Why should we allow them here? 

“Who are these people? Why are they here?”

On Sundays, Gandhi Bazar, a market place in Perumbavoor, a satellite town of Kochi, speaks in the tongues of India’s east—Bengali, Assamese and Oriya. An old man who runs a roadside shop outside the Bazar examines the swelling crowd and its languages and wonders if his hometown will turn into a Bangladesh before he dies.

Along with many others in the town, Bangladesh has become a legitimised expletive in his vocabulary, a word that connotes a society of coarse and uncouth criminals that desecrates Kerala’s alleged cultural sanctity. The society in question here is termed in Malayalam as Anya Samsthana Thozhilalikal—Labourers From Other States; a 2-3 million strong community comprising people mainly from West Bengal, Assam and Odisha employed in the thriving construction sector, quarrying, hotels, rubber and tea estates and in factories of various kinds—plywood, chemical, metal etc. 

“Why should we allow them here?” the old man asks, a question posed in slightly different terms in a recent movie titled Ee Adutha Kalath (In Recent Times) which was both a critical and commercial success: “Who are these people? Why are they here?”

Raihan, 22, from Jalpaiguri district in Bengal and one of “those people”—or Bhayee, as the locals call them—smiles at the question. He has heard it umpteen times. Aware of the pointlessness of providing an answer—“What answer will satisfy them in any case?”—he shoots back another question: “Malayalees have been going to the Gulf for decades now. What will they feel if they were to face these questions there?”

Of medium height and stocky build, Raihan has a stubble and a thin moustache. His uncle and a couple of his neighbours came to Kerala in the first half of the last decade. Since then, he too has been planning the same. Though he is happy with the money he is making, he plans to go back one day and get married to his lover.

The recent developments in the state, especially local hostility, has not deterred new migrants. “We don’t have any other option back home”, he says.

It was on a Sunday that Raihan, five years ago, came to Perumbavoor as part of a group of 12 from his district. Like lakhs of others from their region he too had decided to catch the train to Kerala and make a living there. Though there is also a formal recruiting system for migrant labourers, Raihan and his friends decided to come on their own, safe in the knowledge that once they reached Perumbavoor, landing a job would not be difficult.

“Though their performance in the work places can be termed satisfactory, the fact that the migrant labourer community provides space to criminals, Maoists, terrorists, drug dealers and thieves has spread paranoia among the people. They are also involved in counterfeit currency distribution. The pollution they are responsible and the subsequent health problems that spread in the society is also a cause of major concern.” - news report in Janmabhumi

“I had Rs 3,000 when I got on the Guwahati Express. But people from my part of the world have been going to Kerala for years now, so I was least worried. Not even the fact that I knew no language other than Bengali bothered me.” 

Raihan got down at Aluva, near Ernakulam, and walked to the bus stand. To the conductor he showed a piece of paper on which was written: “Gandhi Bazar, Perumbavoor”. When he landed in the bazar, he was “shocked” to see so many of his own people.

“I did not miss my home one bit when I first came here. There were Bengalis everywhere. People were selling Bengali beedis, Bengali sweets, Bengali clothes. The speakers in the bigger shops played Bengali film songs and Oriya bhajans. All the advertisements were in Oriya or Bengali. A Bengali film was playing in Jyothi theatre, just outside the market. Though we all knew about this place, it still was difficult to believe the first time I saw it.”

One of the thousands of labourers at the market that day told Raihan to come next day around 7 a.m. He was also offered a room to stay. “The camaraderie was touching. Maybe it is because we know we will have to look after ourselves in a different state. We have no unions or organisation working for our welfare, so we make sure that those who come here for the first time are not left stranded.”

What is a manic market on Sunday turns into an even more manic pick-up point for labourers on weekdays. Agents, middlemen and contractors come in trucks and hire labourers for construction sites, quarrying units and plywood factories. “I got work the next morning,” says Raihan. “I was taken to a plywood factory. I was paid Rs 300 a day then. Now I earn about R s500.”

Raihan still lives in the same room—inside a labour camp consisting of six ramshackle sheds that houses around a hundred—he was first offered. On Sundays he sets up a small makeshift shop in the bazar to sell samosas and Bengali sweets—roshagulla and goja. He says he has no reason to be unhappy, but that has not prevented him from thinking about going back.

