Kerala: Migrant workers say they want food, ask to be taken back home

Shaju Philip
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DEFYING THE lockdown, hundreds of migrant workers, many of them from West Bengal, stormed the streets of Paipad in Kerala’s Kottayam district, demanding food and that they be taken back to their home villages.

Around 11 am, the workers turned out in huge numbers and blocked a road in Paipad. But by afternoon, after the government assured them of regular food supplies, the protesters returned to their camps.

A social worker, who works among migrants at Paipad and who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the protesting workers wanted to be taken back to their villages. “They had been getting restless. camping in their cramped rooms and watching videos on their mobile phones about migrants in Delhi and elsewhere walking back home. So today afternoon, some of them trooped into the streets demanding that they be taken back to Murshidabad,” he said.

The state government had on Friday directed all local self-governing bodies to launch community kitchens for destitutes, the indisposed etc. The government had also directed contractors who employ migrant workers or house owners who give out their homes on rent to migrant workers to ensure food and shelter for them. The social worker, however, said that several migrant workers had complained about not having enough to eat.

Paipad panchayat member Thomas Varghese said that at a meeting on Saturday, all house owners who lodged migrant workers or those who employed them had agreed to provide the workers food until April 14. “But today was the first day after the meeting and not all house owners ensured food for the migrants as per yesterday’s resolution. That might have triggered the protest. We have around 4,000 migrants living in the panchayat. Hence, the local governing body cannot take responsibility for providing food for all of them. Community kitchens are not meant for them (the migrants),’’ he said.

Panchayat vice-president Teena Mol said while the panchayat has been supplying cooked food through its community kitchens, they can’t possibly reach everyone. “At present, around 4,000 migrants are camping in the panchayat area and we have been supplying food from the community kitchen to around 300 people. It is the also the responsibility of the house owners or those employing the migrant workers to ensure that they get food during the lockdown. Two days ago, we had visited the migrant camps and ensured that they have enough supply,” she said.

In a statement, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan called the Paipad incident “unfortunate” and blamed “forces out to create trouble”.

“Kerala is a state that has at every step displayed the highest regard for its guest workers. 1.70 lakh guest workers are now lodged in 5,000 camps across Kerala. If there are shortcomings, collectors have been directed to address those. There are indications that certain forces, who are out to create social unrest, are behind the workers’ spilling out into the streets. Such conspirators will be exposed through a probe,” he said.

State Civil Supplies Minister P Thilothamman too alleged the migrants had been instigated. “Food is not their problem. They want to go back to their home state. Certain quarters have instigated them to raise that demand. We have asked police to look into whether there is any conspiracy behind the incident,’’ he said.

Paipad village panchayat, a major hub of migrant workers in Kottayam district, has around 10,000 of them, but many of them returned home before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the 21-day lockdown.

Kottayam District Collector K P Sudhir Babu said, “We told them they will not face any difficulty in food and lodging. They said they don’t want cooked food from the community kitchen. So we have ensured supply of provisions, including atta. But we can’t take them to their home state at this juncture. They had the impression that they can go back home or they would be taken home. That demand is against lockdown norms.’’

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