What A Train Ride From Kerala To Assam Taught Me About Our Bias Against Migrant Workers

Posted on May 6, 2016

By Anamika Aami:

For representation only. Source: Flickr.

The journey from Kerala to Guwahati had always been eventful for me. This time, it was the mid-semester vacation, the train was Vivek Express and I was travelling alone for the first time. The train is usually filled with migrant labourers from Assam, Bengal, and Odisha. Whenever I get into these trains, I think about the ways in which we deal with these workers coming from afar. There is the stereotypical fear about them looting or maybe behaving badly with us.

There were many passengers who got into the train from my station. “Because of these uncultured Bengali dogs, we never get a seat,” wailed a young security personnel who got into the train. I wondered how easily we could define ourselves as cultured and them as ‘dogs’. How easily the cataloguing was done. How easily we were ‘us’ and them the ‘other’.

The sleeper coaches of these trains are usually very suffocating. Since there are just two direct trains in a week from Kerala to Guwahati, these are usually stuffed. Indian railways seem to pay very little attention to these trains. The toilets have broken doors and compartments are overstuffed. People sit on every inch possible. Somehow, I managed to get into my seat, only to find out that it was already occupied. I was the only girl in the whole compartment and it seemed a bit strange and scary with all the unfamiliar faces. I poked the guy who was sleeping there; I thought he looked like someone from north-east. He was young. I shouted at him, maybe to prove to myself and to others out there (who were sleeping) that I am brave and that they better not mess with me. He went to the upper berth where his friend was sleeping.

The next day, I woke up quite late in the morning to find almost everyone awake. The guy who I scolded the previous night and two of his friends were waiting for me to get up so that they could sit. I brushed, cleaned myself and came back. The three had already brought tea for me and that was the beginning of a friendship.

Sitting opposite my seat were three labourers from New Jaipalguri. Two young men and an old, mature looking man named Ranjo da. I got to talking with them and found out about their working conditions and salary. Most of them came from an agriculture background. They have huge debts, and Kerala offers them a much stable and better working condition than home, he told me. He was working in the construction sector. There are many contractors who bring them to Kerala in large numbers and then the process just continues. “This is the first time in two years that I am travelling back,” he said.

On the side berth was Ajmal from Assam. A middle-aged man with a long beard, he was working in the fish market in Alleppey. He works from morning till afternoon, he said, and is paid around 1000 rupees a day. And he has his own puri stand that he sets up from the evening. Although everything seems to be really good from one side, the stories they shared were quite sad. The living conditions for most of them were pathetic. Many had to live in the half-constructed buildings and diseases spread easily. They also had complaints about how the locals treat them, how they are often accused for minor thefts and how people around always give them strange looks while travelling.

Ranjo da also narrated the story of a young man from Bihar who had a serious injury and was sent back without any compensation by the company. Due to illiteracy and lack of awareness and fear of the owners they never complain. The irony here is that according to the report of National Sample Survey Organisation, Kerala is one of the states with the highest unemployment and it is to the same state that a heavy flow of other states’ labourers happens.

When I shared these ideas with a friend of mine, he countered with a question which he considered to be very relevant. Why should they complain when they are paid around 1000 rupees per day? He was unable to understand what I wanted to convey. I wasn’t merely talking about their economic status here. My question was very simple: Are they treated as human beings? Do we show compassion and consideration towards them?

It is in the same Keralite society where everyone considers themselves to be literate and sensible that a migrant labourer from Assam was lynched. It is here that migrant labourers were the first to be suspected to be the culprits behind the rape and murder of a Dalit girl. They might be guilty, but it says something about our attitude. I was too afraid to dwell on the details of such cases fearing that they might turn out to be related to my co-passenger friends. They weren’t complaining about their wage. But they had complaints about their treatment as fellow beings. Somewhere, these people reminded me of what Michael Sandel said about the market society, wherein everything is out for sale. It is more like business ruling over relations and everyone becoming commodities. Even compassion seems to be out for sale.

The journey was one of an introspection of the self. I thought of the way I was afraid on seeing them, how easily I judged them. But then, when I started talking, how the fear vanished, how the compassion came, how easily was I able to relate to them, their worries and how their tragedies became my personal tragedies. It was no more ‘them’ speaking, but ‘us’. And it was beautiful.

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