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Spotlight- Kerala

Migrant workers in Kerala - misunderstood and vilified

After a five-year-old child was brutalised and murdered allegedly by a man from Bihar, workers in Kerala from States above peninsular India, often living hard lives, have been the target of violence and moral policing, finds M.P. Praveen 

August 10, 2023 08:04 pm | Updated August 11, 2023 08:03 am IST

Roti being made at a shop of migrant worker at Kandanthara near Perumbavoor town.

Roti being made at a shop of migrant worker at Kandanthara near Perumbavoor town. | Photo Credit: H. Vibhu

For Mainul Haq, nothing sweet was happening in life except the meetha paan he was chewing. He had left his home in Nagaon district in Assam a decade ago in search of a livelihood in Kerala and set up a  chaat shop at Perumbavoor, some 30 km northeast of Ernakulam. Life was chugging on and his modest shop helped him get married and put his two children through school. 

A week ago, the wrath of the local people fell on him and he was forced to shut his modest shop. “I was made to feel like a foreigner, and while there was no physical violence, I felt unwelcome,” he says. As he wanders the streets of Perumbavoor, he wonders if even after a decade of making this town his home, he has remained an outsider. 

Haq is not alone. The backlash following the alleged sexual abuse and murder of a five-year-old girl by a man from Bihar in Aluva town on July 28 is being felt by the migrant worker community across Ernakulam district.

The anger is most evident at Perumbavoor, a hub of the wood-based industry, especially plywood, which engages —by the industry’s own estimates — over a lakh migrant workers across 1,400 units within a 40 km-radius area.  

A walk through Perumbavoor town a week after the tragic event is enough to drive home the sense of fear palpable among the migrant worker community. From hair salons and eateries to cloth bazars, which otherwise teemed with customers, also from the migrant worker community, everything is largely deserted. 

It is the same with other public spaces frequented by migrant workers for a banter or to exchange work-related information. Ironically, a section of local traders who enthusiastically stamped the entire migrant worker community as criminals and drove them away from public view is now ruing the loss of business.  

A predominantly migrant worker neighbourhood at Kandanthara, near Perumbavur town, sputtering to life in the evening. In the background is the rooms rented by  migrant workers.

A predominantly migrant worker neighbourhood at Kandanthara, near Perumbavur town, sputtering to life in the evening. In the background is the rooms rented by migrant workers. | Photo Credit: H. Vibhu

“Migrant workers are keeping away from public spaces as there is an atmosphere of fear which made them feel unwelcome. It is a fact that the Malayali trading community here can hardly survive without their business. Even the clothes we display cater to their taste,” says Anas Alankar, a cloth trader at Perumbavoor for the last three decades, pointing at the neon-coloured clothes on display in front his shop. 

Jisna, a woman in her 30s from Murshidabad in West Bengal, says she felt a simmering of hostility as she took a short trip to the neighbourhood kirana store. “I was stopped and questioned about what I was doing and where I was going. It was like I had done something wrong,” she says, still unable to comprehend the hate.  

Moral policing 

About 13 km away in Aluva, another town with a sizeable migrant labour population, public resentment manifested in a different way when stick-wielding women marched to a house suspected to be a den of migrant sex workers. “If needed, we will take the law into our hands,” one of the women thundered even as the group knocked on the door and gave a diktat to a transwoman.

Started as a WhatsApp campaign named Aluva Clean City, it went in action mode the day after the body of the five-year-old was found in the almost abandoned run-down Aluva market.  

“We are not into moral policing. In fact, we are not even against sex work but just want to ensure that it happens in private. Our patrolling for three consecutive days has literally cleaned the town. It had reached a point where our women were not able to move around safely in the evenings as they were being mistaken for migrant sex workers,” claims Anwar Aluva, vice-president of the campaign.  

But the police were not amused. “They are a bunch of hooligans; a vigilante group. We will act against them whenever we come across cognizable offences committed by them,” was how Vivek Kumar, District Police Chief (Ernakulam Rural) termed the campaign. 

George Mathew, coordinator of the Progressive Workers’ Organisation that works towards the welfare of the migrant labour community, says the climate of fear among migrant workers is a short-lived phenomenon that repeats itself whenever a crime involving migrant workers gets reported. “The system uses such incidents as a tool to instil fear in the migrant community and tame them so that they don’t ever revolt against their sordid working and living conditions,” he says. 

But that has not stopped the “migrants-are-criminals” narrative from holding sway as its advocates brand almost every migrant worker as hailing from Bangladesh.

