A day after Uttar Pradesh government sent dozens of buses to transport migrant workers from Delhi to their hometowns, migrant workers in Kerala defied the Coronavirus lockdown to hold a massive protest in Payippad in Changanassery in Kerala.
Hundreds of outstation workers belonging to states like Assam, West Bengal, Orissa and nearby regions came out en-masse demanding transportation back to their states.
The protest was organized at around 12 noon.
Kottayam Collector Sudheer Babu led negotiations with the migrant workers using Bengali-speaking interpreters, and managed to convince them to go back to their rooms.
UPDATE: Investigations indicate that the migrant workers were instigated to protest by their contractors and employers. According to local inputs, the contractors and employers of these workers had been directed to “take care” of the employees even during the lockdown, including make sure they have accommodation and food. Contractors and employers, however, resented this, and told the workers that a protest would result in the government arranging transportation back to their hometowns. Local authorities are probing the matter further and are likely to take further action.
Sudheer Babu said the migrant workers seemed to be under the impression that state governments are arranging for transportation for workers back to their home states.
Out of an estimated population of around 3.5 crore in Kerala, 30-40 lakhs are estimated to be workers from other states, though their numbers are estimated to have fallen to 10 lakhs or below at present.
Bengali-speakers from Assam, Orissa and West Bengal make up around 75% of the outstation workers in Kerala, while Hindi-speakers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh contribute the remaining.
Sudheer Babu said it is absolutely impossible to arrange transportation for these workers as demanded by them.
The district magistrate said the protesters have only one demand — to be allowed to go back home.
“According to my understanding, they got to hear that state governments are arranging transport for migrant workers,” he said. “But transporting so many people is against the norms of the lockdown.”
TV channels had shown how Uttar Pradesh government had, on Friday, arranged for dozens of buses to transport migrant workers in Delhi back to their hometowns, despite it being against the lockdown norms of the central government.
Sudheer Babu also denied any failure on the part of the district and Panchayat administration to provide either food or accommodation to these workers.
“We have arranged for accommodation for up to a thousand people if needed, but they are saying that they prefer to stay in their rooms,” he said.
He also said he had asked the workers if they wanted cooked meals in a meeting held two years ago.
“They said that they don’t want Kerala food and would prefer to cook their own. So we’re giving them provisions. Also, since they don’t want rice, we are procuring wheat flour for distribution,” he said.
“I know who has instigated this. We’ll take care of that when the time comes,” he said, without going into details.
Changanassery MLA CF Thomas said the workers were planning to go back by train, but the events in recent days disrupted the plans.
“Normally, there are about 9,500 out-of-state workers in this village Panchayat, but due to the Coronavirus situation, most of them left. The remaining ones too had mostly booked their tickets, when the trains were cancelled as part of the lockdown,” he said.
Outstation workers, who are employed in various industries and establishments in Kerala, mostly live in rooms with shared toilets above shops and commercial establishments.
Among the several MLAs and government officials who reached the spot was agriculture minister VS Sunilkumar.
“These workers have been brought here by [labor] contractors and employers and it is also their responsibility to make sure that they are made aware of the situation and abide by the lockdown guidelines. If there is any disruption or disorder, we will take action against these employers also,” he warned.
Labor contractors and business owners in Kerala prefer to employ outstation workers as they work for less pay compared to local workers.
Many of these outstation workers are given temporary accommodation by contractors and employers at the work-site itself, often in under-construction buildings and factories.
“Even in cases where employers wash their hands off, the government is giving them shelter. However, we will take action against the employers, while we will offer full protection to the workers,” he added.
“We have enough accommodation, food and medicines for all these workers. We will arrange transportation back to their hometowns as soon as the lockdown is withdrawn,” he added.