“The fact that the migrant labourers are perpetrators of social disharmony and a threat to the state’s security is viewed by many with concern. Recently, an intelligence report that said thieves from Bengal come to Kerala in droves had become news. In the last few months, some Bangladeshis who did not have any documents with them were arrested from Kottayam.”
-Manorama Online, December 10, 2012

“I get good money here compared to what I would get back home. I can send money to my parents and also save a little for my future. But all that is irrelevant if I have to constantly live under suspicion. People in Kerala believe we are a criminalised society. In the five years that I have been here, this notion has become progressively stronger. Beyond a point it is hard to live in that sort of a community, no matter how good the money.”

The rise of migrant labour in Kerala in the last two decades is a direct consequence of a combination of the massive urbanisation that the state has witnessed since the Nineties and the shortage of local labour. Around the mid-Nineties, Kochi witnessed an unprecedented growth in the construction sector and a corresponding demand for labour. Earlier, labourers from outside Kerala came mainly from Tamil Nadu, but in this period they started leaving the state on account of better wages and better working conditions back home.

As Malayalees have traditionally avoided semi-skilled jobs in industry, the demand for labour was met by workers from the poverty-stricken east. Though there are no official statistics, it is estimated that 20-30 lakh labourers are employed in the state.

According to human rights activist and economics professor Sukhendu Sarkar, the massive flow of labourers from West Bengal, a state that has seen three decades of CPI(M) governance, is an indicator of the abject political realities of the state.

“Various investigative agencies have given warnings about the counterfeit notes circulated by the Maoist terrorists in the state. These notes which rival authentic notes reach the country via Bangladesh. Based on this, the financial transactions of north Indian workers are being monitored by intelligence. After discovering the spread of terrorist organisations in the state, their sources of income have been under surveillance. They get funds from Pakistan via Gulf countries.”
— Mathrubhumi, October 16, 2010

“There is retardation in every sector in Bengal. The farming sector has collapsed. Unemployment, debts and starvation are on a rampage; as a consequence, suicides too. Most of those who toil on the soil do not own land. Control is in the hands of a minority of big players and real estate mafia. Since most development projects are centred on cities, villages are devoid of even basic facilities. This is what brings about this exodus to Kerala.”

Initially the labourers were employed in construction, but gradually other industries—plywood, chemical, hotel etc—also joined in. They work 10-12 hours a day, and are paid considerably less than their few Malayalee counterparts get. “If I had been a Malayalee, I would have earned much more than I am earning now,” says Raihan. 

“But even now, we wouldn’t be able to earn this much back home. As for working hours, we don’t have a say and don’t raise too much of a hue and cry about it. We have come here to make money and it really does not matter if we work for eight hours or 12 hours a day.”

What worries Raihan more is the many ways in which even their legitimate wages are taken away from them. The modes usually adopted by local contractors include obtaining the documents of the labourers or issuing their payment on a weekly or monthly basis instead of a daily basis.

A plywood factory owner in Perumbavoor says, “Supposing these people were to leave me one day, how will I find replacements? I take orders for work based on the strength of my workforce. If I give them the full payment, they might leave just like that because there are so many options for them. That means I will have to keep some of their money with me.”

Accommodation is usually provided by the factory owners in blocks of tiny, squalid rooms, each room occupied by seven or eight men. The room in which Raihan lives is occupied by eight people. There is a tiny television set and an induction stove. Mobile phones and chargers lie in various corners. There are no beds; everyone sleeps on the floor.

“A survey carried out by the health department of Kerala found that many migrant labourers are carriers of deadly diseases like HIV, malaria, dengue, hepatitis-B, hepatitis-C etc.… Recent incidents prove that Kerala will have to pay a big price for the largesse it offers to migrant labourers. Kerala has accepted more migrant labourers than it can contain. Social scientists warn of grave consequences if the uncontrolled flow of these labourers is not kept under check.”
 —Kalakoumudi, August 13, 2012

The locals, including the contractors, plot a direct correlation between the unhygienic circumstances in which they live and their “criminal tendencies”. “They don’t care about anything else but money. They want to come to Kerala, live in the dirtiest of ways, commit a burglary and then leave,” says Joseph Babu, a contractor. Most of the labour camps are old and dilapidated, and some have collapsed. Five years ago, a building near Ernakulam Boat Jetty came crashing down, and two labourers from Odisha were killed. Thirty men from the same village were staying under one roof.

