Thiruvananthapuram, Sept. 23: Few will doubt Amit Mitra’s concern for workers and few will go out on a limb to vouch for Walmart’s record in developing countries.
But Mitra need not look as far as Latin America for his “if you have tears, prepare to shed them now” moment.
Wagonloads of Bengalis in the flower of their youth are being carted from under the nose of Mitra’s seat of power to Kerala to work in conditions that are described at best as “appalling” and at worst as “inhuman”.
Such migration of labour has been going on for years —long before Mitra’s Trinamul Congress came to power — and it is not necessarily an undesirable development. Surplus labour and idle manpower during the non-farming season have always been a familiar sight.
But in Bengal, the flight is taking place because of lack of opportunities. Worse, a system that will not facilitate investments in the name of protecting the right of the people is driving its young into the jaws of exploitation elsewhere.
What’s new, Mitra and others may ask. Workforce from Bengal is a fact of life in places like Delhi.
But signs are emerging in Kerala now that the migrant labour population is sitting on a powder keg that can explode or implode any time. A pointer surfaced two months ago when it emerged that 1,000 labourers in a camp had to make do with 13 toilets.
Last week, two labourers fell off a scaffolding and died — both were from Bengal. In May, two men in their twenties died in a cave-in at the construction site for a private engineering college at Kottayam in central Kerala. Both were from North 24-Parganas.
Kerala has so far been content to absorb as many able-bodied men as possible to make up the shortfall caused by the flight of its own to the Gulf and elsewhere because of a legacy eerily similar to that in Bengal. Mitra, no doubt, will point out that both states share a past when the Left used to call the shots.
Mamata has said her government has created 6.5 lakh jobs, mostly in the state-run segments, since taking over. It is unrealistic to expect the government to find jobs for everyone but the government has to facilitate conditions that attract investments that can create jobs.
“We went hungry for days together at home. My younger brother ran away from home to escape poverty,” says Dharmeshar, who hails from Malda and works in Kerala. He says he sends home Rs 10,000 a month from Kerala.
The young men of Bengal are now travelling 2,500km south to Kerala to build gleaming buildings — information technology parks and skyscrapers bankrolled by petro-dollars from the Gulf.
The irony of the food chain will not be lost on Mitra. Many Malayalis are working for multinational outlets that his boss Mamata Banerjee will not let into Bengal. The money sent home by these Malayalis is buying the labour of Bengali youths who are toiling without any rights far away from home. Needless to say, that hard-earned money is keeping some home fires burning and putting food on the table in Bengal, too.
Hordes of Bengali-speaking men occupy vantage points in cities and towns in Kerala as early as daybreak, waiting to be picked up by contractors for the day’s work. From gardening to carpentry, waiting at tables and construction, these migrants are the state’s new labour class, feeding a booming construction sector’s appetite for thousands of semi-skilled and unskilled workers.
Unofficial estimates put the number of migrant labourers at 13 lakh but the figure includes men from not just Bengal but also Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
A migrant worker earns around Rs 350 a day after a Rs 50 cut for his contractor. For the labourer, the amount is far higher than the Rs 120-160 he stands to earn daily in rural Bengal if he manages to find work. For the contractor, the payout is lower than the Rs 500 he would have to pay a local worker who will brook no exploitation because of the state’s strong communist roots.
“I’m happy here and manage to send home at least Rs 4,000 a month,” said a construction site worker who introduced himself only as Ranjan and said he hailed from Cooch Behar.
The 20-year-old said he had arrived here six months ago but still didn’t know the nature of the project he was helping build. “There are about 100 men from West Bengal working with me.” He also has access to a decent shelter to spend the night.
But recently at Vithura on the city’s outskirts, officials of the labour department stumbled upon a camp housing workers at a project site associated with a well-known government research centre. The conditions were so squalid that only 13 toilets were available for 1,000 labourers packed into dingy tin sheds. Water supply was non-existent, forcing the workers to carry out daily ablutions in open space.
Over the past month, 145 camps have been found wanting in hygiene standards.
Representatives of the migrant workers lament that there are no definite figures about the accidents and casualties. “When a death occurs, it is only registered with police. We will get to know the estimates only if these are registered with the labour department,” said George Bruno, an NGO activist working with migrant labourers.
Bruno has hit the nail on the head. Kerala is beginning to see migrant labour issues as a law and order problem, not a social issue.
The call for a databank has been getting shriller following what the police say is a rise in the crime graph tied to the migrants.
In July, Abdul Kalam (26), a Bengal resident who works in a brick kiln in Pathanamthitta district in central Kerala, was beaten up by people and handed over to the police after he tried to abduct a Plus One student from a road in the state capital, which he was visiting.
In February, the police arrested Bengal native Rafath Sheikh, 42, for killing a 60-year-old sand labourer in Ernakulam district by drowning him in a river.
The Kerala government had made it mandatory for migrant workers to register themselves with the police.
Rights activists, however, resent the move. The workers have become an integral part of the state’s economic structure and the government move is inhuman and unconstitutional, they say. Such profiling would only help demonise the workers, they add.
“It is the labour department which should have registered them under the Inter-State Migrant Labour Act. But the department has failed to even provide them labour cards though many promises were made,” Bruno said.
The labour department is now firming up plans to make it mandatory for employers to register the details of the migrant workers. T.T. Antony, Kerala’s labour commissioner, says: “We had initiated a process for registering them, but only 30,000 managed to register. There were several practical difficulties, like language and their nomadic nature.”
One fallout has been the rising tension between the local community and the migrants.
In the state capital in the middle of July, residents were annoyed by the dozens of migrants who used to collect at Gandhi Park in the city centre every Sunday. The labourers would start pouring in by 7am and by afternoon, the place would be full. Friends — and invariably enemies — used to meet there. They would purchase essentials for the week from the adjoining Chalai market.
“Parks are meant to be tranquil areas. Thousands of labourers would come here on Sundays and make the place all dirty, spitting gutka. They would also consume alcohol and fight among themselves,” says park superintendent Valsaraja Kurup.
Since a brawl during which a police officer who intervened was caught by his collar, the police do not allow the workers to linger for long.
Today, The Telegraph saw a cat-and-mouse game. The workers, shorn of any form of recreation in an unfamiliar land and hours away from resuming their grind in the sun, dispersed when a guard told them to leave.
The young men then formed small knots in front of a shopping complex across the road, possibly waiting for a chance to sneak back into the park and be among familiar sights, sounds and smells with which they had grown up in Bengal.