The migrants were a source of cheap labour for many businesses

Salons, hotels, parking areas and security outposts in the city wore an unusually deserted look on Thursday. There were fewer workers everywhere, and among those present, there was an evident urgency to leave. “I could not get ticket yesterday. 500 of us, all from Besant Nagar are leaving tonight,” said Marxus, from Manipur, who works in a garment showroom here.  

Many companies on OMR on Thursday saw only about half the usual number of security personnel turning in. Farooq Suleman and Rafiq, employed at Infocity IT park,  not only checked bags but also alerted cars and visitors to use the other gate. “We were nearly 80 of us, all from Assam. Today, only half have come,” says Farooq. A native of Dibrugarh district, he has decided he won’t leave the city “unless he gets sure signals of danger.”  

“Abhi toh saara Afva hai, (It is all rumour now). “But, everyone is scared. The Muslims do not want to go back and they fear coming to work. The Hindus have already left,” says the 31-year-old who earns Rs 12,000 a month here.

A supervisor at D1 security, which provides parking and watchmen services to over 20 companies here, said, “We assured employees that nothing will happen and we will take responsibility. Even then, only 30 per cent of them came in today.” While Assamese are the most petrified, other communities too are worried.  “Guwahati is from where we go to other places. So all of us identify with Assam,” says Joyce, who hails from Tripura, a parking attendant at Tidel Park.

Over 10,000 people from the northeastern States have come to the city in the last eight years, according to estimates of organisations working with migrants. Natives of Manipur comprise the highest number, followed by those from Assam, Mizoram and Nagaland. “It started with just about 100 to 200 in 2003. Now, at least 50 come here every month,” says Thang Valte, former chairman, Zomi Christian Fellowship, a group that works with Manipuris.

The absence of employees from the northeast will most significantly affect hotels, restaurants, showrooms and salons. For instance, B. Sushma runs a beauty parlour in Thiruvanmiyur with six helpers, all from Mizoram, Assam and Manipur. On Thursday, only three of the assistants were working.  “They are extremely skilled and learn very fast. They do not insist on leave too, except for the fifteen days a year when they go home. A worker from here will charge at least Rs. 1,500 more,” says Sushma. The girls stay in the two rooms in the backyard of the parlour, and Sushma gets to keep a tab on their whereabouts too. “Initially, they have problems with food and weather. But they adjust. I incur only about Rs 3, 000 a month on their food.”

Her employee, Elvina from Manipur, blames “the collective negativity everywhere, the messages, the phone calls. We just want to be together with our friends and go back home.”

Augustine, a store manager in a showroom, also attributes the chaos to messages. “Yesterday morning, they said somebody was killed near Perungudi checkpost; today they said someone else was attacked here. First they said everything will be over by August 20 and now some are saying they are waiting for Ramzan to get over. If you trace back the messages, you find no credible source.”

“It is not economical for most businesses to hire local people,” says Suresh Babu, who runs a Chinese food joint in Santhome. “It was easier till now to find northeastern workers. You just had to approach a nearby restaurant and ask and they would definitely know people from their States,” he adds. 

For his employee, Asif, from Assam, however, that is no consolation. “We will come back here or go anywhere where there are jobs. First this panic has to stop, and we must feel safe.”

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