Workforce in demand, but e-pass slows down flow

Chennai limping back to normalcy; authorities need to do more to help workers return without hiccups

Lakhs of white and blue collared workers were forced to leave Chennai for their hometowns in March as the COVID-19 crisis unfolded. Representational image: iStock

As the COVID-19 effect fades slowly in state capital Chennai, the workforce seems eager to return to their “normal” routine, provided their re-entry is made smooth and people-friendly.

According to official figures, the number of positive cases in Chennai has dropped significantly from 2,393 in June to 984 in August.

Notably, lakhs of workers – both white and blue collared – were forced to leave Chennai for their hometowns in March as the COVID-19 crisis unfolded. Many of them, mostly daily-wagers, lost their jobs while the lucky and privileged ones got to work from home. As it stands today, the industry and service sectors want their people back to restart the work engines, but bottlenecks remain.

Despite stringent norms put in place by the authorities to avail of an e-pass to travel from one district to another in Tamil Nadu, several daily wage labourers, techies and marketing executives are forced to take a detour to sneak into the city.

Ilayaraja, a cook from Dalmiapuram in Trichy district, could not manage his family expenses with a part-time job in his native village. He used to work at a small hotel in Chennai. “It was early March when I visited my native place to be with my pregnant wife. I got stuck there for over three months. After the unlock began, I managed to get a part-time job as a cook for a paltry salary of Rs 250. This was not enough to feed my wife and three children. The only option left with me was to travel to Chennai somehow and rejoin the hotel I was working with earlier,” said Ilayaraja.

Getting back to Chennai was no easy task though. Since there was no public transport available, Ilayaraja had to hitch a ride in a truck. “It is not just me. Many like me are travelling back to Chennai, but it is not an easy task at all,” he said.

Kasinathan, a plumber, who hails from Dalmiapuram, reached Chennai in early July and has been busy since. “There is not much work available in my town. I reached Chennai and met my supervisor and now I am so busy that I don’t get time to have lunch,” said Kasinathan with a smile.

While daily wage labourers have somehow managed to travel back to Chennai, a lot of white-collared employees are still struggling to get back.

The provision to ‘work from home’ has been extended till October, but some IT firms in Chennai have asked their employees, engaged in critical works, to return urgently. “Now that the Covid cases are on the decline, our bosses have asked critical resources, including team leaders, to come back to Chennai,” said R Krishna Kumar, a team leader with a leading IT firm. Krishna made five unsuccessful attempts to secure an e-pass. Finally, he took his friend’s bike from Madurai and drove all the way to Chennai. “Had I got an e-pass, I would have taken a car and travelled peacefully. The government would also have had my details to track as well,” Krishna rued.

Not just the techies, even marketing personnel are badly needed back at work. Gokulavannan, a marketing executive with a leading cement manufacturing company, was attending to his customers through phone calls and video meetings till July.

He was recently asked to report at Chennai on August 1. “The company, however, is not ready to get me an e-pass. They were lenient till the number of cases was rising. As soon as the count started to decline in Chennai, the pressure started mounting on me to come back,” Gokulavannan said.

While Gokulavannan managed to convince his family to return and secured an e-pass after seven unsuccessful attempts, many of his colleagues were not so lucky. “Seven top executives, who were drawing more than Rs 10 lakh per annum, have put in their papers and they were relieved immediately,” Gokulvannan said.

As the number of people returning for work goes up, there is a growing clamour to make the e-pass procedure user-friendly. Opposition leaders and trade unions have demanded cancellation of the e-pass system for people to move from one place to another with ease.

Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, however, thinks otherwise. He said the restrictions are in place to discourage non-essential movement of people and that the e-pass system would continue to be in place. Palaniswami said he would soon constitute special teams at the district level to clear e-pass applications at the earliest.

More than 1,000 migrant workers have been issued e-pass with help from their employers to travel back to Chennai.

Greater Chennai Corporation’s Deputy Commissioner (Revenue & Finance) Meghanath Reddy said that 229 passes have been issued till August 11 to bring back 2100 people. “We expect more people to come back soon,” he said.

To avoid chaos – like it happened after the lockdown was announced – manpower agencies and companies have been instructed to arrange vehicles to get back their workers and provide them accommodation during quarantine. The companies have been asked to subject all the migrant workers to RT-PCR tests. The companies have also been asked to furnish complete details of the migrant workers returning to monitor them frequently.

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