Shabir, a construction worker, says, “We don’t really bother too much as the money we make here is our only driving force. If I am back home, even if I earn around Rs 300 or Rs 400 a day, I might spend five or six hundred. Here I am particular about cutting down expenditure and sending at least Rs 6,000 or Rs 7,000 every three or four months.”
Neither the administration nor the job providers ensure that the regulations in the 1979 Interstate Migrant Workman (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act are followed. Till date, there are no organisations to represent the migrants. As they are not part of the vote bank, the extremely powerful labour unions of Kerala do no not consider it necessary to include them.

Raihan recounts an incident when he and his friends could not even campaign for the compensation of a worker who had died at a worksite. “I can imagine the furore if a Malayalee had been killed. We approached all the trade unions here, but not one was willing to take up our case.”

Bizarrely, in the shopping complex opposite Gandhi Bazar there is a shop that sells fancy jewellery under a board that reads: Migrant Welfare Society Board. “This building was rented by an SBI officer last year. But this so-called welfare society has never been operational. What we have heards is that the society was just a pretext for obtaining a personal loan.”

Last year, the government started a welfare scheme for migrant labour, which provides Rs 25,000 for each labourer for health care. A sum of Rs 3,000 is provided for the education of their children, compensation of Rs 50,000 in case of accident-death, Rs 15,000 in cases of natural death. An additional Rs 15,000 is provided for transporting the body home. But on account of a fear that they will be stuck in one particular field, most labourers avoid the scheme. The failure to grant compensation in case of accident deaths is also a major deterrent.

Mythri Prasad, PhD scholar at the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, who is working on the subject of migrant labourers writes: “Social protection has not been extended to migrant workers. For example, the construction workers’ welfare board, which operates through trade unions, does not consider migrant construction workers in its schemes for social protection. This lack of inclusion becomes institutionalised as only unionised workers are considered for welfare benefits.

“Social protection policy thus has to be evaluated keeping in mind the historical context and the political actions and struggles that shaped it. The highly influential mainstream trade unions in Kerala have not made any attempt to unionise migrant workers or to examine the implications of migration for local labour. Union membership also throws up interesting questions on the formation of class consciousness in Kerala, which perhaps recognises only a Malayali as a thozhilali (worker). The ethnic bias of welfare systems comes to the forefront when welfare systems come in contact with migrant populations.

“The highly unionised Malayalee construction workers in the district (Ernakulam) are recruited through trade unions in a system known as ‘site pidikkal’ (capturing the site). Unions negotiate with the builder regarding the number of workers, wages and the amount of work. Hiring Malayalee construction workers is done either through unions or through contractors; Malayalee construction workers do not stand in markets or intersections waiting to be picked up. Various trade unions affiliated to political parties have organised Malayalee construction workers since the 1980s.

“However, the unions do not give membership to migrant workers and have not attempted to organise them. In the plywood industry, migrant workers have replaced local Malayalee male workers, and women workers from neighbouring districts in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. However, this replacement has happened gradually as new units sprang up and existing ones increased in scale. Malayalee workers in the plywood industry have remained largely non-unionised.”

“Security issues related to the presence of a huge floating migrant population have been highlighted once again with the Aluva police stumbling upon a network of criminals during an investigation into a burglary case. The inability of police to track the movement of this floating population has once again raised serious questions on security. “It has also been brought to the notice of police that some of the migrant labourers tried to spend currency notes of bigger denominations like Rs1,000 at provision stores, a clear indication about the presence of counterfeit currency. There were earlier instances of fake notes printed across the border being smuggled into Assam and West Bengal and dispensed through migrant labourers on the move. With neither the police nor the Department of Labour having any information about the migrant labourers, engaged mostly in construction sector, it has become easy for criminals to use as a cover for their activities. —The Hindu, December 8, 2012

The study of the Perumbavoor Sunday market also demonstrates that social protection does not just relate to policy but is continuously claimed and accessed through contestation. In the absence of such struggles, social protection can bypass migrants, even in the presence of the most progressive policies and welfare systems in practice.
Migration in Perumbavoor, especially its unsettled nature, prevents the development of a rights-based trade union. This is not merely about an all too easily attributed informality, but is embedded in the varied and multiple relationships forged in the market.

The trade unions of Malayalee workers constitute “the local”, which is at times hostile and discriminatory. The working class is a category which is broken up at the local level when it comes into contact with ethnicity, gender or caste. The ability of migrants to negotiate the local is seriously undermined by local power structures and is affected by the intersection of different identities and other social divisions within class. These factors are also crucial in attaining social protection and welfare.

