KOCHI: Rashid Ahmed reached Kerala eight years ago from Assam, in search of a job. After being footloose for a while doing various jobs, he settled down to work at a vegetable stall in Perumbavoor, Ernakulam. He learnt Malayalam quickly. Now Kerala is like a home to him. When Covid-19 broke out, Rashid was among the lakhs of migrants who decided to stay back, rather than leave for their home states.
“Instead of travelling at the time of the pandemic, it is always safe to remain in Kerala,” he told TNIE.
“Also, I work at a vegetable stall which remained open during the lockdown as permitted by the government. Some of my friends working in hotels and in the construction sector also decided to stay back. Kerala is safe and is like home.”Most of the migrant workers who decided to stay back consider the state as one of the safest places in the country to see off the pandemic. According to the state government’s Post Disaster Needs Assessment 2018, there are 34.85 lakh migrants in Kerala, with Ernakulam accounting for the most number of them, at 6.03 lakh.
According to information available, only 2.75 lakh (less than 10 per cent) of the total migrant population have so far expressed desire to return to their home states.During May, 16 Shramik special trains services each were conducted under the Palakkad and Thiruvananthapuram divisions. Only 34,000 migrants have left the state, with most belonging to Jharkhand, followed by Bihar, UP and Odisha. Only one train service was conducted to West Bengal, which accounts for a considerable number of the migrant population in the state.
‘Government did a good job’
“Among Indian states, Kerala pays the highest wages in the unskilled sector,” said Benoy Peter, executive director, Centre for Migrants and Inclusive Development. “In states like Odisha, the daily wages remain `100 to `120 per day. In Kerala, it is `650. Here, discrimination based on caste and religion is negligible compared to northern states. Accommodation is good with toilet facilities. The state has that migrant-friendly atmosphere.” During the lockdown, he said, Kerala has not witnessed any heartrending scenes like people crying for food.
“Our government did a very good job,” Benoy said.“Prompt steps are a major reason which prevented a mass exodus of migrants from the state. They knew that staying back will not do any harm and that they will get work as soon as things return to normal.”Just before lockdown, some migrants, especially those working in hotels, restaurants and a section of the footloose labourers, went home. Those who had gone to their home states for the festival of Holi are now looking to come back to Kerala, once the travel restrictions are lifted. In Ernakulam, nearly 70 per cent of migrants have stayed back.
Agriculture Minister V S Sunilkumar, who is coordinating the Covid-19 measures in Ernakulam district, said the government has succeeded in ensuring accommodation, food and wages in advance for the migrant workers who stayed back.
“We are not calling them migrants, but guest workers,” Sunilkumar said. “In areas like Perumbavoor, where the number of migrants is high, we have requested building owners to exempt migrants from the monthly rent. Even a Covid-19 helpline was set up exclusively for them, providing for assistance in nine languages. The chief minister has already announced the plans for bringing all guest workers under the umbrella of the Labour Department.”