Why we haven't seen an exodus of migrant workers on foot from Kerala

After migrant protests broke out in the last week of March, Kerala put in a plan to ensure that the ‘guest workers’ are taken care of.
Why we haven't seen an exodus of migrant workers on foot from Kerala
Why we haven't seen an exodus of migrant workers on foot from Kerala
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On Tuesday, a group of around 100 workers from Kannur tried to walk to their homes in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. These workers, who had complained of lack of food and money, were stopped, pacified and taken to camps.

On Wednesday, police in the northern district of Kozhikode came across 17 migrant workers who had arranged some bicycles and had planned to ride 1,800 km to their homes in Odisha. The workers had also collected enough provisions for their trip. But since the borders are closed, the police stopped them and promised them seats in the next available train.

These are a few of the reported incidents where migrant workers planned a road journey from Kerala, unlike other states where such stories have been reported for several days now.

Earlier, there were many protests by groups of migrant workers across Kerala demanding that they be sent home and asking for trains. 

However, since the time these protests broke out in the last week of March, the state has put in a plan to ensure that the migrant community or 'guest workers', a term that Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan uses, are taken care of.

‘Food and accommodation fine, but living in insecurity’

Biswas, a 27-year-old from West Bengal’s Naxalbari, has been working under a building contractor in Kottayam district for the last two years. He lives in an accommodation provided by his contractor along with 20 others. Biswas can empathise with the painful stories of migrant workers walking hundreds of kilometres to their homes with their families and children, some even losing their lives on the way.

“The other day, I heard about a Bihar man whose child had died and he couldn’t reach home to see his son. I can feel it… how it is to have no money with you and wanting to go home. I really want to go back but special trains are not frequent. My mother is sick. I have no money with me. But at least I have a place to stay and food to eat. Even if I go home, I will come back to Kerala,” he says.

Mahesh, another worker from Uttar Pradesh, is angry that he could not get a place in the special train. But he has no plans of walking home. “Many of us wanted to go home. We have money to buy tickets. Some others have also offered us tickets if we aren’t able to afford it. But there are no trains. Since we have food and shelter here, we are not forced to take extreme steps. But we are desperate to go,” he says.

Like Biswas and Mahesh, most migrant workers yearn to go home. The only difference perhaps in Kerala is that almost no one seems desperate enough to walk back home or hitch rides. 

Caring for the state’s guest workers

On March 29, hundreds of migrant workers at Paippad in Changanassery, Kottayam district, came to the streets demanding that they be sent home. District Collector PK Sudheer Babu rushed to the spot and pacified the workers, and sent them back to their quarters. The Collector says this protest was an early learning.

“Someone played mischief and spread word among the workers that trains were being organised, especially to Bengal. At that time, train services were completely stopped and inter-state travel banned. We convinced the workers to go back and told them that we will address any issues regarding food and shelter,” the Collector tells TNM.

The district administration immediately created teams to survey the workers who were spread across taluks, but were mainly concentrated in three places -- Paippad, Erattupetta and Mulakulam. 

Addressing issues of the people living in camps was easy. “We understood that they were tired of the Kerala food fare that we were providing. We stopped that and started giving only groceries and they started cooking their own food,” the bureaucrat says.

The bigger problem was ensuring that those not living in camps were not harassed by their landlords and had food security. There are almost 30,000 workers in the district who had come to Kerala on their own, and were not brought in by any contractors or brokers. These people, mainly from Bengal, stay in crowded accommodations throughout the district.

“Our teams made a quick survey of where these people were living. In Paippad alone, we identified 284 houses. Most houses were crammed with too many people living in it. We approached house owners and told them that rent, water and electricity would be taken care of by the state for the lockdown period,” the Collector says.

In the second week of April, a case emerged from Kasaragod in the northern part of Kerala where a landlord tried to forcibly collect rent from Tamil migrant workers and even locked out a tenant. After media reports, the district administration intervened.

Various district administrations TNM spoke to said that even sporadic trouble from landlords decreased as the Chief Minister made it a point to speak about guest workers in almost every press conference of his. 

The CM stressed that the state would ensure proper shelter, food, water and other basic necessities for its guest workers.

Food, security, mental health and entertainment 

The first thing the government did was to impress upon district administrations and local self-governments that looking after the migrant communities was integral in the fight against the disease.  

“The first step was to ensure their safety. We coordinated with district administrations, local self-governments and the Home department for this. 21,556 camps were set up across the state. Many of them were private camps provided by the contractors who had hired these labourers. The next step was collection of data. A team including Labour department officials and volunteers was set up to collect data and this was then organised into spreadsheets. Wherever we found workers living in congested areas where physical distancing was not possible, we shifted them to relief camps provided by the government,” K Sreelal, Additional Labour Commissioner – Enforcement, explains.

