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Kerala Shows the Way By Embracing Migrant Workers

By any yardstick of human and social development, Kerala is ahead of most Indian states.
 Migrant Workers

Image Courtesy: Firstpost

The excessive public preoccupation with the “Gujarat Model” and its repercussions – even if it be to emphasise that this model is anathema to India’s democracy, diversity and idea of inclusive human development – has kept the focus away from the more healthy and desirable developmental initiatives in advanced states such as Kerala.

Paradoxically, the berating of Kerala as “Somalia” – by none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi – to tar it as a ‘black’ hole bereft of any worthwhile development or progress, has actually served to arouse more interest, including abroad, in how the state is faring in terms of its economic and social policies.

By any yardstick of human and social development, Kerala is ahead of most Indian states. It provides social security to all sections of employees and workers through schemes that are superior to what obtains in most other states. Its labour policies are progressive. Minimum wages, especially, for unorganised, and even unskilled workers are higher – perhaps the highest, than in any other state. In fact, the minimum wage, which is between Rs 400 and Rs 900 – depending on the kind of low-skilled and low-value work – is two to three times what is paid under the law in many other cities and states. Healthcare and education are good, and there is no dearth of opportunities, especially, for low-end work, which pays well and is a sustainable long-term proposition. Yet, the cost of living is not high.

All these factors have made Kerala India’s most attractive destination for the lakhs of rural poor who are migrating in search of work for survival, and are looking for a place, where they can live in peace without exploitation and persecution. The migrant workers, who land up in Kerala also face relatively less prejudice, hostility and discrimination than they would elsewhere in India. In spite of the best efforts of the BJP and the RSS – ably aided by the likes of Prime Minister, BJP chief Amit Shah and UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath – there is no religious and communal polarisation in Kerala; and, women and children are not in danger of predatory sexual violence of the kind they are exposed to everyday in northern India. Therefore, it is not surprising that a majority of those, who make up Kerala’s migrant workforce, are people belonging to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and minority communities coming from as far off as Uttar Pradesh and Assam, and as near as Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

Kerala’s economy is critically dependent on migration – internal as well as external – and is in a peculiar class by itself. On the one hand, there are the nearly 30 lakh Malayalis abroad, whose remittances sustain their families at home and also the state’s economy. On the other hand, there are, on present reckoning, the 26 lakh inter-state migrant (ISM) workers in Kerala doing the low-end jobs that Malayalis are engaged in abroad, especially the Gulf and Saudi Arabia.

A study by the Ernakulam-based Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID) found that during 2016-17, there were migrants from 194 districts across 25 states and Union Territories working in Kerala. More than four-fifths of these districts belong to the eight states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Assam. The migrants included single women and girls, senior citizens and families. Murshidabad in West Bengal is one of the major sources of migration to Kerala.

The CMID research on the labour dynamics of migration showed that the main areas, from where workers come to Kerala, are also known for floods, cyclones, droughts and conflicts. The study observed: “Exceptionally high wage rates compared to the rest of India, sustained job opportunities, comparatively peaceful social environment, relatively less discriminatory treatment of workers, presence of significant others, direct trains from native states, the ease with which money can be transferred home and the penetration of mobile phones that shortened the distance from their homes were found to have influenced the migration to Kerala.”

Journalists who, as part of an Inter-state Media Study Tour, travelled recently to the ISM hubs of Thiruvananthapuram, Alappuzha, Ernakulam and Palakkad, saw that while these migrants have been accepted as an inevitable part of Kerala society, their presence poses many challenges. The media tour was to provide an idea of the government’s responses to these challenges by way of policies, strategies and schemes. Some of the schemes have been commended for being the first such in the country and, perhaps, even in SAARC.

Sree Lal, Regional Joint Labour Commissioner, told the visiting journalists in Ernakulam that construction, hospitality, plantation, iron and steel, wooden furniture, marine fishing, mining and quarrying, plywood, textile and apparel, seafood and footwear are the major sectors employing a large number of migrant workers.

From January 2018, the government has given effect to a unique health insurance scheme for migrant workers called ‘Aawaz’. Mr Lal said that this first-of-its-kind scheme in India provides the worker free medical treatment up to Rs 15,000. Their work entails arduous physical labour and they are at high risk of accidents, injuries and even death. Along with health insurance, the worker gets accident death claim coverage of Rs 2 lakh. Till end of March, nearly two lakh workers have registered in the scheme.

Another scheme of the Kerala Government, ‘Apna Ghar’ aims to provide good quality, hygienic and safe living space at affordable rent. The Apna Ghar project we saw at Kanjikode in Palakkad is a hostel for 620 migrants spread over 44,000 sq ft. Each of the 62 rooms can accommodate 10 persons and the rent is Rs 800 per month. The hostel is well provided: 32 kitchens with cooking facilities, eight mess areas, 96 toilets, four common bathrooms with showers on each floor, round-the-clock security and spaces for recreation, rest and sports. The construction seems as good as those in top educational institutions.

Project Officer Niranjan Nair said that the Apna Ghar scheme is being extended to other areas where ISM workers are concentrated. Three new schemes of about 1,000 beds each are coming up in the districts of Ernakulam, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram.

Mr Subhash TV, Director of Information & Public Relations said that studies showed Kerala to be one of the most promising destinations for migrant workers from the major states known for out-migration. Given Kerala’s labour shortage, this migration is only likely to increase, he added.

According to a 2013 study of the Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation – made available by the Department of Labour and Skills – there are over 25 lakh migrant workers in Kerala, from not only other states, but also Bangladesh and Nepal. In 2016, migrant workers were reckoned to be 40 lakh with an annual arrival rate of 2.35 lakh. By 2023, the migrant workforce could rise to 48 lakh, i.e. 15 per cent of Kerala’s population in 2011 (33 million).

Kerala’s Labour Minister T P Ramakrishnan told the visiting journalists that the ISMs called “guest workers” are “very much part of our society.” He mentioned Kerala State Literacy Mission’s “second revolution” – the Changathi scheme to teach Malayalam to these guest workers. Changathi means friend in Malayalam.

Ramakrishnan said that there is no discrimination against the guest workers and everything is being done to ease their integration in the state’s economic and social culture. The larger aim of the Changathi programme is to ensure that they do not feel alienated. By first learning to speak and then being taught to read and write in Malayalam, they would be able mingle and move about more freely with the people of the state.

He said that Kerala needed the labour in-migration and it was implementing migrant-inclusive policies and programmes. “The inclusion of migrant workers is a collective responsibility and not that of the government alone,” Mr Ramakrishnan said.

Even in Kerala, despite the government’s proactive measures for the welfare of migrants, they do experience harassment and exploitation. All sections of society in Kerala need to be made aware and sensitised that the migrant workforce is pivotal to the state’s economy; and, that a people who have benefited as migrant labour elsewhere must embrace and ensure a place for migrants in their own state.

As much as economic development, Kerala’s human development also is dependent on how quickly the migrant population is integrated, educated, empowered and enabled to attain a standard of living in keeping with the state’s present level of development. The migrants, who see their future in Kerala, may well determine Kerala’s future.

The author, an independent journalist, travelled to Kerala at the invitation of the state government’s Department of Labour and Skills

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author's personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of Newsclick.

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