VELLORE: “The helplessness you feel when your child is crying for milk, and you can do nothing... That’s the worst thing that can happen to any parent,” says Vijaya. Tribal labourers from Vellore and Tiruvannamalai, who migrate to plantation estates in Karnataka for seasonal work, are among the worst hit by the lockdown. Vijaya is one among hundreds of such labourers who have finally managed to return home.
With employers turning a blind eye to their woes, these labourers had been suffering in silence since March. “Our employer did not extend any form of support,” says Vijaya. “We had no groceries. No milk for our crying children. We could not even buy stuff with the little money we had as there were no stores in those parts.” Not just employers, even the Karnataka government did not come to their help. “We felt we were abandoned in a jungle, to fend for ourselves to stay alive,” says another labourer Parthiban.
“All that we got from our employer was the permission to continue staying in the labour quarters. Local authorities paid no heed when we approached them to return home.” Finally, after repeated requests, officials granted them passes and arranged vehicles. “We were thrilled,” says Parthiban, “but it did not last long.” It was later that these daily wage labourers, leading a hand-to-mouth-existence, realised that they had to pay for the transport.
“We had to pay Rs 4,000 per head,” rues Parthiban. If it was a few months back, Parthiban, who has never stepped inside an airport, could have taken a flight to Karnataka’s capital with that kind of money. Parthiban and his wife together earned Rs 20,000 during their 6-week stint at the estate. But his savings started draining out as the lockdown began. Around 97 tribal labourers returned on Saturday, welcomed by officials and ministers. Swab samples were taken and they are being tested. Rice, groceries, and clothes were distributed by the Tamil Nadu government. It came as a big relief for the group that had spent almost all their savings trying to tide through the lockdown. Parthiban is a worried man now. “We used to get 3-4 months of work in Karnataka. Now, it seems like that prospect has been lost.”