In Tamil Nadu, NGOs and volunteers pave way for migrant workers as govt machinery struggles to cope with COVID-19 crisis
From arranging dry ration, medicines, soaps and water to helping migrant workers with online railway booking, volunteers in Tamil Nadu have provided unrelenting support since day one
While Tamil Nadu has been struggling to cope up with the mounting coronavirus cases (17,728 as on 27 May, 8 am), a parallel humanitarian crisis has been emerging on the street due to the COVID-19-induced lockdown.
Migrant workers in cities across the state have hit the streets, many taking an arduous journey of over thousand kilometres on foot to reach their homes in their native states.
On 22 May, Day 59 of the lockdown, hundreds of migrant labourers were standing outside a temporary shelter at Padianallur, in the outskirts of Chennai. The shelter was already running at full capacity of 300 migrants. But one could see groups of migrant labourers gathered outside waiting to get in.
“We will wait outside till we get a place in the shelter. We heard that once inside a government shelter, it would be easier (for us) to get a train ticket to head home,” they said in chorus.
Ram Ishwar from Nalanda district in Bihar had come to work at a steel plant in Chennai just six months ago, hoping to save some money for his family. However, the lockdown induced by the coronavirus has worsened his situation.
"We don’t have any money or place to stay. We are being told to go from one place to another, but to no end. At this point of time, all we want is to be with our families,” says Ishwar.
Every day more labourers keep coming to the shelter through vans and lorries arranged by the companies they worked for before the lockdown.
Some like Tilak Chiladun, a construction worker from Kalahandi district in Odisha, have had no work for the last two months now.
“I have very little money left and I don’t know how long I can afford food. Till now, we have not received any government support. We have been buying our own food. I hope the government at least helps us get back to our native states. We want nothing more,” says Chiladun, who has been waiting outside the shelter hoping that his group would be called in soon.
“I hope to find some temprary work at the fields in my village, and then maybe, I would return to Chennai after the situation gets better,” says Ishwar, uncertain over his future.
It is this uncertainty, built over the last three months, which has now burst on the streets across India.
No ration cards, no immediate relief
Nearly a month ago, Karthikeyan of Sristi Foundation had met 24 distraught migrants from Maharashtra while distributing relief materials for the disabled in Villupuram district.
At that point of time (25 April), Tamil Nadu had around 1,000 odd cases, and the country had completed a month into lockdown. But there was also a rising fear amongst locals that anyone from outside the state or country was a threat and could spread the coronavirus, recalls Karthikeyan.
This fear worsened the situation for the migrant labourers in the state, he says.
"With companies having shutdown without further notice and locals treating migrants with disdain, the migrant workers were left on the streets with practically nothing. Hungry and exhausted, they took the rations we gave them but they had only one request — ‘help us get home’.”
With no ration cards, he says that the migrants had no means to receive government aid and with limited transport options, they were practically trapped in a hostile city.
Lockdown extension brought them to streets
Ariwarasan, a volunteer with the NGO We Are Your Voice has been working in tandem with the state government to provide medical and grocery supplies to the disabled. In the first week of May, shortly after the third lockdown extension, Ariwarasan noticed a sudden surge in the number of migrants trying to walk or cycle their way back home through the Tamil Nadu-Andhra border.
“The lockdown extension had quashed any hopes of rail or road transport. The migrant helpline number too had no information on when the trains to their hometowns would resume. With funds running out and an increasing fear of the pandemic, migrant workers were making a desperate attempt to walk back to their homes. Most of them were from states like Jharkhand, or Bengal, this meant they had to take a journey of more than 1000 kilometres by foot,” recalls Ariwarasan.
He says that the tales of the migrant workers were all too similar. Most of them were unorganised labourers who had come to Chennai to earn a living and were left unpaid by their employers during the lockdown. It was only on 9 May that the first train carrying 1,038 migrants to Odisha left Chennai.
Ananthoo, another volunteer adds, “By mid-May, most migrants were chased out of their houses as they were unable to pay the rent. This meant that thousands were suddenly rendered homeless.”
Ariwarasan opines that it would have really helped had the government pressurised the employers/companies to support the migrants by providing shelter or by increasing the number of government-run shelters at the very beginning.
