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Rotis, mobile recharges, carrom boards — how Kerala fixed its migrant worker anger

Migrant workers protested in Kottayam on 29 March demanding to be sent back home. The state changed its strategy in dealing with them and has since seen no such protests.  

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New Delhi: It was a blot on the much-touted Kerala Covid-19 response model. On 29 March, hundreds of migrant labourers flooded the streets of Kottayam town demanding that they be sent back to their home states.   

The protest caught the state administration off guard. Authorities acted swiftly to defuse the situation, eventually convincing the migrants to return to the camps set up for them.  

But the entire fiasco was a wake-up call, forcing the Pinarayi Vijayan government to change its strategy in dealing with migrants amid the nationwide lockdown.

Kerala’s Additional Chief Secretary Satyajeet Rajan told ThePrint that one of the major causes for the discontent was food — the migrant workers weren’t happy by the endless supply of rice being served from the Kudumbashree Community Kitchens, which are entirely run by women workers. 

“We changed that,” Rajan said. “We began making North Indian dal, chapatis, pickle along with rice. We also began handing them raw material so that they could cook according to their taste. We altered the diet in a few places, like for instance serving sattu khichdi in camps that had labourers from Jharkhand.”   

The CPI(M)-led government also began to take care of other needs.  

According to Rajan, the government not only provided the labourers with sanitisers, masks and medicines but decided that phones were vital to their time under lockdown.  

“We now recharge their phones and have tied up with a service provider for it. The state government will release funds to the service provider,” Rajan said. “Each labourer can recharge their phone for Rs 100-200 a month. Mobiles are their lifeline to keep in touch with their families at this time.”  

The strategy appears to be working. While migrant protests have sprung up in Mumbai, Surat, Ahmedabad, Delhi  and other parts of the country, Kerala has had no such problem since it dealt with the 29 March flare-up.      

Even after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an extension of the lockdown on 13 April, there were no migrant protests in the state.  

ThePrint highlights the slew of measures that the Kerala government has taken to keep migrant labourers from flooding onto the streets and offsetting the gains it has made in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. 

Also read: ‘We have got it under control’: How Ajmer has kept its Covid-19 count at just 5

A humane approach

Kerala has the highest number of state-run relief camps for migrant workers. The state has 18,912 camps that house over 3 lakh migrant workers.  

Uttar Pradesh is a distant second with 2,230 government-run camps while Maharashtra is third with 1,135 relief centres, according to data submitted by the home ministry to the Supreme Court on 8 April. 

The camps provide meals three times a day, apart from tea and biscuits as refreshments. They also have carrom boards and chess boards for the workers to pass their time. The state also doesn’t refer to them as migrant workers but has, instead, classified them as “guest workers”.  

“The government earlier called them migrant workers, then inter-state migrant labourers but now they are now just guest workers,” Rajan said.  

According to Rajan, the state has deployed mobile vans to conduct health check-ups on the workers.  

Also read: Factories set to open in some areas, states scramble to figure out how to transport workers

The Ernakulam model 

Ernakulam district in the state has the highest concentration of migrant workers as it is an industrial zone. The district alone has 2,436 camps, almost equal to Uttar Pradesh, and which house 60,000 labourers.    

“We have categorised migrant workers into four categories,” Ernakulam District Magistrate S. Suhas told ThePrint. “The first category is organised labour who worked in establishments and factories before the lockdown. Their camps are in their workplaces and we provide raw material such as pulses, vegetables and pickles to contractors.

“The second category is for the unorganised sector for whom we have established exclusive migrant community kitchens. Village and ward level migrant management committees have been formed to look after these kitchens,” he added. 

The third category is for unorganised labour at construction sites. “The camps are at the construction sites and we provide them ration kits, which contain rice, pulses and even toothpaste,” Suhas said. “The fourth category is camps for jobless workers.”

The district magistrate further said that the diet is tailored to meet different palates. 

“Perumbavoor town has the largest migrant population in the state, most of them from West Bengal. Here we have built a Bengali community kitchen to cater to them,” Suhas said.   

He added that the administration has made arrangements to monitor the health of the migrant workers. “We have deployed 14 mobile clinics that have doctors, nurses and equipment. The mobile clinics move from one camp to another camp to conduct regular health check ups,” he said.   

