Ravindra (Name has been changed to maintain privacy)
Ravindra is from village Khairpokhara, district West Champaran, Bihar. He is a 29-year-old construction worker. He attended school as a child, but gareebi zaada ho gayi and due to difficult circumstances, he had to drop out of school and begin to work. So far, this time he has been working in Kerala for 6 months. He shares a room with 7 other men in Kuthapaddy, a residential pocket in Thammanam area of Ernakulam. By Ravindra’s estimate, more than 300 labourers from UP and Bihar live in the immediate vicinity. A lot of those who come to Kerala for work speak Hindi.
A path leading to houses in the labour camp at Kuthapaddy
Saat baras se jyaada ho gaya Kerala aane jaane mein. Ravindra began coming to Kerala for work 7 years ago. Back then, in his village he would get some 120 rupees dehadi for his labour, while in Kerala he got 500-600 rupees. Today he gets 750 rupees dehadi here. Ravindra’s family – his parents, wife, 2 children, and three siblings, live in the village in Bihar. They all work as farm labourers. The dehadi in his village is very less, 200 rupees for a day’s work for a man, and even lesser for women – 70 rupees for a day’s work. She will work from 8 to 5 and they will give her 70 rupees. Women from his place do not come to Kerala for work. Women from Bengal do come. They come with their male relatives. He doesn’t know if they work or not after coming to Kerala. Apna dekhna hai ki dusron ka dekhna hai?
Each time Ravindra comes to Kerala, he stays for 6-7 months. After that he goes back home. There are no fixed dates for when he leaves for Kerala and when he goes back. The only fixed thing is going home during the monsoon. In normal circumstances he would have worked till the end of next month. From June onwards the monsoon begins in Kerala, then he would have gone home. After two months or so he would come back to Kerala and resume work.
Ravindra has seen the videos on WhatsApp and so on about Coronavirus. What can he say? He and the other migrant workers are staying in their rooms like everyone is telling them to and they are protecting themselves. Is he afraid of getting the disease? Upar waala jaane. Humare haath mein thodi hai? Where he is staying no one has the virus. No one in his village in Bihar either. There is a government hospital 10 kms away from his village in Bihar, so everyone goes to the private doctors in the village itself.
His routine before the lockdown was simple, he’d go to work in the morning, and come back to the camp in the evening. One day Modi said there will be a lockdown on Sunday. Then it continued. He had no idea it would. He had wanted to go back home, but gaadi toh band ho gayi. It takes 4 days to get home, he has to take trains via Chennai and then Gorakhpur to reach Khairpokhara. He doesn’t know anyone who left for home, so he doesn’t know about whether they could make it or got stuck on the way. He and the others he shares the room with, all they think about the lockdown is that if they could get home somehow, toh ghar parivaar mein rahenge. Here they are all alone. The lockdown has been extended by another 15 days. They are thinking what to do. Humaare hath mein toh hai nahi. Jo order aa raha hai, wahi hum log kar rahe hein.
Chatting/playing cards in the labour camp during the lockdown
Things are not bad in Kerala, there is no problem as such. Kerala mein jo mauhal hai, sab achha hai, yahaan problem toh hai nahi. In normal circumstances, there is no dearth of employment. He speaks only a few words of Malayalam. Everyone he works with also speaks Hindi. His employer who is from Kerala also speaks Hindi with the workers.
During the lockdown the Kerala government is giving them ration. They get rice, aata and so on and make their own food. They have to buy some necessities like gas and spices. Food is not a problem but paying rent for the room is a bit difficult. Room bhada dene ke liye room waala sar pe aaya hai. He had heard the government might help them with rent, but he doesn’t know now if that’s happening. Hum log gareeb aadmi hai, kamayenge nahi toh khayenge kya? He does not really have any savings, but kuch na kuch vyavastha toh karna padega, nahi toh khayenge kaahan se? He tries to make some arrangements, otherwise, majboori hai toh the workers depend on each other. They pool in for the things they need. Those who have a bit more cover for those who have lesser. A medical check-up is happening in his area, the doctors are wearing gloves, masks, etc. Vyavastha is all good. But everyone says, hum logon ko ghar bhej do bas. Ghar jaayenge. Kitna din yahaan baith kar khaayenge hum? Apna ghar mein rahenge, sukha roti, chawal khayenge, parivar mein rahenge toh koi problem nahi hai, woh achha rahega.
Workers at the front of a house in the labour camp
Ravindra doesn’t know if he has a 0-balance jan dhan bank account, but he does have a bank account. He has not received anything in it from the government yet. In the village his family works as agricultural labourers in someone else’s field about 2.5-3 kms away. At the moment they are sitting at home. It is time to harvest the crops, but work is going on in a few places only. His parents have a ration card, and they are getting ration. In the village there is no difficulty at present. But, dekhne thodi gaye hein? He only talks to his family on the phone, and on the phone ghar ke log koi bhi achha kahega, bura thodi kahega. Will they tell him if they are facing difficulties? They won’t.
