Sudden protest by migrant workers in Kerala over food, accommodation and transport

Published : March 29, 2020 22:08 IST

Migrant workers staging a protest over food and accommodation issues and demanding transport to return to their villages, at Payippad village in Kottayam district on March 29. Photo: PTI

In an isolated but disturbing incident in Kerala, unusually restive migrant workers sparked a brief public health and law and order situation at Payippad village in Kottayam district on Sunday, gathering in large numbers on the streets in violation of COVID-19 lockdown norms and demanding transport facilities to return to their home States.

Some of them complained about the nature of food being provided by the local authorities. There were allegations that some others were not getting food at all, and about the quality of water being provided in the camps.

All such assertions were subsequently denied by the government and district and local authorities. However, in spite of the best efforts of the government, which had right at the start of the COVID-19 crisis reiterated its commitment to ensuring the well-being of “guest workers” and announced several measures in this regard, the State saw migrant workers raising slogans and blocking an arterial road leading from Changanassery to Mallappally at around 11 in the morning on Sunday.

The crowd of over 2,000 protesting workers happened without warning just when the State was entering a crucial phase in its surveillance efforts to identify and curb community transmission of COVID-19 and the police seemed to be finally succeeding in its efforts to keep people from venturing out on roads and to shop.

It was the sixth day of the lockdown and images of migrants’ exodus from several north Indian cities to their villages were still being aired by TV channels when the protesters took to the streets. Police, district and panchayat officials, with scanty personal protection gear, struggled to pacify the workers. Some of the workers were heard demanding that the Kerala government should arrange transport facilities for them to return home. The protests ended after the District Collector and the Superintendent of Police held discussions with the workers and agreed to address their complaints regarding food and accommodation but told them firmly it was impossible for them to travel home before the nationwide lockdown ended.

According to some estimates, nearly 10,000 migrant workers used to live in and around Payippad, a village in Alappuzha district ideally located for them to commute daily for work to centres in three districts, including Alappuzha, Pattanamthitta and Kottayam. A majority of them had left for home when the COVID-19 crisis began; the rest could not make it before the lockdown even though many of them had reportedly booked train tickets.

District Collector P.K. Sudheer Babu indicated that the workers were instigated by some elements to launch such a demonstration. “They had been provided all facilities and there were no complaints even a day earlier at a meeting organised by officials and people’s representatives. Some are now complaining about accommodation facilities. We had already made arrangements for the accommodation of thousands of such people. But they had preferred to stay back. Till now, they were being provided meals on the Kerala style from the community kitchens. We are more than ready to provide them north Indian food or provisions for them to cook on their own,” he told presspersons.

Food and Civil Supplies Minister P. Thilothaman, who held discussions with officials in Kottayam, said the district and local authorities had ensured that all their basic needs had been met, including food, shelter and water, and added that the demand now was only for transport facilities to go to their villages, irrespective of the lockdown. He said the government felt there was a conscious attempt to organise them and added that an inquiry was being ordered.

“Most unfortunate”: C.M.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan described the incident as “most unfortunate” and one that should not have happened when Kerala was moving as one to prevent the spread of COVID-19. He said in a press statement that no circumstance existed in the State that made it difficult for guest workers to move ahead with their lives. “The term ‘guest workers’ [that Kerala has adopted to describe them] itself shows the State’s concern for them. There are indications that behind the protest there are some elements out to create trouble in society. We will certainly bring them out through an inquiry,” he said.

According to the Chief Minister, there are 1,70,000 guest workers in nearly 5,000 camps in the State and the District Collectors have been asked to inquire and act decisively and solve problems if there are any in any of these camps.