Having alerted various authorities about the increasing number of ‘walking migrants’ in the city, some volunteers in Chennai got together to do what they could do best in the scenario.
Prassana, an active volunteer from Vadapalani in Chennai shares, “We set up a temporary relief centre near the Tamil Nadu-Andhra border near Tada on 13 May. While arranging for food and drinks for those walking on the highways, we also helped them get registered for trains in the government’s website (as many needed help with the English forms)."
Road transport meanwhile had become unimaginably expensive at Rs 50 per kilometre, and each bus would carry only 30 people. Some migrants sold the last of their valuables to make the trip while most chose to just walk back home, sneaking through fields across the Andhra-Tamil Nadu border.
“At around 11.30 pm on 15 May, we saw the men who had crossed over to Andhra Pradesh, beaten up and sent back to Tamil Nadu border, and from there, they were dropped at various spots in Chennai. One group was herded together in a lorry by the Tamil Nadu Police and dropped at TJS college. After that day, the inter-state border security was tightened and news of more shelters being opened up in Tamil Nadu trickled in. By 19 May, around 25 migrant shelters were opened in just Thiruvallur district,” says Prasanna.
“I think the government grossly underestimated the number of migrant workers in the state,” he adds.
Chennai's Deputy Commissioner of Revenue and Finance Meghanath Reddy agrees. "It was challenging to get the exact number as most of the guest workers were floating population. We opened a helpline to streamline the process to aid the guest workers. So far, 38 trains from Chennai carrying over 50,574 guest workers had reached over 15 states across India. As for the shelters for the guest workers, we had 98 during the peak, and now we have 40 shelters operating out of Chennai.”
Volunteers pitch in with all their might
While the Tamil Nadu government was trying to cope up with the crisis in the making, Chennai’s volunteers stepped up to attend to food and medical requests from the streets. Ariwarasan says that with COVID-19 lockdown, it was tough for many to be on the field to provide help, "but that did not stop them from helping in the backend".
From arranging dry ration, medicines, soaps and water to helping migrants with online railway booking, volunteers, informs Ariwarasan, have provided unrelenting support since day one.
"We take down details of every migrant we met, the backend team follows up and ensures that no one misses a meal (irrespective of where they are in the city) till they reach their destination,” he adds.
Dhivya Marunthiah and Dilip Srinivasan are two of the countless volunteers who have gone out of their way to ensure that every distress call is attended to.
Dilip tells us that it is primarily the lack of communication on the due process for migrant labourers that led to panic and exodus.
“Initially, even the volunteers didn’t have clear information on shelters for migrants and there’s still no clarity over the schedule of trains for migrants. We know that the ground staff is doing their best to manage the shelters but some proactive action from the top to aid the migrants could have easily resolved this at the beginning,” says Dilip.
Meanwhile, help has poured in from unexpected quarters: local panchayats near the state borders, college students and housewives have all pitched in to cook meals for the migrants on the streets.
“I met an auto driver who was out on the streets every day, feeding every migrant he met. He informed us that the food was cooked by the Sri Lankan refugees from a camp in the vicinity,” says Ariwarasan.
Volunteers and NGOs often network through the night to ensure that food reaches the needy on the streets.
However, with police actively guiding migrants on the streets to nearby shelters, field volunteers said that the number of people attempting to walk their way home has reduced considerably since 20 May.
At Minjur shelter, the government official in-charge of the unit said that they have been doing their best to keep migrant workers comfortable with good food and shelter. They (migrants) are also allowed to cook their own food (for which rations are provided), the official said.
“We follow a token system to conduct medical screening for those at the shelter and they are booked train tickets for their native states, on a first-come-first-serve basis,” The official added.
As this author was leaving the shelter home, a resident said, “I had walked for the last two days to reach from Kattupulli to here, but now, am hopeful of reaching home.”
NGOs estimate the total number of migrant workers in the state to be around eight lakhs, however, they say that not all will be able to afford the train back home (with online bookings now open).
Distributing yet another bottle of water and food to the crowd gathered outside Padianallur shelter, Ariwarasan says, “Our only hope is that the government would open more shelters and run more trains to help the migrants get to their native states soon, lest we forget them once more....”
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