KERALA GOES TO GULF, INDIA COMES TO KERALA
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.
ELABOURERS EARN BETWEEN RS 300-500 A DAY, WHICH IS ABOVE KERALA’S MINIMUM WAGES AND THRICE WHAT THEYWOULD EARN IN THEIR HOME STATES.
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.
(LEFT) WORKERS DISPLAYTHE DAY’S SPECIALATA BENGALI FOOD STALL IN THODUPUZHA TOWN; POSTERS OF AN ORIYA FILM AT LUCKYTHEATRE IN PERUMBAVOOR