Migrant workers were also given the numbers of the local police and the mobile number of the Director General of Police, Lokanath Behera. 

Providing timely meals was a responsibility divided among many people. In many of the labour camps, the contractors provided food while in others, food was provided from the state community kitchen. Most Collectors put panchayats and municipalities in charge of monitoring this in every taluk. 

Meanwhile a war room was set up at the Kerala Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram to monitor COVID-19 containment activities and also for the public to directly get in touch for grievances. 

“We also set up a special cell in the Labour Commissionerate and call centres in every district labour office to deal with guest workers’ issues. The call centres had five language options. Until May 2, we received 15,250 complaints through the different call centres and we settled all of them effectively,” Sreelal says.

Among the calls, there were many from the families of the migrant labourers asking to ensure that their loved ones are safe and fed well. 

The next step was dealing with the psychosocial issues of the migrant workers. District level coordination committees, including representatives from the Labour department, district administration, panchayat, and mental health experts, were formed to study the situation.

“A quick response team was formed to visit the camps regularly to deal with the anxiety and fears of the labourers. Also, we constituted a team of multilingual counsellor and volunteers to whom the labourers could speak and get counselling,” Sreelal adds.

The state also recognised that providing entertainment was necessary to reduce the frustration of the workers.. Television sets were distributed in some camps and carrom boards were set up to keep the workers occupied.

What workers shared with counsellors 

Saviourkutty, a college professor and a counsellor who has been taking classes at the labour camps, says that initially, the workers had issues with food and stay, but that was resolved through help centres.

“Mainly they wanted to know when the next train to go home would be available. Some of them were worried that their contractor would ask them for room rent while they didn’t have any money. Nobody raised any issues over lack of money to get train tickets. If they had any issues with food, water or with the contractor, the Labour department would solve it,” he says.

Sinu Thomas, another counsellor from Kottayam who has been giving tele-counselling for workers in the labour camps, says that it is mainly the uncertainty that is forcing them to leave the state and not any problems that they face here.

“A person who called me the other day said that his contractor’s attitude has changed and he now wants the labourers to leave. The caller said he initially did not have plans to go home, but when the trains started, the contractors asked them to leave and he was tensed that he would lose his job. The workers also don’t have any money with them. They mainly wanted to go home fearing that they would get stranded,” Sinu says. He also adds that all of them who called wanted to come back to Kerala even if they leave now.

Another volunteer, who wanted to remain anonymous, said that it depends on the contractor how the migrants are taken care of.

“Some of them provide good amenities. Some others don’t care for the workers well. In that case, we would contact the helpdesks provided by the government. Many of them fear losing their job and getting stranded here. There were cases where the local authorities didn’t take any measures to deal with their grievances and we contacted the war room for help,” he says.

Kerala also provides food kits to the migrant labourers who are travelling back home. 

The journey back home

It is estimated that Kerala has around 2.5 million to 3 million migrant workers. Only a fraction of this, around 42,000 people, have returned by trains. 

A report from the Times of India in Assam says that of the 50,000 Assamese who have returned to the state in trains, not a single person is from Kerala, though around 40,000 Assamese people work in Kerala.

"Barring a few, majority of us are comfortably placed and we do not want to go to Assam," Dimbeswar Baruah, who hails from Dhemaji district told ToI.

Brigu Singh is from Samastipur in Bihar and has worked in Ernakulam district for the last seven years. The only thing that he is worried about is uncertainty regarding his work.

“Initially we had issues with the food that was provided, we didn’t like it. But later government officials intervened and brought us groceries, and we cooked our food ourselves. But that was not enough because we were penniless. We sent our income home every week. I had sent mine a day before the lockdown was announced. I have no plans to go home, because there is nothing there. Whatever I have earned is by working here. Many workers wanted to go home because they were scared of being stranded. Listening to the stories of people like us in other parts of India, I feel it’s better here,” Brigu says.

On May 19, the Centre said that the consent of states receiving migrants from shramik special trains was no longer required. With this, it is expected that Kerala will soon increase the number of trains for migrant workers who are keen to go back home.

“With the new guidelines stating that the consent of receiving states is no longer required, all the migrant workers from Kerala who wish to leave to their home states will be identified and sent back by the government. There are 3-4 trains already running from major stations in Kerala to Uttarakhand, Assam, Odisha and other states in the North,” a PRO from the Southern Railways in Kerala told TNM.

By lending a ear to the migrant community, Kerala has so far managed to keep the crisis under control. However, the next challenge is to ensure that the migrant workers who have stayed behind get paid work soon. The crisis has also exposed the living conditions of the community in Kerala, a state which takes pride in its social indicators. The administration is keen to set this right in the days to come. 

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