Migrant workers in Guru Nanak College, Chennai
Migrant workers in Guru Nanak College, Chennai|Photo credit: V Prem Shanker
Tamil Nadu

Migrant Workers Are Safe But Uneasy In TN

State eyes private participation in handling a possible peak of COVID-19 cases

Prem Shanker

Prem Shanker

"Bhago… Bhago (run... run) they told us one night after the lockdown was announced. We did not know what was happening, so we just left the room immediately," recalls 21 year old Srikanth Pradhan, a guest worker belonging to Odisha.

Pradhan is one among the 377 guest workers, mostly from Odisha who have been provided food, shelter and essentials at the Guru Nanak College campus in Chennai since March 30.

He says it was the caretaker of the shed in Guindy, where he was living, who had come in with the announcement to leave the place immediately.

Migrant workers staying at Guru Nanak College during lockdown
Migrant workers staying at Guru Nanak College during lockdownPhoto credit: V Prem Shanker

Fortunately for Pradhan, the orders to leave his shed came hours after the Chennai city commissioner of police had called for an emergency meeting of stakeholders including Home Guards and representatives of various government and private institutions.

When the topic of handling guest workers had come up in this meeting headed by the city police chief, Manjith Singh Nayar, the General Secretary and Correspondent of Guru Nanak College rose to make his intention very clear.

"I told them that this is the opportunity for institutions like ours to step forward and take care of those stranded guest workers," Singh tells The Lede.

It was the evening of March 29, when this meeting was being held and hours later, Guru Nanak College was ready to accommodate 377 guest workers from Odisha, most of whom were daily wages earners employed by an industrial cluster in the outskirts of Chennai.

"Immediately after the meeting and after the commitment made to the city police chief, I called up Area commanders (Home Guards) Sanjay Bhansali and Chandrashekar Umapathy to let them know about the task that we had before us," Singh recalls.

Singh himself serving a senior position in the Home Guards - a trained volunteer paramilitary force tasked as an auxiliary to the Police - had no problems in putting together the team necessary for housing hundreds of guest workers within the college premises.

The city police, meanwhile had provided its support by allocating personnel and vehicles to ensure safe transportation, setting up accommodation and security for the guest workers.

The campus was ready within hours and by the next morning, at least eight blocks within the college premises were ready with their classrooms opened up for the guest workers to stay, Singh says.

Social distancing being followed while eating
Social distancing being followed while eatingPhoto credit: V Prem Shanker

Sanjay Bhansali, Area Commander, Home Guards says "This experience was extremely different from how we had come forward as volunteers during the Chennai floods in 2015."

Comparing the pandemic situation with what it was during the floods, Sanjay pointed out that even as they continued to bank on the support of contributions from volunteers, they had to insist on all of the well-meaning contributors to stay back at home and not rush in physically to help those in need.

Thermal screening of migrant workers from Odisha
Thermal screening of migrant workers from OdishaPhoto credit: V Prem Shanker

"Every single need of the guest workers has been taken care of with the contributions we have received from members of the various associations like Rajasthan Youth Federation and other non-profit and non-government organisations that are active in the city. But we have asked each and every one of the contributors to stay back at their home and not turn up at the campus to volunteer.

This is in stark contrast to what happened during the floods. Back then (2015) contributions and volunteers also poured in to the campus to dish out two lakh food packets in a matter of 72 hours," Bhansali recalls.

Chandrashekar Umapathy, also an Area Commander with the Home Guards says, "Apart from the police force that have been provided on campus for the security of the guest workers, many Home Guard personnel have stepped in. They are trained to handle these kind of situations and we are confident that the guest workers will have a hassle free stay as long as they are on this campus."

Classrooms converted into sleeping quarters for migrant workers
Classrooms converted into sleeping quarters for migrant workersPhoto credit: V Prem Shanker

Security is tight and no one can enter or exit the campus without proper authorisation.

Classrooms have turned into places of stay for the guest workers and about eight of them stay in each of the large sized class rooms.

"We were planning to open up a separate block for women as we were expecting a group of women guest workers from the North East. Since they were sent to another location, there was no need to open up a separate block," Singh adds.

In the first week of their stay, the guest workers were provided with food and snacks four times a day, apart from meditation in the morning, Zumba exercises in the evening and the screening of a Hindi film at the sprawling football ground on campus every night.