What can the government do for him? Hum log ko ghar pahuncha de, dusra kya hai? Everyone is fine in the labour camp, koi beemaar toh hai nahi, sab log ko dekh kar apna apna ghar mein daal dein. How long will they stay there? They have already been there 18 days or so. What will they do here? Jaana toh padega. What else can he say? Jaane ke liye vyavastha sochenge hi and karenge hi. Kitna din yahaan rahenge. Apna ghar mein rahega, sukha roti khayega, apne parivaar mein rahega, dusra kya hai?
Ravindra reached home on the 18th of May. The journey from Kerala was good. He travelled by a Shramik express. By Ravindra’s estimate, 1200 people travelled with him in the train. One person per seat. They were given food and water, there were no problems. From Kochi it took Ravindra 3 days to reach his village in Bihar.
Before he went home, Ravindra spent 2 weeks in a quarantine facility outside his village. A primary school was being used as the quarantine facility. Everything in the facility was good, they were getting food and water, no problems. The 2-week quarantine was only for people who returned in the beginning. People who are returning now are getting scanned for fever and then being sent home. There is no institutional quarantine for them.
In Kerala there are three lakh seventy-five thousand Bihari labourers. Ravindra’s village in Bihar is not very big. It is small, and all the men leave to work outside. About 200-300 men. 20-30 men have returned to Ravindra’s village. The rest have not returned, they are still in Kerala.
How does it feel to be back home? Wahi toh soch rahe the, when we were in Kerala we thought, if we go home it will be good. After coming back things have worsened. Khaane peene ka koi vyavastha nahi hai, sarkar kitna dega? We are thinking, how many days will we sit and eat? It has been a month.
View of a house in Khaipokhara, Ravindra’s village. PC: Ravindra
In UP chawal mila hai, dal aata, tel, masala mila hai, sab kuchh mila hai. Hum log ko kuchh nahi mila. Those returning to UP got money as well, 3000 rupees. Ravindra’s relatives live in district Padrauna in UP. He had called them, that’s when he found out about money and ration being distributed to returning migrant labourers. His relatives had returned to Padrauna from Bombay and Surat.
At the school Ravindra and the others were told to finish quarantine and go home, money would be transferred to their accounts. They have gotten nothing, aur koi sunwai nahi hai. In Betia we were asked if we want to work. We said yes, so they took our number. They called us, said, put your name on the list, we will give you work. Three – four days they called, then nothing. Ravindra does not know who the person calling was, nor which government department he was from. He used to call everyone who was quarantined in the school. When Ravindra left for Kerala he was asked to give his phone number and Aadhar card. His number must have gone everywhere from Kerala to Delhi.
Ravindra is thinking what to do. He might stay back in his village for 2-4 months. Then he will return to Kerala. If he gets work in the village, he can stay, if not, he will have to leave earlier. Agricultural work in his village is over for now. Rice has been planted. It will take time for the saplings to grow. Around 1.5-2 months. Then it will be time to transplant the saplings. Until then there is no agricultural work. Rice and sugarcane are grown in Ravindra’s village. Sugarcane crops are harvested in March and sent to the mills. There is still time for sugarcane to be planted again. Agricultural work for rice will begin again after 1.5-2 months. Even once the work starts, it does not last long, only a month or a month and a half. After the rice has been transplanted, it takes 2 months before the crop is ready for harvesting. Once rice is harvested, wheat is sowed. So, there is agricultural work in his village, but at intervals of 2/3 months. There is no permanent work. There are no factories in Ravindra’s village.
So, one to two months we earn. Then we sit at home. Then we earn again. Then again for a few months we sit without work. When we are outside, we have work every day. If we work here in the village, we are unable to run the house. Bahar kamaate hein toh ghar achha chalta hai. Jiska dukaan hai gaon mein, usko achha hai. He can earn and eat. Those like us who have nothing, what will we do, we have to go outside.
A market in the village. PC: Ravindra
Hum chhota aadmi hai, gareeb aadmi hai. Kamayega nahi toh khayega nahi. Jab yahaan kaam nahi milega toh kya karenge? Kahin na kahin toh jaana padega. Yahaan kitna din baith kar khaayenge? Ghar mein do bacha hai, bibi hai, sab log hein, ma baap hai.
Abhi sab kaam band hai. Yahaan kuchh bhi nahi ho raha hai. Idhar udhar se paise lete hein, khaate hein dusra kya karenge. Udhaar lekar chala rahe hein. Abhi jo sthithi hai, 5000-6000 rupya aur udhaar lekar khaana padega. 10% pe log paisa deta hai yahaan pe. 1000 lena hai na, 1100 dena padta hai. Ek mahine mein wapas denge.
