As Navaratri celebrations light up the skies of northern and northeast India, thousands who have migrated to Kerala in search of livelihood are either embarking on homeward journeys or trying to work up a modest celebratory pitch in their adopted homeland.
There is no place like home. Ask 25-year-old Babu Teron, and he will say why.
It is Navaratri season, but Babu and his group of 20 men from Nagaon district of Assam have been in Thiruvananthapuram as migrant labourers from early September, at times, at the mercy of the agent who arranged to bring them here and, otherwise, seeking work on their own.
“My wife and two-year-old daughter are waiting for me. Though I was not sure, I had told them before leaving that I would try to be home for Navaratri. But the past few weeks have been slightly tough here. It is just on Monday that we managed to get into a construction labour team at Thampanoor. So I have decided to go only in January,” he said.
Ram Singh, the senior in the group at 40 years, says they have not seen much of Navaratri celebrations in the State capital. “Sundays are the only off-day we get. We have been walking through the city but have not seen any festivity yet. We know it is not celebrated here like it is in other States. And that makes us miss home more,” he says, pointing out that the group was more downcast after the Gandhi Park, where they used to gather on Sundays, has now been made out of bounds for them.
Sohan Singh says some of them try to cheer up themselves with a few small-scale celebrations at their makeshift huts near Thampanoor. “Still, there is no place like home to be in such times,” he adds.
Some 450 km away in Kozhikode, Uday and his friends feel the same pain as they sit at a Durga Puja pandal, put up by the Bengali Samity near the Tali temple, watching the priest chant prayers on the brightly lit dais with a large statue of Durga decked up in red-gold brocade sari.
Uday and his friends are gold workers at Kammath Lane in Palayam. They have been in Kozhikode for the past two months and have no intention to go back to their native Jhumri Telaiya in Jharkhand where, he says, the puja festivities are in full-swing.
“I have my friends here. We came here together. The puja pandal is close to where we live. So we just walked in so that we could meet people and talk in Bangla,” he said.
But Seetu, who is from Kolkata and a construction worker at a site in Puthiyapalam, is taking no chances. “I booked my ticket four months ago. I came to Kozhikode eight months ago. I was in Kochi with a private builder for two months. It is tough working and living in a tin shed at the construction site, most of us are leaving,” he said, even as he waited at the Kozhikode railway station.
What will happen to the work at the site if they all leave? Seetu replies: “This is not a government job. We take leave when we want.” But Bappa, his ‘contractor’, who is also travelling with him, is quick to correct his worker: “We keep rotating the workers every six months. Those who have been here for six months can go home. Those who have come two months back have to stay back and fill in.”
At the Chief Reservation Supervisor office at the railway station, officials call migrant workers the ‘silent ones’.
“There is hardly any difference if it is puja or not. For the past three years, we have been noticing this trend of 10,000 bookings come for every 1,000 seats. About 70 per cent of those seated at the counters are migrants from Bengal, Odisha and Bihar,” an official said.
Statistics speak for themselves. Railway reservation figures show that both Guwahati Express and Shalmiar Express have no ticket bookings available till February 17, 2013.
Perumbavoor, one of India’s largest supply centres for veneer and plywood, depends on migrant labourers from northern and North-East India. However, the industry has worked out a nice balance to offset the holiday season, says C.K. Majeed, general secretary of the South Indian Plywood Manufacturers’ Association and treasurer of the Kerala State Saw Mills and Plywood Manufacturers’ Association.
The holidays last nearly a month. This, however, is balanced by slackened demand from upcountry markets so that the actual production and working of the plywood industry is not seriously affected, he says.
He feels that the workers are happy here precisely because of the freedom and benefits they enjoy at the plywood units.
The market for plywood from Perumbavoor is basically in northern India and the holiday season there means also lower demand. Besides, the industry here adjusts its production and takes orders in such a way that the holidays do not affect the functioning of the units, he added.
There are around 700 units at Perumbavoor dealing in wood-related activities, of which about 300 are plywood-making units. Most of the units employ between 25 and 30 labourers.
“The exodus began two weeks ago. Most will return, some with new job-seekers,” says P.C. Joseph, who runs a rubber-based unit at the industrial area at Povanthuruth, near Pallom.
The industrial area with 143 units houses more than 1,000 migrant labourers, constituting 75 per cent of work force. “More than 500 of these migrant labourers have left for their homes, mostly in West Bengal and Odisha,” Mr. Joseph said.
This time, the holidays will extend further as the marriage season follows the puja celebrations. The industrialists do not have too many options, other than spreading the additional workload among the remaining workforce. But the sudden migration does not make much financial burden on the entrepreneurs.
“Usually the workers take only part payment of their wages. The balance payment is either kept with the owner or in banks,” Mr. Joseph said.
Small hoteliers hit
Those hit by this exodus are small hoteliers. “A new system is in vogue where in they will bring in labourers in batches of six and when they leave all of them move out in one group,” Jose Mohan, general secretary, Kerala Hotel and Restaurants’ Association, said.
Construction and jewellery sectors in Thrissur district are in a holiday mood. As both sectors are heavily dependent on migrant labourers from West Bengal, Odisha and Bihar, most of the worksites had declared one-week Durgashtami holidays.
“The migrant workers constitute 90 per cent of the labour force in the construction sector. Many of these workers from West Bengal and Odisha, who go to their native places for Durgashtami, will return only after one or two months. Now the builders have started planning their work accordingly. Newly arrived workers, who cannot afford to take long leave, will celebrate the festival at their construction sites,” said Vijay Hari, a leading builder in the city.
Most immigrant labourers working in Malappuram have chosen to go home for the puja holidays. “It is as good as an annual vacation for us,” said Liton Ray from Kolkata.
But Mr. Ray, who works at a construction site along with his friends at Kottakkal, has chosen to stay back to complete some urgent work. He said he and a few of his friends stayed back because of work exigency when most of his co-workers from Bengal, Assam and Bihar went home for puja.
Babloo, another migrant labourer from Assam who did not go home, said that he preferred to stay back considering the urgency of the concrete work he was involved in.
However, jewellery workers from West Bengal have been celebrating Durga Puja in Thrissur for the last six years.
“Unlike the construction labourers, many of the 10,000-odd jewellery workers from West Bengal and Odisha are settled here with their family. Their children are studying in the local schools. So they cannot take long holidays,” P.S. Ajay Kumar, chief patron of the Jewellery Manufactures Association, pointed out.
This time too they have made arrangements for Durga Puja at Chiyyaram, near Thrissur. The festivities that began on Saturday will conclude on Wednesday. “More than 5,000 people attend the five-day Durgashtami celebrations here. We conduct pujas from morning to night,” said Ujjwal Deep Parvin, a jewellery worker from Howrah district, who has been working here for the last eight years.
For the many workers employed in the marble and granite business in Kannur town, predominantly hailing from Rajasthan, Navaratri does not call for week-long celebration, but a single day off on the Mahanavami day.
“Out of our six-member team, one has set off for Rajasthan for the festival, while the rest of us will celebrate the festival here at our rented homes,” said Prabhulal Sharma, alias Pappu, a native of Karauli district near Jaipur.
The same applies for those in the construction industry in Kasaragod, where migrant labourers, numbering over 5,000, join together for a grand celebration on the Mahanavami day at a rented building at Madiyan locality, near Kanhangad, says Kalyan Singh, hailing from Madhya Pradesh’s Morena district.