Kerala's migrant challenge: Exodus and influx management

Kerala describes its 400,000 migrant labourers from other parts of India as ‘guest workers’. On Labour Day on May 1, they were gifted with an opportunity to go back to their homes in the north and east of the country while the southern state is struggling to tame the Corona-19 pandemic

K S Nayar May 07, 2020
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Kerala describes its 400,000 migrant labourers from other parts of India as ‘guest workers’. On Labour Day on May 1, they were gifted with an opportunity to go back to their homes in the north and east of the country while the southern state is struggling to tame the Corona-19 pandemic.  

Their send-off began in a calibrated manner. It is still continuing with non-stop trains to Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Assam and Uttar Pradesh picking up on an average 1,200 people per train. The guest workers, housed in 20,000 camps across the state, are ferried to railway stations to board Shramik Special workers-only trains for the 30-plus hour non-stop journey.

In an intricate logistical and man-management, the stranded workers are put on trains after medical check-ups. Indian Railways has pledged to move pilgrims, tourists, students and others stranded following the lockdown.

Security officials and volunteers, who speak Bengali, Hindi and Oriya, are seen helping the workers board the trains to their respective destinations. They are provided with food packets with long shelf-life and drinking water.

For Kerala, the departure of the guest workers, which is continuing in a planned and methodical way, would give it more breathing space to work relentlessly to contain the virus spread. The pandemic now appears to be flattening in the state, known for its high indicators of social development, compared often with developing countries, but low economic growth.

Drawing from its successful experience in dealing with the 2018 deadly Nipah epidemic, the state is able to contain the spread to a great extent. Kerala was the first state to register the maiden confirmed Covid-19 case in Thrissur on January 30. Today, it has successfully managed to flatten the curve through tough enforcement of social distancing. It was successful in effective contact tracing. It publicised the route maps of infected persons in order to warn others of potential infection chances.

Self-isolation, monitoring by health workers and accommodating labourers in relief camps have helped curb the virus spread. In fact, about 68 percent of India's 23,000 relief camps for migrant workers have been in Kerala.

Thanks to the earlier experience with health management of the Nipah epidemic, there was better inter-departmental coordination at district and village levels. Along with effective deployment of the police force to enforce the lockdown, these concerted efforts have been paying off well.

Extensive use of technology and social media has helped health workers to closely monitor the situation. But it has also showed up the ill-effects of circulation of misinformation and fake news by partisan groups.

At two places riotous situations had erupted. The workers demanded that they be sent back home quickly. They gathered in huge numbers defying lockdown orders.   Bilingual paramilitary force personnel from Border Security Force (BSF) and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) were summoned to talk to the restive labourers.  

The main grievance of guest workers was immediate travel arrangements to go back home and about the typical Kerala food served in the camps. They found them unpalatable. This complaint was quickly resolved when they were provided with North Indian staple food such as dal, chapatis, pickle and rice. Those who wanted to cook for themselves were supplied with kits containing rice, wheat and groceries. 

The government’s quick response also included the distribution of masks and medicines and recharge services of mobile phones. About 1,000 counsellors were sent to camps to offer psychological assistance to those who showed suicidal tendencies and depression.

Because of the proliferation of WhatsApp use, there have been reports of circulation of misinformation and fake news. Intelligence agencies are reported to have found some sections of the workers becoming rebellious following the spread of sectarian issues. These were nipped in the bud.

The camp rebellion has, however, thrown up the importance of registration of guest workers and scanning of their identities to weed out foreigners who are said to have penetrated into the state in the guise of guest workers.

This is the challenge that Kerala has to take up and find a solution in concert with the central government. It can ill-afford to remain complacent on the identification and registration of migrant labourers.

In the coming months, the state is set to see a different migrant challenge, a  sweeping wave of tens of thousands of Malayalee workers returning from Gulf countries. They need to be rehabilitated and provided jobs, a challenge that is more serious and potentially more dangerous than the pandemic and the migrant exodus it now faces.

(The writer is a veteran journalist based in Kerala)

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