Why Kerala Should Change its Attitude Towards Migrant Workers

Jokingly, it is said that in the Gulf countries you don’t need to know Arabic anymore, because half the Kerala seems to be working there. Malayalam has gained a mass language appeal in Middle East. On the other hand, in Kerala you don’t need Malayalam, because Kerala is today populated by migrant workers from East India. Considering the discourses, it is evident that migrant workers are a large portion of people in the state today. A survey suggests that there around 2.5 million migrant workers today in the state.

While on a bus stuck in traffic today, I witnessed a rather mortifying incident where a migrant worker was being verbally abused by a man, who seemed to be the owner of the restaurant, in front of which the drama was happening.  He was being shooed away and when he seemed linger for long in front this establishment, the other man went inside and took a long umbrella to chase him away. Then I saw something which I have never seen, at least not in public; the guy was crying. He wiped tears and still not willing to go away, stood in front of the restaurant. By this time the traffic cleared and my bus left the place. To my shame, I didn’t do anything.

Today I was going out to discover the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram and ironically what I discovered was another face of our people; The Malayali’s attitude towards people from other states. Is Kerala a ‘God’s own country’ only for the foreign tourists who come here to spend money on houseboats, beaches and backwaters? Do we necessarily have to change it to an ungodly country to the poor immigrants?

One of the explanations provided by the police in the Jisha murder case was that, the accused, Amiyul Islam from Assam, was beaten with a chappal by a woman in the neighborhood. This was witnessed by Jisha, who laughed at this scene. According to the sources, the man later committed the heinous crime as revenge against this treatment. I am not in any way supporting the culprit (of course, culprit deserves severe punishment!), but there is a small issue that seems to go unnoticed. Why is a migrant worker being beaten with a chappal in the first place? In whatever way you look at the issue, beating someone with a chappal, is traditionally, highly degrading and humiliating. We have a very good police system in our state which can address any disturbances in any locality. There is absolutely no need for ‘beating someone with a chappal’, when a complaint to the police would solve issues, if any.

Many years back, when I was still the person who read newspapers, the third page of the Hindu newspaper in its Trivandrum edition would usually have a ‘migrant worker found dead’ headline. Most of these workers being employed in construction sites, many of them meet with fatal accidents during their working hours. Even after the working hours, a large portion of these workers stay in these sites since they lack any accommodation elsewhere. For the construction company a loss of a worker is not an issue, as a replacement can be found easily. There is a large of number migrants trying to find employment in the cities of Kerala. However, for the family of the deceased back in the villages, the death of its main bread winner heralds the end of their mode of subsistence. Migration is a consequence of this abject poverty that prevails in our country. Not only in East India, but a very large portion of rural India is being developed by the remittance sent by these migrants.

When my home was being built three years back, the workers used to stay here. In fact, the first resident of my room wasn’t me, but a group of Bengali youngsters. I remember how I used to visit the site while still under construction. There would a bag of vegetables lying in the corner, two bricks that act as a stove for cooking food and some twigs and dried coconut leaves for fuel.

Most of the immigrants are young, usually under the age of 30. Hailing from very poor living conditions in rural East India, they aren’t educated nor are they literate. Also they do not know the local language, Malayalam. These people do not have any unions or associations. They also don’t have leaders to guide them, be it from Bengal or Kerala. Living like aliens, these people are unaware of a lot of their rights. Thus the migrant workers are a mass of people living alongside Malayalees without any organization.

Now with the Jisha murder case, it seems as if Keralites have a found a new excuse to its treatment of the migrant workers. Labelling these people as rapists and criminals is no different from those countries in the West where “Muslims are terrorists”. We cannot close our borders to prevent this employment induced immigration, for these people are not foreigners, but our brethren who shares the same nation, law and identity.

I have heard many people saying ‘we need a solution to this migration’. What I feel here is that, we don’t need a ‘solution’ because nowhere in history was migration a ‘problem’. The entire nation of America was at some point in time, a horde of immigrants. What more do we need than the fact that the emigrating Keralites are the ones who contributed a large extent to the development of the cities in the Middle East? Migrants are not half humans (like how slaves where forced to believe) who are incapable of any emotions. They are the people who leave their home and family for sustenance. Given that they are already under emotional trauma of going from the known to the unknown, we ought to be more considerate.

Barring the ‘solution’, we need ‘improvements’. The government should keep a registry of migrants currently in the state. We could also initiate a ‘migrant ID’, in case of any emergencies.  We could look for feasible methods to provide some sort of training for these people to cope with the conditions in Kerala.  Legislation preventing the migrants staying in construction sites could also be thought of, considering that these locations do not have even the basic amenities like toilet and drinking water. The construction companies should mandatorily provide for their accommodation. The safety of the workers should also be ensured by the construction companies. And the most crucial change should come from us, that the migrants are not some pests invading the state, rather they are citizens of India who have rights that should be safeguarded. More importantly, they are humans who are not to be treated with verbal harassment, umbrellas and chappals. It is high time that we change our perception and attitude towards the migrant workers, especially considering the Jisha murder case, where the accused was an East Indian, which will further deteriorate the treatment of these people.

To a more personal domain, the idea of migrants as criminals has already been sedimented into the hearts of our population. It is almost every day that my mother tells me “Always keep the doors locked, our neighborhood has many migrant workers”.  It is true that our neighborhood has two new houses being constructed, and most workers are from Bengal. I don’t know how to respond to this, whether I should say “Amma, let’s not be prejudiced reducing all migrants as evil”, because the tone with which she speaks implies her fears. However, being a hardcore optimist, I really believe that we don’t have to live with such fears, if we treat them with respect and concern. Yes, we need to respect them because they are the reason why we have a roof above our heads today.



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