“It is part of a xenophobic narrative against migrant workers the world over. Though without any proof, such narratives, unfortunately, shape public opinion. Irregular migration from Bangladesh owing to historical and geographical reasons has been prevalent all along. But there is no point in such fearmongering since the Central enforcement agencies are keeping a close tab on the community to weed out anti-social and extremist elements,” says Perumbavoor-based Benoy Peter, executive director, Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development.

Kumar says there is no empirical evidence to suggest that migrant workers are instrumental for a rise in the crime rate, especially grievous crimes. He points out how the involvement of migrant workers is  low in proportion to their population in the attempts to murder and culpable homicide cases being registered in rural Ernakulam on a daily basis.  

A day after the child’s murder, the Excise department conducted searches in about 50 places of dwellings of migrant workers presumably looking for drugs, which only reinforced the perception that drug abuse was rampant within the community. Besides small quantities of ganja and banned tobacco products, the searches yielded little else.  

Data mine 

As always, the cry about the absence of proper data about the migrant worker population in the State turned shrill in the wake of the Aluva murder. But those who work among migrant labourers ask if the government was able to make any effective interventions after two surveys, one by the Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation and another by Punjab University in 2013 and 2017, pegged the migrant labour population at 25 lakh and 31 lakh respectively.   

While Kerala has a separate department, Department of Non Resident Keralite’s Affairs (NORKA), for the welfare of the 30 lakh-odd Malayali expatriates, there is no such mechanism for migrant workers in the State, an equally strong segment that has become the mainstay of the State’s economy, they say.

“The blame for the lack of data rests with the Malayali community engaging these workers. They want the migrant workforce to remain invisible so that the exploitative working conditions remain a closely guarded secret. Even the trade unions turn a blind eye to migrant workers as they do not make a vote bank either,” says Peter, whose organisation tries to ensure disbursal of accumulated wages that are due to migrant workers.

Despite difficulties, the Labour department is busy getting the migrant workers registered on its Athidhi portal, the mobile app of which will be rolled out shortly. “The idea is to incentivise the registration by embedding the portal and app with the ongoing Awaz health insurance scheme offering an annual coverage of ₹2 lakh along with a medical insurance of ₹35,000 a year,” says T.G. Vinod Kumar, District Labour Officer, Ernakulam.

 All aboard 

A visit to the Aluva railway station, an important transit point for migrant workers in the State, shows that migrants continue to make a beeline for the State despite occasional backlashes. As the Dhanbad-Alappuzha Express screeches to a halt, a steady stream of migrant workers carrying dusty, torn backpacks and trolley bags flow out and board buses to their respective destinations.

Safikul Islam, 26, and Mofikul Ali, 22, at the Aluva railway station, are returning from their homes in Malda in West Bengal where they had gone to celebrate Eid and also vote in the local body polls. They work for a contractor in highway construction work, but their job profile keeps changing.  

“Kerala is a good, peaceful State with little communal issues like many north Indian States where there are jobs but no peace of mind,” says Ali.

Among those who walked into the railway station on that sultry afternoon were Mushraf Ahammad, 20, and Riyas Haq, 21. They were on their way to Palakkad for construction work after losing their job at a brick kiln a Perumbavoor. Riyas, a native of Nagaon in Assam, had been in Kerala for five years, a grim reminder that he had been at work from the time he was a minor.  

Why Kerala? “Because almost all who have migrated from our place have come here,” he says. Ernakulam is home to a large number of migrant workers from Nagaon. 

A 15-km ride from Aluva goes to Kandanthara, a predominantly migrant worker neighbourhood, about two km from Perumbavoor. Life there attests to the fact that the community is trying to put the aftershock of the murder behind it. Normalcy is slowly returning. 

There is the noise, typical of their post-work evenings. Shutters of shops, mostly run by migrant workers, are being rolled up after a post-noon interval. Mukhar Ali, who lost a hand in a workplace accident, is readying his lottery ticket counter.

Against the backdrop, the glow of dim lights somehow manages to enliven the narrow, dingy rooms rented by migrant workers. The luxury of sleeping in a decent, spacious room has never been a priority for them. Life is all about wishing to get the next day’s roti. Despite everything, they are optimistic.

About the unprovoked attacks, Bilal Sheikh, who works on a construction site and is from West Bengal, says, “We know this too will pass like the many setbacks in the past. We need them and they need us.” He speeds away on motorbike.

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