadu.

Radhika further points out that returning home will not end their exploitation, but only begin another cycle of it. “We have already received reports of workers who have returned home from other states being subjected to archaic segregation practices and even lynching attempts. The already entrenched law enforcement and local administrations are now overwhelmed with the COVID-19 crisis, and are brushing these instances aside as unimportant. This is soon going to take a dreadful turn, and we must begin to seriously consider what sort of social safeguards we can provide to these returning labourers and their families. This pandemic will further divide our already unequal societies, and it is imperative that we get our criminal justice systems up and running as soon as possible,” she says.

With inputs from Megha Kaveri