Kerala, After The Flood: Displaced migrant workers heading home will adversely affect rehabilitation efforts
Around four million migrant labourers, displaced in the Kerala floods, work in nearly all sectors in the state, keeping the wheels of the economy moving.
Editor's note: Described as one of the worst since 1924 by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the rains in Kerala have left over 350 dead and rendered thousands of people homeless. According to the latest tally, 80,000 have been rescued so far. Over 1,500 relief camps have been set up across the state that currently house at least 2,23,139 people. In a multi-part series, Firstpost will attempt to analyse the short-term and long-term impact of these unprecedented floods on the lives of the people, economy of the state, and the environment.
Sunny Joseph went to Perumbavoor junction at 7 am on Monday to hire a few workers to clean his flood-ravaged house that is filled with mud, reptiles and insects. He could not find anybody there even after waiting for more than two hours. Shopkeepers advised him to go back as the migrant labourers he was looking for had not been coming to the place since the floods devastated most of Kerala.
Perumbavoor junction is usually crowded since 7 am with migrant workers from West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar, Assam, Manipur, Uttar Pradesh, etc, all looking for people to hire them.
After his search in other areas ended in vain, Joseph began to clean his house with his son's help. However, the IT professional has no idea where to find the plumbers, electricians and technicians he needs to repair the wiring, pipes and electronic items damaged by the floodwaters in the first floor of his house.
This is the plight of the majority of over one million people who were rescued or evacuated from their homes after the torrential rains began. Most of them left household articles and valuables behind. While thousands of houses have been fully or partially damaged by floodwaters, the others are in a total mess.
Migrant workers from the northern and eastern parts of India have been managing all kinds of jobs in Kerala since youngsters from the state began to make a beeline for the Gulf nations in search of greener pastures. At the moment, Kerala needs hundreds of thousands of these skilled and unskilled migrant workers to build new houses as well as repair and clean the damaged ones.
Ironically, a large number of them are on their way back to their home states at a time when Kerala needs their services the most. These migrant labourers — who were given the status of "guests of Kerala" by the state government taking their yeoman services into consideration— have no choice but to leave the state as the floods have shattered their lives, too.
A labour contractor in Perumbavoor, where around 1.5 lakh migrant workers live, said that a large number of the workers were displaced as the labour camps where they lived had been washed away in the floods and the factories they worked at had been damaged. A majority of these migrant workers are employed at private factories in Perumbavoor.
A Catholic priest working among migrant workers said that a large number of them had been marooned in the floods in Aluva, Perumbavoor, Kalady, Muvattupuzha and Chalakkudy for several days without food and water. Father Mathew Onatt, a member of a Church-run agency working for the welfare of migrant workers, said that those who were rescued had also faced difficulties as there were not enough relief camps in the flood-ravaged areas.
Benoy Peter, executive director of the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (Perumbavoor) said that most of the employers of these workers also did not take adequate care of them. In fact, some had even refused to lend their plywood factories to shelter the rescued workers.
“They turned them away, citing lack of facilities inside the factory to serve food and perform daily chores. They relented only after volunteer agencies and local political workers intervened,” Peter said.
He added that most of their employers had not bothered to enquire about their welfare, and many even did not pay their pending wages. Instead, they asked the migrant labourers to return to their home state and come back after the damaged factories were repaired and resumed production. This, even as many of them had no money to reach the railway station.
Peter said that the governments in their home states had also failed to come to their aid. Only the Odisha administration had sent a team of officials to evacuate the stranded labourers. The other state governments remained content making enquiries with the Kerala government and appealing to the Railways to run special trains.
The Southern Railway agreed to operate special trains to northern and northeastern states following persistent pressure from a 200-member team from Odisha, which came to Kerala equipped with six helicopters. The team insisted on free journeys for the stranded, but the Railways refused.
A senior railway official said they had operated six special service trains to West Bengal, Odisha and Bihar on Monday and two on Tuesday, adding that they had evacuated over 25,000 people till Monday. Peter said a majority of the workers had boarded the trains without tickets, and they had no money to eat or drink anything during their journey.
“Mittu Sarkar, who comes from Malda in West Bengal, said he had to borrow money from a friend to return to his home state. He said he had not received wages for the last two months. “I could not ask my employer to pay my wages as his factory and house had suffered damage in the floods. He asked me to return to Malda till he repairs them and resumes operation,” said Sarkar, as he waited for a train at the Ernakulam South Railway Station.
Dhingal from Odisha could go back to his home state only after a friend lent him the money to buy the ticket. This is the plight of thousands of workers who fled Kerala.
An estimated four million migrant labourers from other states worked in nearly all sectors in Kerala, keeping the wheels of the economy moving. Peter said that if the migrant workers had stayed back, they would have risked their health as they would have had to do hazardous work post-floods.
“Migrant workers are already a vulnerable group. Engaging them in cleaning infected houses will increase their vulnerability,” he said, adding that the Kerala government and local bodies had yet to equip the workers required to clean the flooded houses. He said his agency was trying to procure material from various sources with the help of NGOs to reduce the risk of infection among workers engaged in cleaning and disinfecting the flooded houses.
Peter agreed that the return of the migrant workers, which is taking the form of a mass exodus, will adversely affect the post-flood rehabilitation of the people displaced by the century’s worst floods and landslides. “It is a mammoth task that the government has to undertake with a lot of planning and care,” Peter cautioned.
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