Migrant workers line up for lunch
Migrant workers line up for lunchPhoto credit: V Prem Shanker

"We had to stop the movie screening as it was difficult to ensure social distancing between them," Singh says. The movie screening had stopped by the time the second lockdown was announced.

Mixed Bag Of Feelings

Srikanth Pradhan, among the younger guest workers who had been staying on the sprawling campuses of Guru Nanak College in Velachery in the city, is a bit restless while talking about his experience.

"Yes, we are getting food, but there is no work here. How long do they expect us to keep staying here?" Pradhan asks.

Pradhan, who was earning Rs 600 every working day in a foundry in the outskirts of Chennai, said he has been speaking to his family back home regularly over phone and keeping them updated about his health and well-being, but that has not eased apprehensions, he says.

"My parents keep asking me when I am returning home," Pradhan adds. "It is better to be with my family rather than staying here. I hope they will let us go. They can arrange to take us back to our villages and continue with the lockdown. At least we can reach home," he said.

Police interact with migrant workers in Tamil Nadu
Police interact with migrant workers in Tamil NaduPhoto credit: TN Police

Many of the workers inside the college seemed to echo Pradhan's feelings.

Shankar Jena, another young worker hailing from Odisha, said, "I do speak to my family back home but sometimes the network is bad there and I barely get to speak to them. I hope they help us return to our villages."

These workers have been through some anxious days on campus when one of them developed a fever.

"We had isolated the person and his samples were tested. The results came in as negative and we showed it to every other person residing on campus to allay their fears," recounts the college correspondent Singh.

"Yes, some of them want to go back, but they have to understand that under the given conditions they are in the best situation possible," says Singh.

A policeman teaches hand washing to migrant labourers
A policeman teaches hand washing to migrant labourersPhoto credit: TN Police

The organisers say that the workers are used to tough labour in foundries, industrial and construction sites. They have a very good appetite and are used to taking large quantities of food to help them through their tough labour.

"Presently they continue to eat as per their habits but there is no hard labour, and that is making them absolutely restless. Some of them feel that it would be better to be at their home in their village rather than being fed here and do no work," one of the organisers of the camp says.

Migrant Workforce Ecosystem Under Threat?

Bernard D’Sami, an expert on intra-state and inter-state migrant workforce in India and Senior Fellow and Coordinator, Loyola Institute of Social Science Training and Research (LISSTAR), says the pandemic threatens the fragile ecosystem that was being built for the benefit of migrant workforce coming into Tamil Nadu over the years.

"Some call them guest workers, but I like the term that Kerala uses for them - 'Replacement Workforce', meaning they are filling up to do a job that the local workforce is not willing to take up," D'Sami points out before talking about the deeper implications of the pandemic on inter-state migrant work force.

"The inter-state migrant workforce come into Tamil Nadu between December and June. The state has close to 10 lakh migrant workers coming in and about 50% of the workforce are placed in industrial clusters around Chennai, Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram. Close to 17% of the total migrant workforce are working in and around Tirupur, Erode and Coimbatore," D'Sami points out.

Police personnel interact with migrant workers in TN
Police personnel interact with migrant workers in TNPhoto credit: TN Police

"In Tiruvallur the level of engagement with the migrant workforce had developed to encouraging levels and the authorities had recently begun organising volunteers from their origin states like Madhya Pradesh to come in and teach the children of migrant workers in local schools in their own language," D'Sami says referring to the Union and state government jointly run Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan's Non-Residential Special Training Centres linked to government schools and anganwadis.

However, all that stands to be completely jeopardised after the impact of the pandemic and the workers rushing back, he adds.

"The inter-state migrant workers who will leave the state eventually are less likely to return to such distant destinations like Tamil Nadu and Kerala looking for work anymore. After this experience they will possibly look for work in states closer to them and may not venture this far," he observes.

This, he adds, is most likely to create a new dependence on intra-state workforce which will be a completely different ball game.

Official Response To Stranded Migrant Crisis

Experts say that the state responded well to avoid a terrible migrant workforce crisis soon after the lockdown was announced.

"Tamil Nadu had a peculiar problem when migrant workers from Kerala were returning via Chennai to their home states and the journey was abruptly terminated in Chennai when a sudden lockdown was announced," says D'Sami.

He adds that the Chennai corporation officials responded swiftly by organising food and accommodation for the stranded workers.

"I travelled in and around Chennai central station and Egmore areas in the city to see what kind of facilities were being provided and noticed that almost 8000 stranded workers were provided for in shelters that were created in government hospitals and corporation schools in the area," D'Sami recounts.