Muajduri jo aadmi karta hai who ye nahi dekhta hai ki ye kaam karenge, woh kaam karenge. Whatever work we get we will do. For a majduri waala admi no work is bad. Koi kaam karenge, 2 rupya milega, hum log khayenge, bas. So it is not as if because Ravindra worked in construction so now he will only do that. He will do whatever work he gets. What is labour? It means do any work.
If Ravindra goes back to Kerala, he will get his old work back. Connector hai jo Kerala mein, thekedaar jo hota hai na, that person will get him work. Either in the same factory or somewhere else. In Bihar no one pays more than 200 rupees for a day’s work. In Kerala the daily wage was 750. When we return now it might be 800, 900. Dehadi is raised every year in Kerala. They raise it by 50 rupees annually. And when they see our work they give us more money. Sometimes 900, sometimes 1000.
The Kerala government did a lot of migrant labour. They used to give us rice, till the day we left for home they gave us ration. Food was no problem, travel back home was also not a problem. In Kochi the police went from room to room to ask, gaon jaana hai? Aadhaar card laakar jama karo, entry hoga. After that the police dropped us to the station. We were checked, then train mein baithaya, aur uske baad wahaan se chala hum log. We sat in the train on the 2nd. On 4th we reached Patna. From there we took a bus via Betia and on the 5th morning we reached our village. We were thermal scanned at Ernakulam station, then in Patna, and again in Betia. Everyone in the quarantine centre was thermal scanned every day. Fever is the indication of the infection no. After you get fever only you get Corona. And no one had fever.
Till the 18th they stayed in the school. On the 18th at 6pm they were allowed to go home, but they were asked to stay inside their houses for a week. So they did. No one returning to the village has brought the infection with them. If someone does bring it, wahi hoga jo pehle tha, lockdown padega, dusra kya karega?
On 1st the superfast express to Delhi via Patna was restarted. People are thinking, now that the train has restarted, lets go. Let me see. If others go, I will also go. Baithenge thodi? If we go outside, one person never goes alone, four-five men go together. People have stopped returning. Those who had to return have returned. The fear of the infection coming to the village is not there. It is increasing in other places, in Bombay, in Orissa. But no one here is thinking, bimaari hoga ki nahi hoga. Kisi ko malum thodi hai? Hum ache hein tabhi baat kar rahe hein. Abhi bimaari ho gaya toh kya kar sakte hein.
Lalachan (Name has not been changed)
Lalachan is a social worker in Ernakulam, he has a master’s degree in social work. He is currently working with Sudhaar, a project for migrant workers implemented by Sahrudaya Welfare Services Ernakulam, an official church NGO, and funded by Caritas India.
As part of Sudhaar project, Lalachan and his colleagues have surveyed 1500 migrant workers to know their living conditions. They found the living conditions to be average. Usually migrant workers get sufficient facilities where they stay, and all building owners and construction managers are aware of improving living conditions of migrant workers. The Sudhaar team is now working with other NGOs and government agencies, especially the police and health departments, to conduct health check-ups, to ensure safe and hygienic living conditions, to help migrant workers get free postal bank accounts, awaas cards, and so on.
Majority of the labourers Lalachan deals with are from West Bengal, Assam, Orissa, and Tamil Nadu. When the Covid outbreak began, one of the first things the Sudhaar team did was information dissemination and awareness drives in labour camps on how corona is spread and how to maintain necessary hygiene. They also identified areas where food needs to be distributed to migrant workers. For instance, to those living under flyovers and so on.
In Kerala, ‘labour camp’ means a pocket where a large number of migrant workers live. His work with Sudhaar takes Lalachan to some of the oldest labour camps in Kerala, as well as new and upcoming hubs. He was recently in Thammanam, where Ravindra lives, to facilitate Bandhu clinic, an initiative by CMID. Ravindra is a good man, Lalachan shares. By his estimate, around 1000 migrant workers live in Thammanam.
Bandhu clinic, a medical check-up camp underway in Kuthapaddy
The Covid-19 outbreak has helped NGOs identify migrant workers. Sudhaar has identified 3 lakh workers so far, but their estimate is that there are many more, around 6 lakhs in Ernakulam district itself. When the lockdown began about 3 weeks ago, Lalachan and his colleagues went to local railway stations. They found platforms full of people. Their guess is that since the outbreak began a large number of migrants have returned to their native place. Lalachan and his colleagues are now trying to improve the health status of migrant workers who are still in Kerala.
