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Come south, young man, but here be dragons

Madhumita Dutta
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Perilous state:In addition to their perennial woes of low wages and dangerous working conditions, migrant workers in Chennai now have to face xenophobia.— Photo: R. Ragu
Perilous state:In addition to their perennial woes of low wages and dangerous working conditions, migrant workers in Chennai now have to face xenophobia.— Photo: R. Ragu

Last weekend, a dishevelled, bare-chested man was almost done to death in Chennai. Police and scores of bystanders watched the young man being beaten unconscious. A few even cheered and egged on the mob. Barely three days before this incident the city witnessed the killing of five men, allegedly involve in a recent spate of bank robberies in the city, in a daring mid-night ‘encounter' with the police. The two incidents, close on the heels of each other, had one commonality—the ‘north Indian' factor. An eyewitness to the lynching told reporters “the mob was screaming north Indian thief” as they “thrashed him” and dragged his unconscious body to the main road. The apparent ‘burglar from north India' finally turned out to be one Venkat Rao from Andhra Pradesh. So who are these ‘north Indians'? What are they doing here?

The ‘north Indian'

Two applications filed in the Madras High Court by six advocates and residents of Velachery, the neighbourhood where the ‘encounter' took place, describes these ‘north Indians' as “the workers who had landed in Tamil Nadu for working, slowly steadied their roots here and later started indulging in many crimes, many of which are dastardly and grave ones”. They further state that “offences committed by (the) north Indians in Tamil Nadu are on the rise” and that in this particular instance “group of north Indians were on a rampage....disturbing the peace and tranquillity of the state”. The applications have been filed to counter the ongoing public interest litigation in the Madras High Court challenging the recent killings.

In their malicious and mischievous intent, there is one thing that the applicants have said that is true, that they are ‘workers'. But the truth stops there.

Tamil Nadu has a fairly large interstate migrant population, estimated to be over ten lakhs, with large concentrations around Chennai, Coimbatore, Trichy, Madurai, Hosur, Tirupur, Kanyakumari and Tirunelvelli. Hailing from Assam, Bihar, Orissa, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and even Nepal, these men come to work on private and government construction sites, in small engineering ancillary units, steel rolling mills, lathe, hosieries, foundries, in roadside eateries as well as fancy city restaurants, as security guards and even as farmhands. While walking past a slum or even a fishing kuppam these days, one can catch a soft snatch of conversation or song in Bhojpuri, Hindi, Bangla or Oriya.

Dismayed by the derisive label of north Indian “thieves”, I wanted to find out who these “thieves” were and what their loot looked like. So I met a few young men from Bihar who had just come back from ‘duty'. They were huddled together in a small room in one such slum on Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR). A 120-sq.ft. room, peeling green walls, a few shirts and pants hanging from the hooks nailed to the walls, a mirror, a plastic comb, small suitcases and bags, a kerosene stove, a few cooking pots and pans, plates, tumbler and two buckets, floor mats and mobile phones! No toilet and an open bathing area.

Nothing extraordinary or remarkably different from the neighbour next door, who also happens to be a factory worker. Both are migrants, one interstate and the other inter-district. The only obvious difference is language. The neighbour speaks Tamil while these men speak Bhojpuri. The neighbour has a family, while these men have left their families back home.

But there is another crucial difference that makes the latter far more vulnerable—the terms and conditions under which an interstate migrant worker consents to labour. Most of the migrant workers in the State land up through informal arrangements orchestrated by multiple contractors and sub-contractors. Munniraj, a Dalit labour contractor in Hosur, has 650 Bihari workers whom he supplies to the various small-scale engineering units in the industrial area. The workers, who earn anywhere between Rs.3,500-Rs.4,000 per month, give him 10 per cent of their wages, which works out roughly to Rs.2 lakh a month. About 30,000 migrant workers from Bihar, Bengal, Orissa and Nepal work in the area. Ruing that local workers don't want to work in the factories and prefer MNREGA work, Sampat, an office bearer of Hosur Small and Tiny Industries Association said “these migrant workers have invaded our culture, they speak in Hindi, celebrate Durga puja”. A short documentary titled Finger made by Progressive Writer's Forum explains why the locals would rather work in MNREGA and not in these factories. The film shows the dangerous working conditions in the factories where accidents are commonplace, with workers losing their fingers in pressing machines as a matter of routine. Apart from some medical treatment, not much is given by way of compensation to the worker.

Tales of misery

“We don't get any money for injuries at work, we pay ourselves. Almost every day I injure my hand in the machine, so many workers get injured”, said 21-year-old Manas from Gaya district who has been working for the past six months in a factory that makes casings for water pumps in Perungudi, OMR. “Almost all the workers in my factory are from Assam and Bihar,” added Manas, who works 12 hours a day for six days a week for a wage of Rs.6,000 per month. His 19-year-old roommate chips in: “I came to work last year in another factory, but the work was so hard, lifting heavy loads 12 hours a day, I fell very sick and left”.

“I left my job in a food company in Delhi three months back and came here. They used to make me work for 16 hours a day and paid Rs.5,000. Here I have better pay for less number of hours of work. But I don't want to stay here. I feel insecure. Police has made our lives miserable,” said Nandlal from Gaya who sends his family of six Rs.4,000 every month. As if waiting for a cue, Manas, who had so far not said anything about the police harassment, said: “I am too scared to step out of the house after seven p.m., the police patrol stops us and asks for ID proof, and if you don't have one you are taken to the police station for enquiry”. After the bank robbery last month, police have been visiting the slums where large migrant populations live and asking the ‘north Indians' to show their IDs or proof of employment. “Where will these migrant people get any proof of employment or any ID for that matter?” asked Geeta Ramakrishnan of Unorganised Workers' Union, “the definition of interstate migrant workers in the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act itself is problematic”. It recognises only those workers who have been “recruited by or through a contractor in one state under an agreement for employment in an establishment in another state”.

No protection

In reality this would translate to most of these workers not being covered under the Act. So no questions of rights, like wages, displacement allowance, conditions of work and employment, as provisioned under the Act will apply to them. Even the 2010 Supreme Court judgment asking for registration of all construction workers in the welfare board is difficult to implement in Tamil Nadu due to two Government Orders which require the workers to be verified by the local Village Administrative Officer. “No VAOs ever verifies a migrant construction worker,” informed Ms Ramakrishnan. In 2009, after rapes of two children of migrant workers, a State-level policy was drafted to safeguard the children of migrant workers. But it's been gathering dust since.

The interstate migrant is a much-reviled figure, often unjustly so. Ghettoised and insecure, and lacking any legal or social protection, the interstate migrant workers become easy targets for the state, administration, overzealous nationalist forces and, more worrisome, the local working class.

(Madhumita Dutta is a Chennai-based activist and researcher.)

Tamil Nadu has more than 10 lakh migrants, doing jobs that local workers shun because of poor pay and dangerous working conditions, but they are easy targets of prejudices against ‘north Indians'.


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