The district administration has also set up a call centre to address the concerns of the migrant workers. “Those manning the lines can speak five languages — Hindi, Bengali, Odia, Assamese and Garwahli,” Suhas said.   

Also read: Does India need more Covid-19 testing or is it an uninformed argument?

Counselling and 24-hour control rooms

According to Kerala nodal officer and labour commissioner, Pranab Jyoti, the state has set up a counselling centre for the workers.    

“There are 20 counsellors at the centre to provide relief in this difficult time,” Jyoti said.  “We also have a 24×7 control room to monitor migrant problems. It has so far received 7,000 calls. Every day, we send a report to the chief minister and the chief secretary with details of whether the concerns were resolved.

“District magistrates and labour commissioners monitor the calls and our revenue officers go to these relief camps to oversee their functioning,” he added.   

The labour commissioner said that the state government has taken the help of the Mumbai-based research firm, the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE),in understanding the migrant workers’ behaviour.  

“This way we can offer them more sops,” Jyoti said. “There are thousands of unregistered migrant workers. When the situation normalises, we will register them so they can avail the state insurance scheme and other government facilities.”

Also read: Dear Indians, don’t rush to support everything Trump does. WHO funding cut only hurts us

Kerala and its migrant labour

Kerala depends heavily on migrant workers for a number of work, especially in the unorganised sector. 

The Kerala government offers a number of schemes for its ‘guest workers’. 

It was the first state to provide insurance cover in 2010. Under the scheme, migrant workers can buy medicines worth Rs 15,000 in a year and can claim insurance for accidents and disabilities for up to Rs 5 lakh.   

Over five lakh migrant workers are insured in the scheme.  

Each worker can also avail free treatment of Rs 25,000 in government empaneled hospitals. Labour commissioner Jyoti told ThePrint that children of workers are encouraged to join government schools in the state.  

“The wages for migrant workers in Kerala is more than the national average,” additional CS Rajan said. “In the northern states they get Rs 200-300 a day. In Kerala, they get between Rs 600 and Rs 1,000 a say. There may be more migrant workers in Punjab and Maharashtra but the difference is that they are registered here.

“Our labour minister (T.P. Ramakrishnan) himself rose from the trade unions,” Rajan added. “He respects them and the state anyway has a proactive approach in handling migrants workers. It should be a lesson for other states.” 

Also read: Social distancing for guests, none at mandap — Kumaraswamy son wedding fails Covid-19 test


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  1. Communist should rule the center.
    Not bjp not the Congress.. If not then Mr shahi Taroor should, an educated diplomate who was there in the United Nation organisation in the election against Ban Ki moon..

    Common uts time for india for an intellectual person to rule.. A free country from religious intolerance, roits and craps..

    Its time to wake up.. Wake up india..
    We need the real change not the chnge in religion or new roits.

  2. JUst kick them out of kerala. They r here for there benefits as the vages in Kerala three times more from there native. We have not invited them to work here. If we have not invited them to Kerala then how come Kerala govt responsible to send them back. Most of them r the refugees from Bangladesh. Do keralities protest in other place or Nations to send them back to Kerala where the covid 19 is at par.

    • boss @Manoohin Thekkut do you kwn keralites are the most of the migrants in other countries especially Middle eats almost 3 crores plus people. The economy of Kerala is built through them and you saying you have to kick the migrant workers in kerala. Fater you kicked them out, who will replace them in the fields they worked so far? Most of us can’t move our ass to do some basic home maintenance and industrial works . Interesting to know about your alternate plans… rather than bluffing and spreading hatred here….

  3. It’s a model to be replicated by other states. It’s lesson as to how a responsible Gov’t has to mitigate hardship of working class in a severe adverse situation. Whether it’s Kerala or any other state for that matter, can not survive without this category of workers particularly in urban areas, they are the lifeline of the citizens.

    I’m a retired officer from Central govt Organization at a senior level and had the opportunity of working in kerala way back in 1995 for five years in my first group A posting and closely seen the workers and employer’s relationship and governments welfare schemes in place for the working class. A highly literate and civilized state always stands apart in every aspect.

    Congratulations to Govt of Kerala and its backbones of committed bureaucrats and employees at in large and society as a whole in neutralizing the Coronavirus to a large extent.