Sudhaar puts up posters spreading awareness about Covid-19 in labour camps
The culture of the migrant workers is totally very different from Kerala, and so is their educational background. Even if the accommodation is good, the area is good, workers don’t give sufficient attention to their personal environment. After 2 or 3 months the accommodation will be dirty. The workers don’t know how to use the toilet, how to clean it. They won’t clean their room itself. The 6 to 8 people who live together also cook in the same room. Some migrant workers are using diesel for cooking. It is dangerous and the Sudhaar team found that people who cook in their rooms are prone to certain ailments. Lalachan and his colleagues have asked the workers not to cook with diesel and assured that they will get gas and so on. Some workers do not know how to use the fuel, so Lalachan and his colleagues make them aware, and also explain the importance of having a room exclusively for the kitchen. We are trying to educate them, Lalachan says. Breathing problems, suffocation is one of the basic problems of the workers. 6 to 7 people living in a room, with no proper ventilation, it is very difficult. We are trying to educate the building owners as well. Skin rashes are also a problem the workers suffer due to hygiene.
In the medical camps run and facilitated by Sudhaar, free treatment is given to migrant workers. Any indications of Corona and the person will be transferred in an ambulance to the hospital. So far, no positive cases have been found amongst the migrants Lalachan is working with. People do come with fever and cough, but their symptoms do not have a connection with Corona. People living in these labour camps have not interacted with anyone with Corona. Lalachan and his colleagues are not worried. The number of cases in Kerala is decreasing and number of people who are cured is large now. They haven’t found an outbreak amongst the migrants. Since the lockdown began the migrants were afraid of getting the disease, so they avoided markets. Also, the police system is very good in Kerala and the police are inspecting labour camps. People are safe in their rooms and don’t go outside. Food and ration kits are distributed by NGOs and all.
The food habits of migrant workers are very different. When people distributing cooked food understood this, they started distributing food kits so that migrant workers can cook for themselves. The food kits distributed by Sudhaar include rice, some vegetable, some masalas, sugar and so on. The migrants who are having ration cards are getting monthly ration from the ration shop as well. So normally migrant workers don’t go out to buy anything.
Food being distributed by Sahrudaya and police
Lalachan and his colleagues expect a large flow of migrants to return once the outbreak dies down. We don’t believe the Kerala economy will go down, though things are closed now, there is lot of pending work in Kerala, in the plywood factories and so on, so there won’t be much downturn. When there is ample employment opportunity, then many migrant workers will also come to the state. Some migrant workers have settled in Kerala with their families. Roshni, an initiative of the district administration to provide education to the children of migrant workers estimates that around 2300 migrant worker’s families have settled in Ernakulam district itself. The children of migrant workers are getting good education, and one of the kids Lalachan knows personally scored full A+ in the recent 10th board examinations.
Migrants like to work in Kerala. They have good employment opportunities and the daily wage is very high compared to other states. Some companies, like plywood companies and others have welfare officers and they get salary accounts made for their workers. Some companies give free accommodation, and/or free food. For those who pay rent, it depends on the accommodation, but normally for one person it is around 700 to 800 rupees a month. A large part of the workers’ salary goes to their families back home.
Kerala declared a lockdown before the nation-wide lockdown was announced. In Kerala, the lockdown is good. There are definitely some issues, but because India started its lockdown early, the number of cases is less now. If we hadn’t declared this lockdown, it would have been very difficult to manage.
On WhatsApp, videos are circulating of Bengali migrant workers protesting in Kerala. Lalachan explains that the incident was a misunderstanding. It happened in Paippad, one of the main hubs of migrant workers in Kerala where around 10,000 migrant workers live. During the first part of the lockdown, when the Indian railway stopped trains, they could not go to their native place. Rumours were spread that the workers wouldn’t get enough food, they won’t get enough money from their contractors. These rumours spread fast and migrant workers came to the street. They were worried. The collector of the district had already been in the area for a few days, he came to the spot when the protests started and tried to calm workers. The local panchayat leaders, the ASHA workers, people from the legal department, started to go to labour camps and give them awareness. From then onwards the situation has been very calm and quiet. There was news that the protests were because the workers were not getting non vegetarian food. The food culture of migrant workers is very different, Lalachan explains, and since the sudden lockdown, chicken and all cannot come to Kerala from different states. Even we could not get chicken, meat and all. But now the situation is fine. He has himself seen migrants being able to go and buy chicken and so on as they need.
The Kerala government is doing good work for the migrants, there is no doubt in that. When the government started community kitchens across the state, Sudhaar reduced the number of food kits they were distributing because migrant workers were getting enough food. Lalachan has heard that the Kerala legal service authority took an initiative and they are making a group of volunteers to help migrant workers. NGOs are doing a special work in this situation. Working together with the government they are managing the distribution of food and so on. The Covid screening that Sudhaar is doing is through the police department. The police alone cannot do this, they need help from NGOs. Lalachan has heard that the Kerala govt has asked the centre to help migrant labourers reach their homes, maybe start a train and so on. Because the workers want to see their family. But it is difficult for this to happen.