As more and more Malay­alis head out of the state, labour­ers from other states rush in to fill the gap. Bet­ter wages have im­proved their lives. But a so­cial cri­sis looms.

India Today - - SOCIETY - By M.G. Rad­hakr­ish­nan


very Sun­day, Perum­bavoor, a satel­lite town of Kochi, trans­forms into a town in Odisha, West Ben­gal or Bi­har. Al­most all the streets of the town, known for its tim­ber trade, are taken over by thou­sands of mi­grant labour­ers from these dis­tant states spend­ing their weekly hol­i­day shop­ping, eat­ing, drink­ing and meet­ing each other. Shops, par­tic­u­larly those sell­ing mo­bile phones and other elec­tronic items, are chock-a-block with cus­tomers. Street ven­dors sell Ben­gali sweets like rosogulla and goja. Restau­rants have menus writ­ten in Hindi. Lo­cal buses ply with names of places painted in Hindi.

It is ironic that Ker­ala, which thrives on the re­mit­tances of its more than 2.5 mil­lion strong di­as­pora in the Gulf and Western coun­tries, has be­come a haven for mi­grants from other In­dian states. Thanks to more than 150 ply­wood fac­to­ries lo­cated in and around Perum­bavoor, the hub of the state’s mi­grant labour pop­u­la­tion, their num­bers are grow­ing by leaps and bounds. An es­ti­mated 2 mil­lion mi­grant labour­ers from the states in the north, east and the North-east work in Ker­ala—of which more than 1,00,000 live in Perum­bavoor. Ev­ery week­day, thou­sands of them as­sem­ble at the town cen­tre at 6.30 a.m. to be hired by the high­est bid­der. Wages are fixed through hard bar­gain­ing be­tween lo­cal labour con­trac­tors and the bid­ders. “The town re­minds me of the slave bazaar of old days,” says Shyju Thomas, 50, a bank em­ployee.

Not just Perum­bavoor, the en­tire state now runs on mi­grant labour­ers who have come from Ben­gal, Odisha, Ut­tar Pradesh, Bi­har, Jhark­hand, Ut­tarak­hand, As­sam and Ma­nipur be­sides south­ern neigh­bours like Tamil Nadu and Kar­nataka. There are also many oth­ers from coun­tries like Bangladesh and Nepal. The labour­ers work in towns and even ob­scure vil­lages in all sec­tors in­clud­ing con­struc­tion, road­build­ing, farm­ing and flour mills. They also work as do­mes­tic help, masons, car­pen­ters and bar­bers.

With re­mit­tances sent by Malay­ali ex­pa­tri­ates touch­ing Rs 50,000 crore an­nu­ally, Ker­ala, known for hav­ing the

Thanks to the high wages here com­pared to what they used to get in states like West Ben­gal or Bi­har, our state has

be­come like the Gulf for mi­grants.

OOM­MEN CHANDY, Chief Min­is­ter, Ker­ala

coun­try’s high­est Hu­man De­vel­op­ment In­dex, has also emerged as one of the rich­est states and the coun­try’s high­est spender ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Sam­ple Sur­vey 2010. The huge ex­o­dus of Malay­alis, cou­pled with an ap­a­thy among lo­cals for man­ual labour de­spite the state hav­ing the coun­try’s high­est un­em­ploy­ment rate of 16.4 per cent, has led to a rise in wages. Mi­grants’ av­er­age daily wage rates have dou­bled in the past five years to be­tween Rs 300 and Rs 500 a day. That is higher than the state’s min­i­mum wage and at least thrice what the labour­ers would earn in their home states. “Thanks to the high wages here com­pared to the pal­try amount they used to get in states like Ben­gal or Bi­har, our state has be­come like the Gulf for mi­grants,” says Chief Min­is­ter Oom­men Chandy. Though the mi­grants be­long to the semi-skilled or un­skilled cat­e­gory, the to­tal amount they send home runs into crores of ru­pees ev­ery week. “More than Rs 1 crore is sent ev­ery week through our branch. Ev­ery Mon­day, 1,500 labour­ers come to our branch,” says P.M. Vi­jayan, chief man­ager, State Bank of In­dia, Perum­bavoor.

The first com­pre­hen­sive study done on mi­grant labour by Kochi-based Cen­tre for So­cio-eco­nomic and En­vi­ron­men­tal Stud­ies ( CSES) in 2011 at­tributes many fac­tors for its rise in the state, rang­ing from the de­cline of agri­cul­ture and tra­di­tional in­dus­tries in the mi­grant labour­ers’ home states to the ris­ing un­em­ploy­ment and ru­ral poverty there. Other fac­tors like high wages in Ker­ala and short­age of semi-skilled and un­skilled labour­ers due to their large-scale mi­gra­tion to the Gulf have also con­trib­uted to the in­flow, the study adds. “Ker­ala’s econ­omy might come to a stand­still with­out mi­grant labour­ers,” says N. Ajith Kumar, 45, who led the CSES study. “Labour­ers work for longer hours, have no unions and are not de­mand- ing,” says B. San­thosh Kumar, man­ag­ing part­ner, Indo Re­gal Ply­woods in Perum­bavoor. All of Indo Re­gal’s 125 labour­ers are mi­grants.

“Ex­cept food, we have noth­ing to com­plain about Ker­ala. It has bet­ter wages, bet­ter cli­mate and a peace­ful at­mos­phere,” says Kr­ishna Go­goi, 35, from North Lakhim­pur dis­trict in As­sam who has been work­ing at a ply­wood fac­tory for the past five years.

Some labour­ers have also started their small busi­nesses tar­get­ing their own com­mu­nity. Muhammed Ali, from Mur­shid­abad in West Ben­gal, runs a food stall while Shyamal Mondal sells sweet­meats to his Ben­gali friends in Perum­bavoor.

Ajith Kumar, how­ever, points out that money apart, the mi­grants are a vul­ner­a­ble lot, liv­ing in sub-stan­dard con­di­tions in a state which is oth­er­wise so­cially ad­vanced. The CSES study shows that the labour­ers are not en­ti­tled to any wel­fare schemes. This, when 4.5 mil­lion of the state’s labour force are pro­tected un­der var­i­ous so­cial se­cu­rity schemes for which the gov­ern­ment spends Rs 322 crore a year.

“The mi­grant labour­ers even forgo many of the ben­e­fits like sub­sidised food­grain or health in­sur­ance schemes which they used to avail of in their home states. The main rea­son is ab­sence of any res­i­den­tial proof,” states the study. Two chil­dren of a mi­grant fam­ily died on March 29 in Perum­bavoor when a wall in the shanty room that they were liv­ing in col­lapsed. “We will soon is­sue an or­der that all em­ploy­ers keep a de­tailed reg­is­ter of mi­grant labour­ers. Those who fail to do so will face puni­tive mea­sures,” says Labour Min­is­ter Shibu Baby John. The pre­vi­ous Left Demo­cratic Front gov­ern­ment ini­ti­ated In­dia’s first wel­fare scheme for mi­grant labour in 2010, but only 20,000 labour­ers have reg­is­tered with the scheme till now.

The mi­gra­tion has brought a host of prob­lems in its wake too, in­clud­ing a grow­ing crime rate. The state plan­ning board refers to mi­grant labour­ers as a “so­cial haz­ard”, es­pe­cially with health ex­perts spec­u­lat­ing that they could be car­ri­ers of dis­eases hith­erto un­heard of in the state, such as chikun­gunya.

Pho­to­graphs: MR NAN­DAKU­MAR


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