The unions say the floating nature of migrants, their non-presence in a vote bank democracy, and their unorganised nature are the main reasons why unions do not take up their cause. But a major step has been announced by AITUC which on January 16 said the first trade union for migrant labourers would come into existence on January 26, called Migrant Workers Union. According to organising secretary Baby Thomas, the base will be Ernakulam district and it will expand from there. Ahmed Sharif, a labourer from Bihar, is in charge of organising workers at the grassroots level.

According to human rights activist and journalist R K Bijuraj, the description of the migrant labourer community as a criminalised society by the mainstream media has to be seen along with the blacking out it does of the various acts of human rights violations committed against the community.  He says: “Malayalam mainstream media is run for the middle-class—usually Catholic and upper caste—and as such it is the insecurities and the fantasies of this section that the media manipulates to perfection. The placing of migrant labourers as criminals is easily marketable news in this space. Also, they never question police sources or even make an effort to verify them. What we get to see and read in the media are amplified versions of the police story, carefully designed to pander to its middle/upper class and upper caste viewership.”

On May 7, 2012, Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, Kerala home minister, announced that migrant workers would be required to register at the police stations when they arrived for work. This would enable the police to identify whether the labourers had any links with terrorist groups. Similar profiling had been attempted earlier, too, especially in Ernakulam district.

In 2009, police in Perumbavoor had issued an order according to which migrant workers were to carry a police clearance card from their village of origin certifying that they had no criminal history. This led to many workers leaving the town as it was beyond their means to obtain such a card.

The move was welcomed by the mainstream media as a positive step in curbing the “terror” spread by labourers. Manushyavakasha Prasthanam, a human rights organisation, submitted a memorandum to the chief minister which is yet to elicit a response.

According to Mythri Prasad, the media was least bothered about the human rights violations involved: “We (Manushyavakasha Prasthanam along with Dalit activist Meena Kandasami) had also done a press meet in Ernakulam last year against the registration. The response of journalists was appalling. They were unashamedly xenophobic and racist. It was astonishing to see the poverty of our journalists. They just didn’t understand the idea of human rights.”

But police have a different story to tell. Perumbavoor Sub-Inspector Bijoy Chandran says registration is meant to protect the interests of the labourers and not to profile them.

“The labourers are constantly exploited in their work places. If they are registered, exploitation can be avoided.” The SI blames the contractors and the factory owners for refusing to co-operate in making the scheme successful. The fact that the migrant labourer community has a “floating characteristic” does not make things easier.

“The labourers do not stick to one workplace. If they are offered even slightly bigger amount, they will move immediately. As a result, the factory owners are also apprehensive about granting them their legitimate benefits.”
As for the allegations of Maoist and terrorist connections, Bijoy Chandran says though the possibility that they may sneak into the labour camps cannot be discarded, the media is guilty of presenting distorted versions of the reality.

“A lot of criminals also come with the thousands of migrant labourers that come to Kerala. These include terrorists and recruiting agents for terrorists, and those wanted in their home states for extremist activities. In the last few years, there have been many reported cases of burglary and rape in which these labourers have a direct link. “It is in this context that the recent incident where three Assamese labourers were arrested for suspected ULFA connections needs to be analysed. Pictures of ULFA commander-in- chief Paresh Barua and visuals of ULFA parades were found in their mobile phones. ….The inefficiency of state police and labour department to tackle the menace of these migrant labourers will transform Kerala into a terrorist region. Its consequences will be fatal.”
Mangalam, November 30, 2012

“The media is clearly sensationalising the issue by portraying the community as a society of criminals. Less than two per cent of migrant labourers are involved in crime. They are very co-operative, and in cases where they feel suspicious about something or someone, they promptly inform us. We also have a well oiled network, coordinating the functions of direct police surveillance, mafti police and intelligence sources.”
The police are also planning to set up a virtual employment exchange for labourers. The project is to be executed with the help of NGOs.

“Since the labourers don’t have unionised structures working for the welfare, this project has been envisioned to make them self sufficient.”

During his five years in Perumbavoor, Raihan has lost count of the number of times when he’s been stopped by the police and asked for an ID card.

“Are we not Indians? Why are we the only ones who have to prove our identity? Do Malayalee labourers working in other parts of the country get treated like this? It is as if these people can do anything with us and still get away. Raiding our camps on the pretext of investigating a crime is an all too common sight here.”

