Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The plight of migrant labourers

Last weekend, a dishevelled, bare-chested man was almost done to death in Chennai. Police and scores of bystanders watched the young man being beaten unconscious. A few even cheered and egged on the mob. Barely three days before this incident the city witnessed the killing of five men, allegedly involve in a recent spate of bank robberies in the city, in a daring mid-night ‘encounter' with the police. The two incidents, close on the heels of each other, had one commonality—the ‘north Indian' factor. An eyewitness to the lynching told reporters “the mob was screaming north Indian thief” as they “thrashed him” and dragged his unconscious body to the main road. The apparent ‘burglar from north India' finally turned out to be one Venkat Rao from Andhra Pradesh. So who are these ‘north Indians'? What are they doing here?
The ‘north Indian'

Two applications filed in the Madras High Court by six advocates and residents of Velachery, the neighbourhood where the ‘encounter' took place, describes these ‘north Indians' as “the workers who had landed in Tamil Nadu for working, slowly steadied their roots here and later started indulging in many crimes, many of which are dastardly and grave ones”. They further state that “offences committed by (the) north Indians in Tamil Nadu are on the rise” and that in this particular instance “group of north Indians were on a rampage....disturbing the peace and tranquillity of the state”. The applications have been filed to counter the ongoing public interest litigation in the Madras High Court challenging the recent killings.

In their malicious and mischievous intent, there is one thing that the applicants have said that is true, that they are ‘workers'. But the truth stops there.

Tamil Nadu has a fairly large interstate migrant population, estimated to be over ten lakhs, with large concentrations around Chennai, Coimbatore, Trichy, Madurai, Hosur, Tirupur, Kanyakumari and Tirunelvelli. Hailing from Assam, Bihar, Orissa, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and even Nepal, these men come to work on private and government construction sites, in small engineering ancillary units, steel rolling mills, lathe, hosieries, foundries, in roadside eateries as well as fancy city restaurants, as security guards and even as farmhands. While walking past a slum or even a fishing kuppam these days, one can catch a soft snatch of conversation or song in Bhojpuri, Hindi, Bangla or Oriya.

Dismayed by the derisive label of north Indian “thieves”, I wanted to find out who these “thieves” were and what their loot looked like. So I met a few young men from Bihar who had just come back from ‘duty'. They were huddled together in a small room in one such slum on Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR). A 120-sq.ft. room, peeling green walls, a few shirts and pants hanging from the hooks nailed to the walls, a mirror, a plastic comb, small suitcases and bags, a kerosene stove, a few cooking pots and pans, plates, tumbler and two buckets, floor mats and mobile phones! No toilet and an open bathing area.

Nothing extraordinary or remarkably different from the neighbour next door, who also happens to be a factory worker. Both are migrants, one interstate and the other inter-district. The only obvious difference is language. The neighbour speaks Tamil while these men speak Bhojpuri. The neighbour has a family, while these men have left their families back home.

But there is another crucial difference that makes the latter far more vulnerable—the terms and conditions under which an interstate migrant worker consents to labour. Most of the migrant workers in the State land up through informal arrangements orchestrated by multiple contractors and sub-contractors. Munniraj, a Dalit labour contractor in Hosur, has 650 Bihari workers whom he supplies to the various small-scale engineering units in the industrial area. The workers, who earn anywhere between Rs.3,500-Rs.4,000 per month, give him 10 per cent of their wages, which works out roughly to Rs.2 lakh a month. About 30,000 migrant workers from Bihar, Bengal, Orissa and Nepal work in the area. Ruing that local workers don't want to work in the factories and prefer MNREGA work, Sampat, an office bearer of Hosur Small and Tiny Industries Association said “these migrant workers have invaded our culture, they speak in Hindi, celebrate Durga puja”. A short documentary titled Finger made by Progressive Writer's Forum explains why the locals would rather work in MNREGA and not in these factories. The film shows the dangerous working conditions in the factories where accidents are commonplace, with workers losing their fingers in pressing machines as a matter of routine. Apart from some medical treatment, not much is given by way of compensation to the worker.
Madhumita Dutta in The Hindu Here

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