  4. North indians ,are modu bhakts blind faith following liers and fake instead of development and welfare

  5. Well it is a model when everyone blames communist the way in whicj communist kerla is doing is eye opener one who sedls relegion works for community is God all of us are equal before nature no ramayan or bhgavdgita will save it is only individual and their mind-set what I have learnt from the story communist means human values

  6. It has been and I hope will be in future also to see all in Kerala as part of Kerala, whether domicile citizens or migrant workers (now they are called guest workers) and even tourists. Just prove the point even tourists from developed countries were also treated and cured and sent back. What is important to note is that they were not charged anything at all. Even their food was free of charge. I am proud to be an Keralaite.

  7. One Govt agency that has done commendable job in Kerala in assuaging the distress of migrant labourers is Kerala Police. The Kerala Police marshalled its resources to motivate migrant labourers to stay put wherever they are and was first to reach to them to provide necessary succour and motivating them not to panic. Kudos to Kerala Police. K.S. Jangpangi

  8. This kind of spoon feeding was not necessary which also comprise social distancing. Istead grocery and vegetables foor cooking their own food must have been provided. Not coconut oil like Kerala food items.

  9. Kerala handled the covid-19 crisis very well with the support of all. Every measure taken by the State Government is praiseworthy, including accommodating migrant labour.

  10. It is only in Kerala the dignity of labour is upheld and tried to treat them at par with others. This unique ground reality is scantly existent in any of the states in the country other than hire and fire policy. Even in some of the places workers are not providef with protective gears while handling hazardous materials.
    The most striking feature of Kerala govt. is its education policy by which migrant workers are encouraged to send their children to schools so that they can hope better future for thier family.

  11. Thank you for this article which shows that where there is a will there is a way. A humane response is the only sustainable intervention so we than the Kerala government for the formula them + us = we

    • Jayakrishnan dude … They are not in banking professional like you . Hope you missed this point …. I mean it slipped your mind. No offence man.

  12. Kerala has done a very appreciative work during this struggling times, especially to those who have absolutely no help coming. They have dealt the migrant crises matuardly and with responsibility. Excellent work Kerala, you are a role model to whole country

  13. Kerela has once again proved that it’s govt is much better and capable than any govt in India to handle such situations.

  14. I have worked in several states including north Bihar as part of my banking proffession. I have to take the local food available though I was not used to it or it was not found suitable to my food habits due to compulsion. And I slowly accustomed to the local foods in the long run. I had no one to enquire about my preferences or requirements in the matter of food.
    Here the government of Kerala is setting a very bad precedent in caving in to their unreasonable demands in the matter of choice of food. I feel pity about Pinarayi government for giving unwanted importance to such elements. One should mentally accept the fact before migrating to other states or countries that whatever available there to be accepted by him at right spirit for his Survival at the place of migrating.

    • So what you’re saying is that because you had to suffer due to circumstances of your control, your kids must also suffer instead of making things better for them?

    • What a strange comment. He means that workers should not be given simple Dal roti of their choice. This man as a banker must have troubled so many.

    • കേരളത്തെ തള്ളിപ്പറയാൻ ഒരു മലയാളി തന്നെ വന്നു. എന്തൊരാശ്വാസം. തീർത്തും അപ്രതീക്ഷിതമായി അന്യ നാട്ടിൽ സ്വന്തക്കാരിൽ നിന്നും ഒറ്റപ്പെട്ടു കഴിയുന്നവരോട് മനുഷ്യത്വത്തോടെ പെരുമാറിയത് തെറ്റായ പാOമാണെന്ന് ബാങ്കുദ്യോഗത്തിനു ബീഹാറിൽ പോയ മലയാളി.അയാളവിടെ സ്വന്തമായി വെച്ചുണ്ടാക്കാൻ മെനക്കെടാതെ കടയിൽ നിന്നും വാങ്ങി തിന്നു പോലും. ഈ ലോക്ക് ഡൗൺ വരെ ഇതര സംസ്ഥാന തൊഴിലാളികൾ അവർക്കാകാവശ്യമായ ഭക്ഷണം സ്വയമാണ് ഉണ്ടാക്കിയോ വാങ്ങിയോ കഴിച്ചിരുന്നത്. നിനക്കൊക്കെ കിട്ടുന്നതും കഴിച്ച് ചുരുണ്ടു കൂടിക്കോളണം എന്നു പറഞ്ഞില്ല എന്നതൊരു കുറ്റമായി പറയുന്ന അലിവുള്ള വലിയ മനസിന് നമസ്കാരം.

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