Lodging and food remain key concerns for migrants from the north-east

Despite the constant stream of people, bicycles and stray dogs that come his way, 23-year-old Alex Thangcha confidently navigates the maze of lanes leading up to his rented house near Besant Nagar's Annai Velankanni Church.

Alex and his friend Seigou Kuki, both from Manipur, are the “permanent” roommates in a less than 100-square foot room which they share with a varying number of people. “We were initially given accommodation by our employers but it was too noisy, making it difficult for us to sleep at night. So some of us decided to rent a room on our own,” says Mr. Thangcha, waiter at a restaurant. “We pay Rs.4,500 per month,” he adds.

Another Manipuri, Joe Gangmer, who works in a retail store in Adyar, says the search for accommodation is most frustrating. “Most of us keep shifting houses because we enter into misunderstandings with the owner. Not being able to communicate in Tamil also affects the relationship,” he says.

House owners have their own complaints. “The house is initially rented out to two people but soon people from their community who come for jobs to Chennai also stay with them,” says S. Velan, a house owner in the area.

To avoid such problems, many restaurants, stores and salons enter into agreements with house owners directly. “This works out well for us as we can keep track of our employees' activities. This also relieves the owner the problem of constantly searching for new tenants,” says Rajan Kumar, a manager at a fast food joint in Nungambakkam.

However, M. Kamal, a broker, says house owners hike the rent when dealing with people from the northeast. “A 75-square foot room will be rented out for Rs.1,500 to a local but those from the north-east might be charged more than Rs.4,000,” he says.

Besides hiking the rent to almost three times the normal rate, house owners also impose several restrictions on dress, visitors and the kind of food that can be cooked. Mr. Kumar says, “Most do not have an identity card except for the ones given to them by their employer. Unlike migrants from north India who often bring along their families to stay with them, people from the northeast live with groups of friends.”

Many migrants from the north-east look for rooms with attached kitchens so they can prepare their own meals. “I am not able to adjust to the food here so I prepare my own food at home,” says Elizabeth Guite, who has lived in Chennai for three years.

However, Mr. Gangmer feels that food is not a major problem as Manipuris are also rice-eaters. “The kind of rice we get in Manipur is one of the best but in Chennai, house owners sometimes give us the ration rice which is inedible,” he says. “We eat chicken four times a week and a kg of it costs Rs.120 here, much more than it would in Delhi or Bangalore” he adds.