Tragedy on foot

As the COVID-19-induced lockdown cuts the ground beneath their feet in Tamil Nadu, thousands of migrant workers are trudging along the highway to the relative safety of their upcountry homes.

Published : May 30, 2020 07:00 IST

Migrant workers  from various industrial units and construction sites on the National Highway en route to their native towns in Jharkhand, Bihar or West Bengal, in Chennai on May 19.

Migrant workers from various industrial units and construction sites on the National Highway en route to their native towns in Jharkhand, Bihar or West Bengal, in Chennai on May 19.

A GROUP of 13 migrant workers from Bihar, who had just begun their journey back home on foot from Valsarawakkam in Chennai on May 19, had chalked out a plan. “Our target is to reach TJS Engineering College in Gummidipoondi [a government-run camp]. People from our village are there. They left yesterday. We will join them and go to Patna from there,” one of them, Rajesh, said.

Why were they leaving Chennai just when industries were reopening after the lockdown? “We are running out of money because we haven’t worked for about two months,” said one of them. His friend said they were not sure of getting jobs at the same place. “We are also scared of corona,” said another. “It is better to go home during times like these.”

Just as they crossed the Anna Nagar Cooum bridge on the Inner Ring Road, a few volunteers on the road gave them masks and caps. A little way ahead, a mini truck driver offered them a lift to Madhavaram, a northern suburb closer to Gummidipoondi. “He demanded only Rs.500 to take all of us to our destination,” said one of them. With a lot of luck and with the help of another truck driver, they reached Gummidipoondi by evening.

While there has been no news of their onward journey, the 13 were confident that they will somehow manage to reach their destination. Their optimism was not misplaced: of all the migrant labourers who have been on the road to Andhra Pradesh and beyond, this group perhaps had taken the shortest time to reach Gummidipoondi from the city—50 km in about eight hours—while other groups, some consisting of women and children, obviously took much longer.

On the same day at around 3-30 p.m., just off the Nallur toll plaza on National Highway 5, 21 km from Chennai, the police from Chennai’s neighbouring district, Tiruvallur, stopped a group of 30 labourers walking towards their villages near Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. “You need to get medically checked and then you can proceed with the papers,” a constable told them before sending them back to Chennai even as they argued with him to let them cross the newly strengthened “check-post”—set up primarily to prevent migrant labourers from crossing over to Tiruvallur district.

‘Not in my backyard’ syndrome

Apparently, every district administration seemed to be washing its hands of the migrant problem. On May 14 and 15, the administration of Andhra Pradesh’s Nellore district, adjoining Tiruvallur, transported labourers who had walked almost 50-70 km into that State back to the Tamil Nadu border, at Tada. This correspondent is aware of multiple instances in which labourers were transported—in collaboration with volunteers—by trucks into Chennai metropolitan limits.

Obviously, Andhra Pradesh did not want to take any responsibility for those walking across the length of the State to Odisha and Jharkhand even though its Chief Secretary pulled a public relations exercise by arranging a vehicle for some migrants on foot.

Andhra Pradesh was merely following the orders of the Union Home Ministry, which initially asked States to ensure that migrant labourers did not walk home. On May 18, however, the Ministry, knowing that the number of migrants on the road were too large, modified its rule so as to allow them to walk. The order (D.O. No. 40-10/2020-DM-I (A)) from Ajay Bhalla, Home Secretary, on May 18 states: “For routes where the migrants are known to be already travelling on foot, arrangement could be made by the States, which are en route, for designated rest places, taking into account requirement of sanitation, food and health.”

But these instructions had not percolated down and the group of migrants from Uttar Pradesh was forced to retrace their steps and look for the marriage hall where the police said certificates would be issued after a check-up.

Though distraught, they said this was nothing new to them, having been pushed around by the police quite a few times since they began their journey on May 18.

