These Odisha migrant workers in Tamil Nadu are glad to have missed the train

As infections surge in Odisha, many guest workers are relieved to have stayed on

Updated - July 27, 2020 07:03 am IST

Published - July 26, 2020 11:09 pm IST - BHUBANESWAR

People from Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district who are working in Erode district of Tamil Nadu. Photo: Special Arrangement

People from Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district who are working in Erode district of Tamil Nadu. Photo: Special Arrangement

Like several other migrant workers from Odisha, Sumant Naik made innumerable calls throughout May to enquire about a train back home from Perundurai in Erode; he also weighed the costs of returning by bus. Despite several calls, the journey back did not materialise.

Now two months later, as the pandemic induced lockdown has eased in Tamil Nadu, 30-year-old Mr. Naik has little time to think of returning home as the spinning mill he works at is humming again.

Full coverage | Lockdown displaces lakhs of migrants

“The months of April and May were emotionally draining. Everyone wanted to be with their families as if the end of the world was nearing. However, during the past two months, I have not given any thought to my return. I would have been left jobless had I been in my village,” said Mr. Naik, who hails from Keonjhar.

Iswari and Bhakta Batsala Das from Jorada village of Odisha’s Ganjam district, who were left stranded in Chennai as they could not board a train home, echo Mr. Naik and are happy in hindsight.

“The situation back home is grim. Hundreds of people are testing COVID-19 positive every passing day. People are left with no jobs. We are better off here. At least, our livelihood is protected,” said the couple.

Also read | After turning their backs during lockdown, cities now want migrant workers back

Livelihood hopes

According to civil society organisations and activists, more than 10,000 migrant workers have decided to stay back in Tamil Nadu. The steep rise in positive cases in Odisha and lack of employment opportunities has been a major factor in their decision. In July, the State’s COVID-19 tally just tripled while the death toll has increased by almost five times.

On the other hand, employers across India have also gone the extra mile to ensure the workers do not face any problem on industry premises.

“If we return home we would have to undergo 21 days of quarantine. Moreover, there is every chance of fellow villagers boycotting my family. Instead of undergoing such mental trauma, it is better to keep earning away from home and consider returning Odisha after normalcy is restored,” said Mr. Naik.

Also read | Low wages force fishermen of Odisha’s Ganjam to return to Chennai

The situation is serious in Ganjam, which has emerged as the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic in the State. The district, incidentally, sends the maximum number of migrant workers from the State across the country including Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

More than two lakh people from Ganjam are employed in the apparel sector of Surat alone. “People competed among themselves to return home from Surat in the beginning of May. The government has paid ₹2000 to those who completed their quarantine period. Upon their release from quarantine centres, they faced harsh reality of unemployment. While there were few takers of Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Act jobs, other work was hard to be come by,” said Srikant Padhy, a labour leader.

As sources of income dried up without any job, villagers have been sending feelers to their employers over the last month to return to their work spots. The lack of public transport has put a spoke in many workers’ plans to return. Six buses have been sent to Ganjam to ferry workers back to Surat. The workers migration back to their workplaces has failed to pick up in the absence of without any public transport.

“I have been receiving frequent calls from Odisha with people requesting help for their return to their workplaces over the past few weeks. Though COVID-19 situation in Surat continues to be serious, workers are ready to take chances. After all, livelihood worries have dwarfed the fear of contracting the disease,” said Bhabagrahi Panda, a senior executive at a Surat-based apparel company.

Also read | No clarity on ration for returning migrant workers

Kick-starting industries

Mr. Panda said Surat-based employers were incurring heavy losses due to lack of workers to resume work kick-start the industry with full capacity.

“A train is running between Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. Workers have started arriving from Uttar Pradesh. If Odisha government could think on similar lines, workers will get back their jobs,” he pointed out.

At Tamil Nadu’s Perundurai, 27-year-old Satyananda Guru from Odisha’s Bargarh district said he has no plans to return anytime soon.

Also read | 60 lakh migrants took 4,450 Shramik specials to reach their home States: Railways

“We have been getting diminishing returns from agriculture. If all members of family are involved in one profession, the division of labour would make the task easier. However, the harvest will from the crop will also have to be divided. Rather, we must look for earning individually and learn to keep living with coronavirus,” said Mr. Guru.

For most migrant labourers, staying back is a conscious decision. The time is not far when jobless people will start flocking cities in search of employment. As the COVID-19 has already made poor poorer, there will be additional workforce ready to claim jobs in the cities. Instead of killing time in villages, it is better to make best utilization of the period, said Rajendra Bedila, from Narayanpatna of backward Koraput district of Odisha.

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