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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”