Relief centres

The Tamil Nadu government has indeed set up relief centres, but there were too many problems in coordinating their functioning at the ground level. “They [the government] have given us a list of night shelters. Most of these places are inaccessible because either the phone [of the contact person] is switched off or they say the centres are full,” said Himakiran, a Tiruvallur-district based agriculturist, who is volunteering to help the walking labourers. “We get many SOS calls [from the labourers]. Our team has registered more than 2,200 people in different groups, of 5, 20, 50. And they ask us where to go. The problem is that local police officials keep moving them saying, ‘go somewhere else.’ People were picked up from the Andhra border and dropped off at Madhavaram. They [Madhavaram Police Station] send them back to Gummipoondi. Then it becomes Gummidipoondi’s problem. This has been so for the last five to six days,” he added.

By May 20, the State government got its act together. A team of volunteers who visited the 15 additional relief centres put up by the government along NH 16 reported that they were much better than the earlier ones. “Although they are small in size, work is happening with registration and departures,” one of the volunteers said. On May 20, there were about 5,000 migrant labourers each in these centres. The next morning, there was an issue of food shortage, but the volunteers, with the help of NGOs and political parties, resolved it quickly.

It was apparent that the government was caught unawares with regard to the number of migrants walking home. There were numerous instances of MPs and representatives of political parties from Jharkhand, West Bengal and other labour-sending States getting in touch with their counterparts in Tamil Nadu with SOS messages of labourers being held against their will; of labourers being stranded in one city or another; and of labourers not having money even for a meal.

Social media too was rife with posts of workers being harassed or forced off the roads. The State acted in quick time to solve the specific issues posted online, but failed to look into the problem as a whole or earmark resources to monitor all north-bound roads out of the State to help migrants.

At the railway station

Meanwhile, a different situation was unfolding at south India’s largest railway terminus, the Chennai Central, where migrant workers have been waiting patiently every day for trains to take them back home. “On May 20, as many as 13 trains will be ferrying migrant workers. We have sent home about one lakh migrants,” an official said. What he did not say was that a far bigger number of migrants were in for disappointment each day.

The train did not leave the station that day (May 20) because of super-cyclone Amphan. The police immediately arranged for local buses to transport the migrants back to the south of the city. But many of the labourers, from Tripura, said they had already vacated their places of stay and had no idea where they would spend the next few nights.

But disappointments are not new to migrant labourers. On May 15, a group of Odisha labourers on bicycles were in Elavur after being turned back from the Tada checkpost. “We were asked to produce certificates to move to Andhra Pradesh,” said one of them.

They had tried a few other routes too to cross over. One was the railway line. But after the second week of May, Railway Protection Force personnel posted along the tracks beat back anyone trying the rail route. A third circuitous route to reach Andhra Pradesh too was blocked, this time by the Nellore police.

‘Success’ story

Not all stories are of failures. At around 3 p.m. on May 19, Anil Kumar, 37, who is a specialised polisher in an industrial piping works in Taramani, and 30 others from Bihar’s Nalanda district were waiting for a bus at the Madhavaram roundabout from where a bus was to pick them up. “We will be dropped off at Nalanda town at Rs.7,500 per head sir,” said one of them. That works out to Rs.2.25 lakh for a journey of about 2,000 km. It is more than the usual average of Rs.40 per km charged for an ordinary non-A/C bus.

“I have been in Chennai for more than 12 years, initially in the Ambattur Industrial Estate, then near Perungalathur and now in Taramani. I speak Tamil well,” Anil Kumar said, before rattling off in Tamil that he was not leaving the city for lack of work.

“My employer routinely holds back salaries. It’s difficult to work for people like him,” he said. Yes, the coronavirus outbreak has created a scare and he wanted to be home at this time. “Why am I here, sahib? To take care of my family, right? When there is such a big problem as corona, and if I am not home with them, then what good is all the money?” he asked. Anil Kumar noted this correspondent’s number and said he wanted to come back once the corona scare was over. On the journey, he switched off his phone to save battery except to make a call home occasionally. On May 20, he called to say that the group of 30 had no problems in Andhra Pradesh and that they were now at the Odisha checkpoint.

“Many people from Odisha and other places left our company. After that they hired local people. The problem with local people is that unlike us, they do not stay nearby. They come from other places. We were scared we will get corona,” said another labourer.

A company in Gummidipoondi allowed migrants to leave if they did not ask for the wages for the month. They agreed. But now, they had a new problem in finding a place to stay.

