For migrant workers in Chennai, second COVID wave brings déjà vu

Migrant workers in Chennai have been leaving the city in large numbers again, since lockdown was imposed in early May. Has nothing changed since last year's migrant crisis?

Vandhaarai Vaazhavaikum Thamizhagam ( Tamil Nadu is a land that provides livelihood to those who arrive here) has been an old adage about the state. A state welcoming migrants from all over the country and the world. Susheel Kumar of Deogarh in Jharkhand may not agree, though. Susheel, one of the many migrant workers in Chennai, has been in the city since 2017. With the fierce onslaught of COVID in the second wave and the resulting lockdown, the Alandur manufacturing unit where he worked shut down.

“I am leaving as I have no income here now. I have been doing odd jobs to survive. The factory where I used to work is closed. Thankfully, I have enough money with me to get back home now. I am also scared about contracting the virus. Even if I do, I would like to be near my family,” said Susheel when we spoke to him.

This was to be Susheel’s second journey in as many years. Last year, in the wake of the first nationwide lockdown, he had returned home on the Shramik Express train that the government had introduced after widespread furore over the harrowing journeys on foot by thousands of helpless and penniless migrant workers across cities. But soon after the lockdown was lifted, he returned to Chennai in search of employment.

Like many other migrant workers in Chennai, Susheel was also employed on contract at a weekly pay of Rs 3000 in the Alandur factory, but without any other benefits. After the unit shut down in early May 2021, he managed to get by for a few weeks, but with the situation showing little signs of improvement, he decided to go back to his family. He gets regular updates from them over phone about the situation in his hometown of Gauripur. So far, none of his close family members have been affected. He says he prays every day that they continue to remain safe, especially because the family is too poor to be able to afford any expensive medical care. 

Susheel (second from left) along with other migrant workers on board the train. Pic: Susheel Kumar

However, Susheel knows he has to return some day. Without his income, it would be difficult for his family of five to get by. His aged parents also live with his wife and two sons. He hopes that the situation will improve enough for him to return soon, so that he can start earning again and educate his sons.

Susheel Kumar’s story is similar to that of many other migrant workers in Chennai. The first wave and sudden lockdown had caught them unawares. Many walked on foot for thousands of kilometres to reach their homes in Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and other states in the northern part of the country. The scale and manner of the exodus was hitherto unheard of.

NGOs and Good Samaritans came together to arrange for food and travel for the workers and made the journey bearable for some of them. But the ordeal only eased significantly after the launch of the Shramik Express trains by the government. Those who stayed behind during the lockdown were left without any source of income and had to rely on the support of the government and various NGOs.

Now, with the onset of the second wave and fresh restrictions, the city finds migrants leaving again in large numbers. With many industries shut, jobs unavailable and anxiety about their safety and that of their families thousands of kilometres away, they fear a repeat of what occurred last year. Even before the lockdown was imposed, one could see queues outside DR MGR Chennai Central Railway Station, where workers waited their turn to get tickets.

Read more: Comment: COVID-19 aside, migrant crisis in city has exposed the huge gaps in governance

Guest workers leaving the city are also fearful of the virus and worried about their safety. “When I see long lines of ambulances here at the hospital near the station, I am worried. I do not have anyone here to take care of me if I fall sick. My wife, son and daughter depend on me. So I would like to go home and come back later when I can. We have lost my uncle to COVID already. My parents are also old, so I would like to see them,” says Saifuddin Khan from Balrampur in Uttar Pradesh.

No alternatives for some

While many have chosen to leave the city, some workers like Gokula Krishna are staying back for financial reasons. Gokula moved to Chennai in search of work from Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh and landed a construction job only early this year. He stays in one of the makeshift tents on the site along with eight other workers. They cook food with the dry rations provided by the builders.

“Since large construction is allowed, we are continuing work during the lockdown. I am not going home as I really need this job for my family of six back home. We did not have any work for most of last year. The health situation in Anantapur is not as bad and I miss my family. But this is the best decision I can take now,” says Gokula.

The fear of COVID does bother him though. “I do feel anxious about catching the virus. But the job is more important, so I try not to think about it and carry on with my day. I hope things get better soon.”

Site has makeshift tents for the workers to stay.

What is different this time

In what may be considered a sliver of respite, trains to the homes states of most migrant workers in Chennai are still in service. The Southern Railways runs around 17 trains each week to West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha from Chennai Central station.The guest workers who arrive at the station are being provided food and refreshments by volunteers engaged by the civic body and other NGOs.

The Southern Railways has also roped in organisations to provide food for the departing workers to help ease their journey home. The Chennai Corporation, in coordination with the railways and labour department, has set up shelters for workers whose trains do not leave for a few days or those looking to procure tickets for their departure.

Food for the onward journey is provided at the station. Pic: GMSRailways/ Twitter

“We have been waiting for half a day to get tickets,” said Rajesh Jadav, as he waited along with a group of others to secure train tickets to Uttar Pradesh. “A group of us came together to Chennai last year for construction work. We stayed on the site near Oragadam, but with the lockdown, we do not get money or support. We want to go home now to be with our families. Some of our relatives have already died from COVID-19. There is nothing here for us now,”

But Rajesh too acknowledges the arrangements made to make things easy for them. “We have received food packets from local people during the time that we’ve been waiting. This is very helpful as we do not have to worry about arranging for meals. They also told us that we can take more food prior to the journey. At least, we are not going to be hungry and thirsty, waiting in this heat,” says Rajesh.

What remains to be done

Despite these steps towards better arrangements and processes in place for their journey home, the realities of work and survival remain unchanged for migrant workers in Chennai. Workers who came to the city in search of opportunities for a better life are unsure about the move.

“I don’t know if I will be back. I came here for a living, but I have found that the city does not care about us. Neither do our employers. If it is not me, it will be someone else in my place tomorrow. We did not get any assistance during the lockdown from my employers. There was not even a phone or message asking how we will manage. I feel we are better off working in our homes than facing this treatment,” says Ankit Yadav , who worked in a foundry in Guindy.

Indeed, the state and employers have done little to ensure a better life for these workers. We do not even know how many have actually come to the city for work. There has been very slow progress in registration of workers, a fact that even the Supreme Court had highlighted.

Read more: How migrant workers at Kanathur are living through the COVID crisis

Migrant workers in Chennai who spoke to Citizen Matters were not aware that they could register with the labour department, as their employers had neither made any effort to inform them nor taken any steps towards such registration. Most workers did not own ration cards in the state and hence could not avail supplies through the PDS. But registration could have helped them secure benefits under the various labour laws, including the inter-state Migrant Workmen Act. Unfortunately, there is little effort to bring more workers under the fold of this safety net. As a result, whenever there is a crisis, workers find themselves in a precarious position.

S Velan of the Federation of Construction Workers says, “These workers are already subject to terrible working conditions and low pay. The middlemen who are involved desert them at times like this. There is only a small fraction who are registered as informal workers and the rest live without any social security or support. The pandemic has exposed this situation and heavily underlined the need for reforms.”

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