Man doesn’t live by bread alone. So is the case of migrant workers in Kerala. Although Kerala feeds its guest workers better than many other states, that is not the only thing they want. Almost all of them, except those who had settled in the state, desperately want to return to their hometown. It is just like the Keralites working in the Gulf countries dying to come back to the state in the time of distress.
The Centre’s order dated April 29, letting states to repatriate migrant workers and people stranded in other states, leaves a lot of questions unaddressed. How far is it practical to travel by road from the southern end of the country to northern states? Are passengers supposed to get permission at every interstate border? Who will bear the expenses — the hosting state or their home state? As social distancing is mandatory, a maximum of how many people can be boarded in a bus? These are questions asked by a government official who wishes to remain unnamed and echoed by Binu Bose, the secretary of Kerala State Migrant Workers’ Union.
The Kerala government does not find this order practically viable. “We have sent a letter to the Central government, requesting it to start the service of nonstop trains. Transporting guest workers by road is not practical as far as Kerala is concerned. It is very unsafe too,” the Chief Minister tells reporters on April 30, a day after the Centre issued the order.
“There are around 3.6 lakh migrant workers housed in camps in Kerala. They are living in 20,826 camps across the State. About 99 per cent of them want to go back to their home states. Most of them are from West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and Assam,” says the Chief Minister, emphasising that arranging road travel to these states is out of the question.
“The Central government’s order looks like an attempt to wash off its hands,” says Binu Bose. “Kerala is sleeping on a volcano,” he says. “Migrant workers are quite distressed. It is true that they are not starving in Kerala, but that does not mean they are happy.”
They are living in tiny spaces, says Binu. “Most of them do farming in their home states and it gets affected if they don’t return home. They are also frustrated at being away from their dear ones,” he says. This has already sparked unrest among the migrant workers. Violating the lockdown rules, hundreds of migrant labourers staged a protest march in Malappuram on April 30, demanding arrangements for their return.
According to the police, most protesters were from West Bengal. The police are looking into the ‘conspiracy’ behind the stir. “We have been watching the situation,” says the Chief Minister, referring to the protest in Malappuram. There is a growing tendency to instigate protests by guest workers and it will be handled very seriously, he says.
However, protesters have no complaints about the food. Their only demand is to provide transportation to their home states. “Mamata, will you take us back from here?” was one of the slogans raised by them, say the Police.
The trade unions working among migrant workers have a totally different picture regarding their population. “Most of them are not permanent workers. They work here for six months, go back and do farming in their home states for a few months and then come back,” says Binu Bose.
It has been estimated that the population of migrant workers in Kerala (including those in camps) is roughly 1.4 million, he says. “A large group of Hindu migrant workers have returned to their home states well in advance to Holi. Muslim workers were planning to go back before the month of Ramadan. But they all are stuck here due to lockdown.”
However, migrant workers who had settled in Kerala wish to stay in the state. Rajendra Naik from Odisha is one such worker and has no plans of returning. He has been working in a plywood factory in Ernakulam and currently assisting the district administration to handle helplines in a COVID-19 control room. “Every day, I have been getting a lot of calls from guest workers and most of them want to know when they could go back home,” says Naik.
“As I have been working here with the district administration, I ensure that no one is devoid of basic needs. There is no scarcity for food, but it is true that the guest workers are not happy as they have been held up here,” he says. Naik is also concerned that growing displeasure and emotional stress among the workers would lead to an explosion of anger.