North-South Divide Deepens, Migrants Feel The Heat
Fake news and trolls add to the chaos
Every morning, at around six am, Sunita, a mother of two, arrives at the new construction site in Ponmar, on the outskirts of Chennai, with her children. Tying the traditional jhula to an almond tree, she puts her newborn to sleep, while the toddler settles down in the shade of the tree. Her husband is among the group of men working at the site, and they had arrived here with their families from Assam about four months ago. Labouring in the scorching Chennai heat, their struggle to earn a dignified life is unfortunate, to say the least.
Meanwhile, members of a residential colony, just next to the construction site, have suddenly become more cautious. One woman in her 30s was heard yelling at her seven-year-old daughter for stepping outside to play. When I approached her and asked what happened, she spoke of how she was afraid to send her daughter outside lately, because of all the 'north-Indians' around. She cautioned me on keeping my kids safe too. Apparently, there have been some thefts in the society and everyone suspects the construction workers, “the north-Indians”.
Recent surveys did indicate that migrants were happy and felt welcome in Tamil Nadu. The videos alleging attacks on migrants that went viral were proved fake. The men behind it have been arrested. But for someone who's lived in the state all their life, it is quite evident that resentful attitudes towards migrants are gradually brewing, thanks to politicians and their hate speeches, and fake news such as the recent videos, being spread through social media.
For instance, there are increasingly more conversations by locals about how north Indians are taking over their jobs. Ironically, these conversations are by people who have well-paying jobs and are happy. Obviously, the anti-migrant sentiment founded on the assumption that their jobs are being stolen has little truth to it.
However, according to Ashik Bonofer, a political science professor, there is the fear that since migrants are everywhere now, in the future, they're going to run the show, they're going to change the demographics. He said, "Politicians create this narrative too because they need to show that they are concerned about the people. Are they really going to take away our jobs? No! The problem is that the cost of labour is going up in Tamil Nadu. If you're a local, you obviously need to provide for the family too, pay for the house and other needs. But for migrant workers, their survival needs are very minimal. They don't mind staying in thatched houses.”
Kamal Raj, a social worker who has worked extensively with migrant labourers also said, “locals refuse to work for low wages, which is why the jobs are given to migrants.”
Over 70% of the labourers in MSMEs, hotels, restaurants and construction companies in Tamil Nadu are migrant labourers. However, Duraiswamy, a professor of Economics at SRM University said that nobody is actually stealing jobs, nor is it true that young locals are not willing to do jobs that migrant labourers are willing to do. “The truth is that they just have other jobs available,” he said.
He explains further, “in the last 50 years, the kind of educational attainment by Tamilians and their achievement is enormous compared to the rest of India. If you take the entire workforce, the top 20 percent of the population have got more skill and education and are fit for any job in the country or outside. Because of that, a lot of money comes into Tamil Nadu.
“In the last ten years, after a mushrooming of engineering colleges, there has been a saturation point. Although everyone has an education, the composition of employability is different. In Rajasthan or UP, people still depend on the agricultural sector. The sector cannot accommodate that many people as their birth rate is high too. That's not the same case in Tamil Nadu. Here we have several agro-based industries too.”
However, he does agree that sentiments towards migrant labourers are changing. That, in his opinion, is because of how the composition of places we have grown up in has changed. He said, “I recently went to my native place in Palani. In the evening, I saw hundreds of north Indians shopping. It really looked like a north Indian village. I felt there was a structural shift.
“I thought to myself, are we allowing more people in? But I also realised that if these people go back, we will lose so much production that we can't even feed our people. Migrant labourers are not only essential for our production to keep going, they also contribute to the economy by buying rice, buying from our businesses, etc. If they earn Rs 100, they might send Rs 20 home, remaining Rs 80, they spend here.”
Speaking about how migrants have integrated with society, Kamal said, “they have integrated well on the basis of legal entitlements, they have their Aadhaar here, Voter ID, Ration Card, their children are studying here for free in government schools, they are using our healthcare system for almost free, but on the basis of social integration, they are still far away.”
Kamal added, “the locals have never bothered about the background of the migrant workers, the socio-economic status of the migrant workers, the discrimination the migrant labourers face and the inconsistency in wages. But suddenly in the last month, their absence brought panic to the corporates/business owners.”
He added that although there are elements of ostracising and discrimination that continue, there has been a huge effort by the government of Tamil Nadu by dispelling misinformation, ensuring safety and providing helpline numbers.
Duraiswamy also agreed, “the political dimension to this whole issue is very clear. Definitely, the people who don't want a peaceful rule by the ruling party are creating these problems. It has become very easy now because of social media. But the government has been handling the whole issue very well.”
Meanwhile, the whole north-south conflict centred around language has also spread to neighbouring states. Another video went viral recently of an auto driver in Karnataka lashing out at a Hindi-speaking woman, asking her to speak in Kannada. It was later found that the woman had first asked the auto driver to speak in Hindi, triggering his angry response.
Duraiswamy explained why language is central to this whole controversy. “The political ideology of Tamil Nadu and the rest of India is very different. The politics here is structured around language. Over the period of time, the neighbouring states also, some of the parties that want to mobilise the crowd started using language as a tool.
“Earlier, when the central government first imposed Hindi and made it a mandatory subject in schools, that was the starting point. Everybody opposed it, the consolidation happened and the Dravidian parties emerged. That is the binding force of the parties with the people.
“People are developing these sentiments against migrants not because they're worried about their jobs, but because they're afraid of losing their identity, whether we'll start having more Hindi movies in theatres, whether more north Indian food would be served in restaurants, etc. Nobody is bothered if migrant labourers work here and go back.
“But when they are allowed to buy land here, it might become a problem. That's what happened with the Marwadis who came here and became big businessmen and started buying land. If it keeps happening, then you will lose the identity of Tamil Nadu and the language will be disturbed. I think that's what bothers people.”
Speaking about the imposition of Hindi on locals, Kamal said, “the migrant labourers never really demanded that the locals should speak in Hindi. That's not true. But it is true that the white collar workers (especially CSIF) keep demanding that Tamilians speak in Hindi.
“On the other hand, some locals prefer the labourers to speak in Tamil, but in my opinion, they have never demanded them to speak. Mostly because their work doesn't require language skills.”
The survey being undertaken by the Tamil Nadu government is a step in the right direction. District administrations have been ordered to door to door surveys and get exact data of migrant workers and proper assessment of their working conditions. The government is also making efforts to curb the spread of fake news.