As migrant workers return home, how different states are feeling the pinch
Roshid Ahmed has an almost odd, rational way of looking at the situation.
"If God wills me to get the virus, I may get it…it can happen anywhere. What if something happens to me when I travel? My family at home is calling me every day and asking me to return. But if I stay here, at least I can take the necessary precautions," Ahmed said.
Ahmed, a migrant worker from Assam employed at a grocery shop on the outskirts of Perumbavoor town in Kerala, has chosen to stay back. But not all of his colleagues. In the past couple of days, hundreds of migrant workers crammed into long-distance trains in a bid to head back to their native states as the novel coronavirus pandemic tightened its grip on Kerala and the rest of the country.
Others who are native to their states, like in Hyderabad, are contemplating a return to their villages. "Last three days I have not had any work. People in the city are already worried about the coronavirus. I may have to go back to my village," said Narasimha, 30, from Gadwal.
There are about 150 labour 'addas' in Hyderabad where hundreds of workers from other states assemble for work. And contrary to the advice of chief minister K Chandrasekhara Rao to maintain social distancing, labourers say it's simply not possible.
In other cities like Mumbai, Pune and Delhi, scenes of inter-state workers, often with women and infants in tow, pushing themselves into already-crowded trains were visible as officials stood stunned unable to control the situation. The fear was real mainly because of three reasons: the virus was spreading fast and could get out of hand, wages had trickled down because of fewer jobs and the Railways could potentially switch off all services. On Sunday, those fears were partially proved right when the Railways announced a complete shutdown of passenger services till March 31.
"Yes, there is an element of fear in many of them. Others are simply leaving because there's no work and therefore no reason to stay here anymore," said Ahmed, who has been helping out at the grocery shop for the past eight years. He speaks fluent Malayalam, something he picked up through daily interactions with his customers.
There's also a humane reason why Ahmed hasn't left. He shares a cordial relationship with his Malayali employer who runs another shop, in addition to the groceries. And he doesn't want to leave him high and dry. "My employer hasn't said anything but I know I'm free to go. And if I leave, there will be no one to man the shop," he said.
Such expressions of gratitude are not hard to see in Perumbavoor or other towns in Kerala where the average migrant worker has stitched close, cohesive relationships with the natives. For the 3.5 million-strong migrant labour force, Kerala and its people offer the best wages in south Asia, a peaceful and harmonious social environment and the rich benefits of a welfare state such as an efficient health system and quality education.
For Malayalis, the guest workers, referred to as bhais, are hard-working, devoted and frankly, easy to please. In a state, where the Gulf emigration left behind gaping labour shortages, today the migrants are omnipresent: restaurants and grocery shops, plantations and construction sites, fishing and coir units. They are deeply intrinsic to the Kerala way of life and when calamities such as the Covid-19 pandemic strike, they are often there for each other.
"If the virus (spreads), it will infect Malayalis, Bengalis and everyone. If Malayalis get it, we will also get it. We are all in this together. It's futile to be scared," said Haseena Mafikul, a school-teacher in Vazhakulam in Ernakulam district whose hometown is Murshidabad in West Bengal.
Haseena, who shifted to Kerala with her husband 12 years ago, is part of Roshni, a project of the district administration to help migrant children compete with local kids in studies in government schools. So far, the project has worked wonders, with a class 10 student from Bihar topping the board exam with A grades in all subjects last year. Haseena is also a 'link' worker chosen by the district authorities to communicate better with the migrant communities and address their problems.
"We have given them the necessary advisories like not to go out into big crowds, to wash hands with soap regularly, cover their face with the mask and to take a bath after coming back home. If they report fever or cough, they must go to government hospitals," she said.
"Back home (in Murshidabad), cases have not been reported, but people are tense because the virus can spread very quickly. I have a child who studies in class 5 and I'm scared to get onto a crowded train with him. But yes, people are leaving because there are no jobs here," she added.
Benoy Peter of the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID) is categorical. "There are going to be catastrophic effects for them (migrants). The footloose workers, who are not attached to any employer and who get daily-wage jobs (at labour nakas) will be the most affected. Staying back without any work is not practical for them as there are expenses like rent, food to be taken care of," said Peter.
"The construction sector will be affected because a majority of them are migrant labourers. Additional restrictions on working between 11 am and 3 pm due to sun-stroke fears are also there. The economy will be hit. It will be just like the floods or demonetisation," he added.
Kerala cannot afford to hold them back either as that would mean taking care of their daily sustenance, which given the precarious nature of the state's finances, is not feasible. With 49 active infection cases and over 50,000 people under home quarantine as of Sunday, the state's health system is under considerable duress and is bending over backwards to meet daily needs. Any added pressure will cause the system to collapse.
"Just like Malayalis are returning home from virus-affected countries, they also want to go back home. They want to spend time with their families and we have no right to stop them. When the situation stabilises, they will come back," said Akhil Manuel, nodal officer of the Atithi Devo Bhava, a migrant welfare-centric project in Ernakulam district.
But what rankles officials like Manuel is the manner in which they travel home in jam-packed railway coaches that can intensify the spread of transmission. The paucity of trains from Kerala to the east and northeast has resulted in overcrowding. In awareness messages, they have been advised not to travel in compact spaces, but such advice is likely to fall on deaf ears.
Peter concurs, "The risk perception among them is poor. Most of them are of sound physical health, but their living arrangements are crowded, congested and poorly ventilated. (When they travel), they can be good carriers. And if they travel to different parts of the country, they can potentially disseminate the infection."
Rezaul Kareem, a 22-year-old electrician from Assam who works in Ernakulam in Kerala, considers it a blessing that he came back home last month because of a family crisis. "I did not know it then, but that decision has saved me."
"My roommate is still there — I talk to him often. He says he has not been able to find a train ticket home. The trains have now been cancelled and they are away from home. They are scared and there are no familiar faces. It is natural that they would all want to come back home," he said.
In neighbouring Tamil Nadu, home to more than 10 lakh migrant workers, there was panic after after close to 500 of them from West Bengal and other states were left stranded at Chennai Central station. They are currently put up in social welfare centers. The majority of these workers are employed in the manufacturing sector, the textile industry, the construction sector, etc.
Bernard D' Sami, a faculty member of Loyola Institute of Social Science and Training and Research, said the Tamil Nadu government hasn't taken many initiatives to safeguard the interest of this sector.
"Migrant workers are the backbone of the economy, particularly the Tamil Nadu economy. They are employed not just in visible sectors like construction but also in other sectors in various parts of TN. The government hasn't taken many actions to safeguard them during this time of crisis. Reverse migration is taking place, people are returning to their home town leaving their livelihood into deep uncertainty. Even if they are suffering from any diseases, they are likely to return to their hometown rather than getting treated here. It possesses a great risk as they travel in public transport, leaving others in danger. But what they claim is that the doctors and local clinics don't understand their language and it is causing them huge stress," he said.
However, the TN government officials deny the charges and said they were taking care of the contract migrant workers and are providing social security benefits. However, there was nothing from the government officials about the case of casual workers.
(Inputs and image from theindianexpress.com)