Plenty of WhatsApp messages vilifying inter-state migrant labourers in Kerala have been doing the rounds for the past few days.
Sample this. “Migrant labourers would soon take over Kerala if they continued to arrive in Kerala in large numbers. We should keep an eye on these religious extremists.”
This one is more virulent. “Migrant labourers from West Bengal, Assam, Bihar and UP could take control of Perumbavoor town -– a hub of migrant labourers in Ernakulam district -- in less than 10 minutes. They would not allow us to flee. Our situation would become worse than that of Pandits, who fled Kashmir valley.”
The trigger for the vicious social messaging campaigns appears to be the recent protests organised by migrant labourers in Paippad in Kottayam, Perumbavoor in Ernakulam and Pattambi in Palakkad district.
Hundreds of migrant labourers had assembled at Paippad town on March 29, urging Kerala government to arrange vehicles to go back to their home states. Though government rejected their demand in the wake of the nation-wide lockdown to check the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, it offered them a compensation: free food and accommodation during the lockdown period. Labourers at Pattambi and Perumbavoor raised their voice against the poor quality of food being served in labour camps.
Activists said cyber attacks against migrant labourers were not new in Kerala. But the intensity of the vicious attacks has increased manifold during lockdown, they observed.
Benoy Peter, Executive Director of the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID), a non-profit think tank based in Perumbavoor, said the social media hatemongers are unaware of the contributions of migrant labourers to Kerala's economy.
“They are angry because the government offered many sops to migrant labourers, neglecting the natives,” he said.
Peter said the government could have handled the scenario better had it charted out a lockdown plan for migrant labourers with the support of civil society organisations.
Better late than never
Though the government acted slowly, its initiatives have actually made a difference on the ground.
The government, in association with the National Health Mission and civil society organisations, has been conducting COVID-19 screening tests among migrant labourers, apart from organising awareness classes.
As a result, no positive COVID-19 case has been reported from migrant labourer camps even 100 days after the disease was first reported in the state.
"The government initiatives are working well. But we should be very careful and ensure that there will not be any community spread. Another good thing is that migrant labourers in Kerala are relatively young and they are less susceptible to COVID-19," Peter said.
Kerala has nearly 35 lakh migrant workers, according to a 2018 report by the state government. A study by Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation, an autonomous body that provides fiscal and social policy inputs to the state government, found that the number increases by 2.35 lakh every year.
State-wise data suggested that nearly 20% of the workers came from West Bengal, 18% from Bihar, 17% from Assam and 15% from Uttar Pradesh.
They are primarily attracted by better wages and decent living conditions than in their states.
They work mainly in construction, plywood making, hospitality, fishing, laterite mining, apparel manufacturing and on plantations.
A significant number of them are from Muslim, Dalit and Adivasi communities, which is why rights activists raised alarm about the social media messages with communal undertones.
"It is high time we checked why migrant labourers in Paippad were from one religion," read one WhatsApp forward.
Researches have established the link between distress migration and the influx of Muslims, Adivasis and Dalits in Kerala.
"They are the most vulnerable sections in our society. They have no option but to migrate to overcome the economic shock. Those coming from a particular place tend to live together. It is quite natural. That is why Paippad has a huge concentration of Muslims," Peter said.
Many feel that Kerala too discriminates against migrant labourers by officially addressing them as 'guest labourers'.
They say the term has a negative connotation and it violates the fundamental right to freedom of movement and freedom to settle within the territory of India, enshrined in the Constitution.
"They should be addressed as migrant labourers. When you call them guests, you send out a message that they have to go back to their home state after completing their work. It is against the fundamental rights," Peter said.
He said the International Labour Organisation, an agency of the United Nations, has orally asked the government not to use the term. "I don't know why the government is sticking with it," he said.