There are some similarities in the cultural and geographical features of Kerala and Assam. Bihu is the harvesting festival in Assam like Onam in Kerala, and both symbolise peace and prosperity. The two States are almost the same size in area and population.
However, the socio-political environment of Assam vastly differs from Kerala. The problem of militancy and corruption that haunts Assam is almost absent in Kerala. There is also a striking difference between the two States’ attitudes to migrants.
The six-year-long Assam agitation that started in 1980 ignited the issue of foreign nationals from neighbouring Bangladesh and it remains a hot topic in Assam. While the Assam administration is busy preparing the National Register of Citizens (NRC) aimed at identifying foreign nationals from Bangladesh, the Kerala government is welcoming migrant workers coming to the State, mostly from Assam, West Bengal and Jharkhand to work in agriculture, construction, plantation, hospitality, etc. Persecuted for their immigrant origin in their domiciled State of Assam, the Muslim youth are getting a warm welcome in Kerala.
The Kerala government has offered many sops to the Inter-State Migrant (ISM) workers, called as guest workers. It has started some unique schemes like AAWAS Insurance scheme, Apna Ghar and Janani housing for the social security of ISM workers.
The AAWAS insurance provides life coverage of Rs 2 lakh and free medical treatment up to Rs 15,000 in the government and State’s empanelled private hospitals. Some 1.6 lakh workers have already registered under this scheme.
The Economic Survey of the Kerala State Planning Board, published in January, points out that the decadal growth rate of Kerala’s population as per the 2011 Census was 4.9%, the lowest among States. Shortage of local labour and heavy migration of skilled and semi-skilled labourers, mainly to the Gulf countries, have stimulated the demand for ISM workers.
According to official estimates, the expatriate Malayali population earns over Rs 75,000 crore annually. The remittances from overseas fuel the demand for domestic migrant workers. It is estimated that a quarter of the earnings is flowing into the home States of the guest workers, as observed in a study conducted by the Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation (GIFT) in 2013. The study revealed that there were 25 lakh ISM workers in Kerala in 2013, who annually send home around Rs 17,500 crore. This is a big figure at the time of slowdown in various sectors.
The Apna Ghar project will provide decent hostel accommodation with basic facilities like hygienic bathrooms, kitchens, piped cooking gas, cupboards and toilets at Rs 800 a month. The pilot project at Kanjikode, Palakkad, will accommodate 620 male workers, which the State government claims is the first-of-its-kind in the country. The project, spread in an area of 44,000 sft, has lawns, volleyball courts, resting spaces and CCTV system.
There are 58,000 workers in 634 tea estates in Kerala. Apart from the big estates, there are more than one lakh small tea gardens. A recent survey by the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development, published in a volume titled God’s Own Workforce, documented the presence of a large number of ISM workers from Jharkhand, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Assam and Bihar in Nedumkandam, Peerumedu, Devikulam and Udumbanchola in Idukki, Mannarkkad and Nelliyampathy in Palakkad, and Malakkappara in Thrissur.
In Munnar and nearby tea estates, Muslims from Assam easily get employment. In the 765 big tea gardens and more than one lakh small tea gardens spread across Assam, Muslim labourers hardly get jobs.
Kerala is today host to ISM migrant workers from almost all the States. The highest number of ISM comes from Bengal (20%) followed by Bihar (18%), Assam (17%) and Uttar Pradesh (15%). Around 60% of the migrant labourers are in the construction sector and the rest work in farms, hotels, restaurants, shops and manufacturing units. Even an unskilled labourer earns Rs 400-600 per day in Kerala regularly.
The Kerala government recently invited a group of journalists to the State to show its unique labour welfare projects. T P Ramakrishnan, Minister for Labour, Skills and Excise, emphasised that the Kerala government is committed to implementing pro-labour alternative policies.
As a member of the visiting group of journalists, this writer met Mohan (name changed), a youth of Mishing tribe of Assam who hails from Majuli, the constituency of Assam Chief Minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, working in a fish selling outlet at Changanassery. He shared that he earned Rs 700 per day and is happy with the income while lamenting that it was difficult in Assam to get regular work and decent wages.
A group of migrant Muslim workers from Assam, working in the construction sector in Kerala, say the BJP-led Assam Government evicted them from the government land, where they were living for the last 25 years.
They are harassed in their own State for being ancestors of Muslim who migrated from erstwhile East Pakistan. Their ration card, driving licence and certificates issued by the Panchayats are not accepted as valid identity. The stamp of Doubtful Voter has been marked on these Muslims depriving them of voting rights.
On the other hand, the Kerala government has opened many migrant workers registration centres, named Shramik Bandhu. Any document, be it school certificate, Aadhaar card, PAN, ration card issued by the government of the migrant workers’ origin State is accepted.
Relatively high wages, sustainable jobs, peaceful social environment and less discrimination, besides access to free healthcare, education, housing, and socio-economic mobility, are attracting migrant workers to Kerala, who are fast becoming an important stakeholder in Kerala’s development.
(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)