"I spoke to some of them and they did say that there were being taken care of and even being checked up regularly apart from being instructed to maintain physical distancing," D'Sami added.

Thermal screening of migrant workers
Thermal screening of migrant workersPhoto credit: TN Police

He however points out that it is in areas like Tirupur and in Coimbatore where the real extent of care provided to migrant workforce needs to be checked.

Officials say that after the initial spurt in requirements for shelters and food for the guest workers across the state following the lockdown, the demands have tapered down.

"We are constantly monitoring the situation and are coordinating with district administrations across the state for any requirement that may arise for the guest workforce," Mahesh Kumar Aggarwal, Additional Director General of Police, Tamil Nadu tells The Lede.

An Administrative Pyramid Built Ground-Up

The pandemic is nothing like the major disasters that Tamil Nadu had seen in the past including Tsunami in 2004 and the Chennai floods in 2015.

"This is not something that just hit us and left, this is something that has stayed and the Tamil Nadu government has responded to this crisis accordingly," Mahesh Kumar Aggarwal says.

The ADGP who is now deputed as a special officer for the southern districts was earlier called in by the state government to coordinate matters regarding migrant workforce in the state working closely with the government officials.

"A pyramid structured administration was put in place to handle the issue of migrant workforce," Aggarwal points out.

Soon after shelters for the guest workers were identified, a police liaison officer was appointed for each cluster of about two to three shelters, depending on the size and strength of persons accommodated.

Each of these police liaison officers reported to the district authorities and a local police officer. And these local officers in turn reported to a nodal officer appointed for a cluster of districts.

The nodal officer reported to the special officer in charge of coordinating the statewide efforts.

Post the setting up of the pyramid structure of administration to tackle stranded migrant work force, officials say, "At least 99% of requirement of shelters for migrant workforce seem to have been addressed as we are not receiving any fresh requests from any of the districts.''

In terms of handling the restlessness among the guest workers who have been provided shelters across the state a senior government official say, " We are asking our officers on the ground to have frequent conversations with the workers. They need to get past the language barrier and have constant reassuring conversations with the workers. Once we communicate with them regularly, a bond develops and they will understand the situation."

The Road Ahead

Although the state labour department officials could not be reached for an exact number of migrant workers currently sheltered in the state, sources said that the state is considering to reach out to many private institutions across Tamil Nadu to come forward with their spaces like Guru Nanak College has done.

"State authorities have already contacted our college and discussed how our hostel rooms and classrooms can be utilised for isolation and treatment of COVID-19 infected patients in case the requirement arises," a faculty member of Loyola College, Chennai points out.

The state government finds a ray of hope as the number of new infections have fallen. However, as the possibility of an imminent peaking of COVID-19 positive cases is yet to be ruled out, officials may have to keep looking for increased coordination between all the resources they can tap into.

Vanessa Peter, policy researcher, Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities, says, "There is an immediate need to develop a standard operating procedure and a relief code to take care of the migrant workforce. By and large the response from various district representatives in-charge of relief operations for stranded workers has been encouraging. But when it comes to what relief packages are being provided to the stranded people in their shelters, the observations are worrisome."

District level relief
District level reliefSource: TN Government
District level relief
District level reliefSource: TN Government
District level relief
District level reliefSource: TN Government

Peter raises an important point as to how the migrant workforce is being commonly looked at as individual workers bunched together and provided shelters.

"That is not the only case. There are families too. And all of them cannot be treated the same way. The relief packages being provided by the government varies from district to district and we have no standardised relief for them," Peter points out.

Speaking about a specific instance where a family of migrant workers, where the mother and father were taking care of three-month old twin babies, district officials had reached out to them soon after they were alerted.

"However, the babies had specific requirements of Lactogen supplements and in this case providing the family with just a bag of rice and dal did not help," Peter recounts.

Peter and members of her organisation have been provided special permission to reach out to some of the stranded workers in the shelters and they have been trying to allay fears of these families.

"The language barrier makes things difficult and we are trying to reach out to the members in organisations like ours in the home locations of these workers to see if their respective states can extend some kind of support to those stranded here," Peter adds.

Experts say that Tamil Nadu had roped in the labour department much after it reached out to the state police and frontline administrative officers and that the slum development authorities came in much later.

It is imperative that all these departments of the state government come together and put up a coordinated effort to take care of the migrant workforce, experts point out.

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