An afternoon with the wanderers (migrant workers)

Curious faces greeted us as we climbed the little uneven path leading to their tin sheet huts. A group of women and children sitting outside the huts under the shade of the tin roofs stopped their banter to stare at us. Confident that they knew Hindi, I approach the women “namste ji, aap kanha se hai?” Blank look, then a giggle. Two men sitting inside the hut eating lunch calmly answer “hindi nahi, telengu”.

Braving the scorching heat one Sunday afternoon, three of us-a Bengali, a bihari and a telegu went to meet some workers at a government project site across the Adyar River in Chennai. Being a Sunday we knew that the workers may have some free time and the ‘sahebs’ will not be around.

Making ourselves comfortable on the tin board where women were sitting and combing each other’s hair, we started talking. “We are researching on migrant workers, can we speak with you?” “What do you want to know?” asked the man from inside. “About you, where are you from, why did you come to Chennai?”

A slightly older man sitting outside with the women quipped “we are all family”. Part of an extended family from Srikakulam district in the northeastern side of Andhra Pradesh, these seven families have been migrating for last seven years to Chennai. There are about 20 people including women and children. Children usually stay back in the village with the elderly and join the parents when their school closes for summer. “We don’t have land. We work as agricultural labourers in someone else’s farm. Farming is only for 3-4 months. After Shankranti (in January) we come to the city to work at construction sites for 7-8 months,” said the old man.

The migration network is almost same as any other. The local maistri (a skilled worker) from the same or the neighbouring village, who also is a thekedar, sources around for work in the city. Depending on what job he manages to get, he brings the workers from the village accordingly. In this case members of the same families who have been working for him for a few years now. The maistri keeps a muster roll of work. Women get paid Rs 200 and men Rs 300 per day respectively. The usual working hour is 8 am-6 pm. There is also shift work but usually the families are not asked to work night shift. There is a clear division of labour between the genders.

So do you like it here, the work? I ask the women. A little silence and then ‘yes’. But a few seconds later ‘there is no choice, there is no work at home’. ‘It’s alright here, but there is no privacy, even for bathing or changing clothes. No toilets, no bathrooms, only these tin sheds.” I went inside one. It looked liked those temporary barracks that army makes. Three 10×10 ft cubicles separated by tin sheets under one shed. I enter a cubicle with a young girl. Spartan! There is not much material possession to clutter it with anyway. Photo of a goddess at the corner, a few cooking vessels and plates, a shirt hanging from the edge of the tin sheet and two cloth bags. And oh yes, a transistor, a mirror, a comb, few red ribbons and a bottle of coconut hair oil. That’s it! A complete household. The cubicle is shared by five members of a family.

As we finish talking to the families, one amongst us is already standing outside chatting with a few men. They are not part of this labour gang. They are skilled workers from Orissa and North Bengal.

A smartly turned up 30 something young man in red t-shirt and blue jeans comes towards us as we join the men. A ready friendly smile and quite chatty. “I am lakshmi. I am from Koochbehar (north Bengal). I started coming out for work almost seven years back. We have land in the village about 5-10 bighas, but it does not pay. The thekedars from my village brought me out.” Lakshmi explained the labour hierarchy and the pay in the job that he does. “So we have bar benders and then there is a fitter, who gets Rs 230/day, and a helper who gets Rs 200/day.” Lakshmi had started out as a helper, moved up to become a bar bender and now is a foreman with a salary of Rs 12,000/month. He is in-charge of 10-12 workers who do the bar bending job.

“It’s alright here, but we need to go back home after 3-4 months. We can’t stay here for too long. We miss home, miss our families, food, we also have land at home…” lamented Lakshmi. But then they can’t leave if the replacement from the village does not arrive. It’s like a cycle. Workers have to be replaced with new sets of workers everytime someone goes home. Which is usually in groups. “A thekedar has gone to his village for his sister’s marriage. When he comes back, he will bring 10-12 men with him, then we can go to our village,” said another man, who has been a cook for past 8 years with the same contractor and has been working for Rs 5000/month.

We meet three men from Orissa. One of them a 23 year old young man from Balasore. Had left home when he was 19 years old. Does not like going back home unless there is some emergency and father needs extra hands in farming. He gets Rs 220/day and saves upto Rs 4-5000 a month after paying for food and other expenses. Had worked in Bangalore, then Kerala and now is in Chennai.

Uday Kumar, a 27 year old from Bhadrak district moved out of home when he was 16. “I went to Kolkata when I was 16 to work in a factory. My brother was a contractor in that factory. When I was 19, I came to Tamil Nadu and started working as a helper at construction sites. My friend is a contractor in VNC* and since then I have been working with the same contractor. I started with Rs 60/day and now I get Rs 350 as a senior carpenter.” Uday Kumar’s family has 20-25 acres of land and 20 buffaloes.

Walking back home that evening, I was wondering about the different sets of people who migrate. The families from Andhra, landless and dispossessed, and the men from Koochbehar and Orissa, landed and with material possession. Why such a contrast? While one can understand hunger and poverty driven migrations, but it’s the other that is a bit puzzling. Young men from seemingly well to do families leaving homes to work at construction sites in faraway places. What aspirations and hopes brings them to these big cities, and do they get fulfilled? There is more to their stories than what we got that day one Sunday afternoon.

*Details of the construction project: It’s a Rs 9 crore worth Highways department (Govt.) project sanction in 2005, implemented by Chennai Metropolitan Development Plan Circle. The project is to construct a three lane bridge adjacent to the existing ‘Thiru-vi-ka’ bridge across Adyar River. The contract for construction work has been awarded to M/S Vijay Nirman Company (Pvt) Ltd (VNC). A RTI request to the Highways Dept. revealed that the principal employer (Chennai Metropolitan Development Plan, Highways Dept.) has no knowledge about the workers at the construction site and referred the application to the private contractor, who under RTI has no obliged to provide information to the applicant.

Madhumita Dutta, 21/6/2012

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