Last month, a 19 year old poultry farm worker was beaten to death by the local residents of Kovilpalayam near Pollachi in Coimbatore. He and his two other teenage co-workers from Bihar were ‘mistaken’ to be ‘thieves’. And just last weekend, in Chennai, a dishevelled, bare chested man was almost done to death in broad day light. Police and scores of bystanders watched the young man being beaten unconscious. A few even cheered and egged on the mob. Barely three days before this incident, the city witnessed killing of five men, allegedly involve in a recent spate of bank robberies in the city, in a daring mid-night ‘encounter’ with the police. All these incidents, close on the heels of each other, had one thing in common—the ‘north Indian’ factor. An eyewitness to the lynching told reporters “the mob was screaming north Indian thief” as they “thrashed him” and dragged his unconscious body to the main road. The apparent ‘burglar from north India’ finally turned out to be one Venkat Rao from Andhra Pradesh. So who are these ‘north Indians’? What are they doing here?
The ‘North Indian’
Two applications filed in the Madras High Court by six advocates and residents of Velachery, the neighbourhood where the ‘encounter’ took place, describes ‘north Indians’ generally as “the workers who had landed in Tamil Nadu for working, slowly steadied their roots here and later started indulging in many crimes, many of which are dastardly and grave ones.” They further state that “offences committed by (the) north Indians in Tamil Nadu are on the rise” and that in this particular instance “group of north Indians were on a rampage….disturbing the peace and tranquillity of the state”. The applications have been filed to counter the ongoing public interest litigation in the Madras High Court challenging the recent killings.
In their malicious and mischievous intent, there is one thing that the applicants have said that is true, that they are ‘workers’. But the truth stops there.
Tamil Nadu has a fairly large inter-state migrant population, estimated to be over ten lakhs, with large concentrations around Chennai, Coimbatore, Trichy, Madurai, Hosur, Tirupur, Kanyakumari and Tirunelvelli. Hailing from Assam, Bihar, Orissa, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and even Nepal, these men come to work on private and government construction sites, in small engineering ancillary units, steel rolling mills, lathe, hosieries, foundaries, in roadside eateries as well as fancy city restaurants, as security guards and even as farmhands. While walking past a slum or even a fishing kuppam these days, one can catch a soft snatch of conversation or song in bhojpuri, hindi, bangla or oriya.
Dismayed by the derisive label of north Indian “thieves”, I wanted to find out who these “thieves” were and what their loot looked like. So I met a few young men from Bihar who had just come back from ‘duty’. They were huddled together in a small room in one such slum on Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR). A 120 sq ft room, peeling green walls, a few shirts and pants hanging from the hooks nailed to the walls, a mirror, a plastic comb, small suitcases and bags, a kerosene stove, a few cooking pots and pans, plates, tumbler and two buckets, floor mats and mobile phones! No toilet and an open bathing area.
Nothing remarkably different from the neighbour next door, who also happens to be a factory worker. Both are migrants, one interstate and the other inter-district. The only obvious difference is language. The neighbour speaks Tamil while these men speak Bhojpuri. The neighbour has a family, while these men have left their families back home.
But there is another crucial difference that makes the latter far more vulnerable—the terms and conditions under which an inter-state migrant worker consents to labour. Most of the migrant workers in the state land up through informal arrangements orchestrated by multiple contractors and sub-contractors. Munniraj, a dalit labour contractor in Hosur, has 650 Bihari workers whom he supplies to the various small scale engineering units in the industrial area. The workers, who earn anywhere between Rs 3500-4000 per month, give him 10% of their wages, which works out roughly to be Rs 2 lakhs a month. About 30,000 migrant workers from Bihar, Bengal, Orissa and Nepal work in the area. Ruing that local workers don’t want to work in the factories and prefer MNREGA work, Sampat, an office bearer of Hosur Small and Tiny Industries Association said “these migrant workers have invaded our culture, they speak in Hindi, celebrate Durga puja”. A short documentary titled ‘Finger’ made by Progressive Writer’s Forum explains why the locals would rather work in MNREGA and not in these factories. The film shows the dangerous working conditions in the factories where accidents are common place, with workers losing their fingers in pressing machines as a matter of routine. Apart from some medical treatment, not much is given by way of compensation to the injured worker.
“We don’t get any money for injuries at work. Almost every day I injure my hand in the machine, so many workers get injured”, said 21-year-old Manas from Gaya district who has been working for past six months, 12 hours a day for a salary of Rs 6000 a month in a factory that makes water pump casings in Perungudi, OMR. “Almost all the workers in my factory are from Assam and Bihar”, added Manas. His 19-year-old roommate chips in: “I came to work last year in another factory, but the work was so hard, lifting heavy loads for 12 hours a day, I fell very sick and left”.
“I left my job in a food company in Delhi 3 months back and came here. They used to make me work for 16 hours a day and paid Rs 5000. Here I have better pay for less number of hours of work. But I don’t want to stay here. I feel insecure. Police has made our lives miserable”, said Nandlal from Gaya Madhumita Dutta, Chennai based activist and researcher.who sends his family of six Rs 4000 every month. As if waiting for a cue, Manas, who had so far not said anything about the police harassment said “I am too scared to step out of the house after 7pm, the police patrol stops us and asks for ID proof, and if you don’t have one you are taken to the police station for enquiry”. After the bank robbery last month, police has been visiting the slums where large migrant working population live and asking the ‘north Indians’ to show their IDs or proof of employment. “Where will these migrant workers get any proof of employment or any ID for that matter?” asked Geeta Ramakrishnan of Unorganised Workers’ Union, “The definition of Interstate-state migrant workers in the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act itself is problematic”. It recognises only those workers who have been “recruited by or through a contractor in one state under an agreement for employment in an establishment in another state”.
In reality this would translate to most of these workers not being covered under the Act. So no questions of rights, like wages, displacement allowance, conditions of work and employment, as provisioned under the Act will apply to them. Even the 2010 Supreme Court judgment asking for registration of all construction workers in the welfare board is difficult to implement in Tamil Nadu due to two Government Orders which requires the workers to be verified by the local Village Administrative Officer. “No VAOs ever verifies a migrant construction worker”, informed Ramakrishnan. In 2009, after rapes of two children of migrant workers, a state level policy was drafted to safeguard the children of migrant workers. But it’s been gathering dust since.
The inter-state migrant is a much-reviled figure, and unjustly so. Ghettoised and insecure, and bereft of any legal or social protection, the migrant worker often becomes an easy scapegoat for an inept administration hard pressed to explain and contain social ruptures such as rise in violence or crime or disease. In such situations, the state’s kneejerk reaction is to identify an enemy, an “other” that is outside the pale of its political calculus. Often, the alien, the foreigner, in this case the “North Indian” migrant worker, is the perfect other. Indeed, recent decisions by the state, such as enumerating inter-state migrant workers and college students in Tamil Nadu “to act as deterrent against crime” bear this out. History is replete with examples of such xenophobic and repressive behaviour of state administrations. Tamil Nadu can do well by not following suit and thereby demonstrate force of character and imagination.
Madhumita Dutta, Chennai based activist and researcher.