Some others are forced to move for reasons beyond their control. “We are not regulars anywhere, though we have been in Chennai for nearly three years,” said Dasarath from Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. “We stay with friends and do odd jobs. We are not directly under a contractor. We were running out of money,” he said. He and 10 others form Gorakhpur only want someone to take the group to the Uttar Pradesh border. “From there Yogi ji [Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath] will take care of us,” he said.

They were staying with friends who had regular jobs. Soon after Lockdown 1, the regular jobs too vanished. In a matter of weeks, they had no food, no place to stay and were running out of money. Some paid rent for April too. Most of them decided to leave by May first week so that they can save on rent and will have some money left when they reach home.

While many migrant labourers said they were promised food and accommodation, none of these ever materialised. Some who received the food rations said they were not used to eating rice. The quality of rice was also not to their liking, one of them said, at Elavur, on the way to the Gummidipoondi toll gate.

Waiting for migrants’ return

According to an estimate arrived at after speaking to those who run construction businesses, industries, particularly micro, small & medium enterprises (MSMEs), restaurants and hotels, transport and allied trades, there are 15 to 20 lakh migrant workers in the Chennai Metropolitan Area. As per government data, labourers from as many as 20 States work in Chennai and beyond, the majority of them from Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Assam and the north-eastern States.

It was towards the end of the second phase of the lockdown that the migrant labourer issue came into focus. The MSMEs in Ambattur and elsewhere pressed for a phased opening of their units as they were finding it difficult to retain labour. The government was sympathetic to their demands but added that labourers who wanted to go back to their home towns could do so.

A release on May 11 from the Tamilnadu Small and Tiny Industries Association illustrates the extent of the problem: “Industry was depending upon the migrant labourers…almost 90 per cent of the migrant workers have gone back. Even after lifting the lockdown, it will be very difficult to restart the industries without migrant labourers.”

The release further says that it is not “justifiable” to pay full salary to people who has “not worked for even a single day”, and wants the government to “pave the way” to bring back the migrant labourers. The organisation wants the government to establish “workers’ hostels in all industrial estates and industrial clusters”. Pointing to the “sweeping” labour law changes in some States, it wants Tamil Nadu to follow suit. “Unless the rules are relaxed, it will be impossible to revive the industries.”

Even as industry bodies were pushing the government on ‘reforms’, the exodus from Tamil Nadu continued. “I offered them double the wages they had been paid,” a construction bigwig said. “But all they wanted to do was to go home. I am not sure how to begin work in the near future,” he said.

In districts, it was left to individual District Collectors and Superintendents of Police to convince labourers to stay. This was not easy. Many wanted to escape from their employers, as seen in examples of labourers sneaking away from a Tiruppur factory, and also another set being caught in transit in a container truck.

In one instance, labourers heading in a container truck to Kerala were apprehended in Tiruppur and taken to a local relief centre. After it was brought to the notice of the Collector, Vijayakarthikeyan, on May 15, he verified it and noticed that 10 were from Madhya Pradesh and four from Bihar. The migrant workers were accommodated in “shramik special” trains that were operated from that part of Tamil Nadu.

Like the rest of India, Tamil Nadu too has no complete enumeration of the labourers in the State. The government has never really considered them part of the State’s fabric despite the fact that they play a major part in keeping the economy going and keeping manufacturing costs down in the State.

The bungling at all levels—the lack of accommodation and subsistence allowance and the inadequacy of train services—is partly because of the State’s inability to react quickly given the current state of COVID-19 related fatigue in the administration, insufficient data on workers and the technical expertise to handle a long-drawn-out problem.

What Tamil Nadu needs to do is summed up in the International Labour Organisation’s April 7 message on “COVID-19 and the world of work. Second edition”: “No matter where in the world or in which sector, the crisis is having a dramatic impact on the world’s workforce. Policy responses need to focus on providing immediate relief to workers and enterprises in order to protect livelihoods and economically viable businesses, particularly in hard-hit sectors and developing countries, thus ensuring the conditions for a prompt, job-rich recovery once the pandemic is under control.”

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