Raihan acknowledges that crimes involving migrant labourers do take place. But he points out that the crime rate has drastically increased in the state in the past decade and to single out one community is unacceptable. In fact, according to the latest National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) figures comparing incidents of crime with the population of a state, Kerala is the state most affected by crime and Kochi the most dangerous city. Figures compiled till 2010 show that Kerala has a crime rate (number of reported crime per 100,000 residents) of 424.1, more than double the national average of 187.6.

“Are all the crimes in Kerala committed by us?” asks Raihan. “You must remember that there are a lot of migrant labourers in this state. Almost 20 lakh to 30 lakh already and every week thousands more are coming. It is only natural that there will be crimes in a society as large as that. But citing those singular incidents as evidence of a criminalised society is a worrying trend. Are we responsible for all the crime in Kerala?”

His roommate Najimuddin echoes this feeling: “We know we are treated with suspicion, but what can we do if there are a couple of miscreants? Every time we come across suspicious circumstances we inform the police. Recently we suspected that a drug dealer had sneaked in among us. Upon informing the police, this person was caught with brown sugar in his bag.”

Shabir’s response is categorical. “When there are so many people it is easy for Maoists and terrorists to sneak through. But we never protect them.”

Raihan’s worries had already turned real in an earlier incident at a labour camp in Alappuzha district when a mob of incensed locals vandalised the living space of the labourers. Around 25 labourers were hospitalised in the assault, provoked by a mobile phone stolen from a nearby shop.

Without even the flimsiest evidence, they branded one of the labourers as a thief and then attacked the community on that pretext. The phone was never found, the investigation did not proceed any further, and no case was registered against the mob that indulged in destruction.

In a similar incident, a labour camp in Kottayam district was smashed on the pretext of protesting against three truckloads of food waste the labourers allegedly dumped on a public road. The incident is said to be a consequence of a long-standing feud between two labour contractors, though the official investigation promptly blamed the labourers.

As the evening’s dusty yellow settles over Gandhi Bazar, Raihan shuts his shop. He buys a bundle of his favourite Bengali beedis, exchanges pleasantries and small talk with a couple of older labourers, and lighting the beedi walks to the shop selling mobile phones and recharge coupons.

(Almost all local shop owners testify that the migrant labourer community is the pillar of the region’s economy. “They spend a lot of money here itself unlike the Tamil labourers of old. They cannot live without mobile phones and Hans (A beedi brand),” says Hamid, a shop owner.)

Raihan recharges for Rs999. “I have a lover back home”, he giggles, “and I love to talk anyway.”

On his way back home, he stops at SBI ATM and withdraws Rs10,000. It is the amount he sends home every three months. “These days I use the bank. I have an account. Earlier, I sent money using our own networks.” The networks he refers to are a group of people among the labourers themselves who do transfers for a commission of hundred per thousand rupees. “In Kerala you have this thing called blade companies, no? These are things that come up in every society; not just ours.”

“There are complaints that workers from other states go on a rampage in Gandhi Bazar complex near Kolancheri junction at Perumbavoor town. This complex has become a place where workers from the town and nearby areas come on Sundays and in the evenings. There are some fifty shops in the complex. The shop owners have complained to the authorities regarding the problems created by other-state workers, but to no avail. There are complaints that liquor and drugs are sold here under the cover of pavement trade. Another complaint is that these workers urinate and defecate in these premises. The Gandhi Bazar merchant’s society has demanded that the authorities take steps to resolve the problem.” 
Mathrubhumi, February 1, 2010  

Raihan prefers to sleep early on Sundays, especially on days when business has been good. “These Sundays are the only days we are alive. I am lucky to have a market like this.” After five years he speaks Malayalam in his own unique accent that has an alluring texture of folk music. He has made friends with the locals with whom he sometimes discusses politics.

“I get to hear the news. And sometimes, when the news is about one of us, it really shatters me. Like the suicide of Bullesh Rao.”

Bullesh was 30 when he committed suicide in September, 2012. Like Raihan, he too hailed from Jalpaiguri district in Bengal, worked in the construction sector at Chengannoor. While travelling with a couple of his friends on train, he fell down and was severely injured. It was around midnight and Bullesh, body drenched in blood, went from door to door seeking help. Not a door opened. Bullesh then went into a nearby Bhajana Math and, without seeking anyone’s assistance, hanged himself.

“It could be an end that I might have too”, says Raihan. He knows that Kerala, like Bengal, is a state that has a propensity to produce martyrs merely for the sake of celebrating them.