Written by Bernard D’ Sami
The Tamil Nadu government was quick to respond to the reports that migrant workers had started to flee the state following rumours that labourers from other parts of the country, particularly Bihar, were being attacked. Chief Minister M K Stalin issued a public statement commending the migrant workers for their contribution to Tamil Nadu and assuring them of protection.
Neighbouring Kerala too receives migrant workers. The state has been proactive in initiating social welfare schemes for them. Kerala has an estimated 3.5 million inter-state migrants, according to a study commissioned by the Department of Labour and Skills (DOLS). A study by the Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation (GIFT), Thiruvananthapuram, says the state adds, on average, 1.8 lakh migrant workers annually.
While Tamil Nadu uses the term “migrant workers”, Kerala calls them “guest workers” and “replacement workers”. Kerala is aware that its own workers prefer the Gulf, where they make more money than they could have made in their own home state. The state has identified the corridors of migration. Traditionally, Kerala has received migrant workers from neighbouring Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Of late, migrant workers have been arriving from UP, Jharkhand, Odisha, Bihar, West Bengal, and Assam.
Kerala is a pioneer in instituting social welfare programmes for migrant workers. The state constituted a working group on labour migration under its 13th five-year plan (2017-2022). The fourth Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) evaluated the implementation of welfare schemes for migrant workers. The education department has launched an inclusive programme for the education of children of migrant workers. One of the goals of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) is to make the children study in their mother tongue. Volunteers have been roped in to teach children of migrant workers.
In Tamil Nadu, too, in the districts of Thiruvallur and Kanchipuram, government schools admit children of migrant labour. For children whose mother tongue is Odiya, education volunteers were arranged by the Odisha government. Hindi books were brought from states such as Madhya Pradesh.
In Kerala, the Kudumbashree initiative for women’s empowerment and poverty eradication included migrant workers from other states. During the lockdown imposed to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, the Kerala government ran more than 15,000 relief camps for migrant workers. Community kitchens in panchayats ensured no migrant worker went hungry.
The Department of Health and Family Welfare, through the National Health Mission (NHM), introduced “link workers” in 2020 to enhance access to healthcare for migrant families. Leaders identified among these workers were trained to provide information about the state’s healthcare services. The social justice department has set up mobile crèches for children of migrant workers at their places of work and construction sites.
The Department of Labour and Skills (DOLS) of the Kerala government launched three “worker facilitation centres”, one each in south, central and north Kerala. The state has also launched its own Interstate Migrant Workers Welfare Scheme (ISMWWS-2010), which includes insurance and housing programmes.
There are, however, shortcomings. Migrant workers are not generally included in the state’s trade unions. Though the state claims that the workers have collective bargaining power, there are reports of them being left out of the welfare schemes. That said, Kerala has never been anti-migrant. The fact that a large number of people from Kerala leave the state for work, perhaps, leads to empathy for migrants.
Tamil Nadu too has over 2.2 million emigrant workers; many of them work in Singapore and the Gulf countries. More than a million Tamils are working in other states, according to a 2015 Tamil Nadu Migration Survey. It is important, therefore, that the state respects migrant workers and treats them well.
The writer is Senior Fellow, Loyola Institute of Social Science
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