Sunday, October 30, 2011


I was walking past a construction site near my house today when I happened to hear the workers speaking among themselves. Was that Hindi I wondered? I went closer and found that it was indeed Hindi- not just  Hindi of the Bollywood variety or the Deccani that is heard South of the Vindhyas but the Bihari style Hindi of the Indo Gangetic plains!

It is not just Bihari Hindi , I have heard during the course of my morning walks security personnel  outside  palatial houses, speaking on their mobiles in Oriya and I am sure all of us in Chennai are quite familiar with sales personnel in malls who are of North east Indian origin.

So, my question is- Why  so many migrant workers ? What happened to the local workforce? I mean we are not like the oil rich middle eastern countries where the locals occupy highly paid jobs while the poor from our country do the manual work. Are Tamil people going without work because of migrants or is the phenomena of migration a result of Tamil people not participating adequately in the labour market?

We had done a study last year of some tea plantations in the Nilgiris. Interestingly, all the owners told us that there is an acute shortage of local workforce. Many of them were employing migrant workers from Jharkhand! Further probing revealed that the  local population did not want to work in the plantations as they felt that the terms of employment were not attractive enough – this from workers in a sector that is pretty well regulated under the terms of the plantation labour act. While we did find that in some of the plantations there were problems in terms of adequacy of housing for the family in one of the plantations the conditions were extremely good- yet this was the place with maximum number of migrant labourers!

A friend of mine who owns some agricultural land in Thanjavur was complaining that he is unable to get workers these days during harvest. So he has got into an arrangement with a labour contractor who brings in migrant labour during harvest time.

I have been trying to understand what may be the causes behind this? Why are Tamil people not engaging in the work force? Someone tells me that Tamil Nadu is going the “Kerala” way where the labour market is extremely expensive. But Tamil nadu is a different case.  We do not have a shortage of labour on account of labour migrating out into foreign countries like in Kerala. I mean we do have people who migrate to Singapore and Malaysia but in terms of percentage of the population it is not comparable to Kerala. My guess is that most people who used to engage themselves in labour are very much here in the state but not working regularly.

Now the question is, if one is not working how does one feed oneself and one’s family? There are people who believe that with the huge subsidies that people are getting courtesy the state, the desire to work has been coming down. Food grains for the “poor”for example is free thanks to the public distribution system, in many cases housing is also free and now with the National Rural employment Guarantee Scheme one can get a moderate wage for not doing work! And to top it, we find that the government is also giving out consumer durables free! So where is the incentive to work?

There is another interesting side to this. With increasing literacy and access to education, the aspiration of the average Tamilian in the poverty category has changed. Today, they do not see manual labour as something that they want to do. But the question is , has education prepared them for any other sector? Let me give you the example of Kala who helps me out at home. Kala has a nineteen year old daughter who has completed her 10th standard ( well not really completed. She failed her board exams because she got two marks lower than the pass requirement in Maths says her mother). This girl was employed at a local department store doing the billing. After four months of working there she has quit. Her mother has been nagging me to get her a job in my office.  When I asked the girl why she had quit her answer was that she did not like to constantly stand on her feet and work. Her legs were “hurting”. I give her the example of her mother who in her fifties sweeps and swabs the floor in 4 houses in our neighborhood and ask her how the pain in her legs compares to that of her mother’s? The girl looked away sulkily. Kala, in the meanwhile keeps pleading with me for a job in my office where her daughter would sit under a fan or in a AC room. “Doing what?” I ask her?  She has no answer!

Now, before you start calling me a person with a feudal mentality, I would like to clarify that I am an individual who firmly believes in the rights of workers and in the dignity of labour. Tamil nadu as a state in that respect offers good working conditions for the person who is seeking work- it is obvious from the hordes of  people who are migrating! When I spoke to some of the Jharkhand migrant workers in Nilgiris they were all very happy with the working conditions here – “Much better than our village” said one of them.

So the question again is why are people here not engaging themselves in work and building on their ambitions to move ahead in life? Coming back to the point on aspirational levels, I can only say that the skills of the people do not match their aspirations. While education is something that has reached many in this state, unfortunately, the quality of this education leaves much to be desired. Besides, the skills imparted do not prepare the person for any jobs. So for a first generation educated person , it becomes infra dig to go back to manual labour. They feel they are destined for “better” things. But they fail to understand that whatever the sector they work in there is going to be pressure of a certain type. It may be in the form of standing long hours or working long hours. Your legs may hurt like Kala’s daughter’s or your eyes may hurt like mine! 

I guess that most of the people who are looking for “better quality work” are led by an image of a government job where one feels that there is little accountability. But believe me folks, for an industrious person even government jobs can be high pressure jobs with long hours. I have seen government officers working till 7 PM !  The first generation educated person has some dreams about jobs that they want. They are looking for trappings of a formal sector – a government job or a job in a factory like Ford or Hyundai. They fail to realize that even working in a semi formal place like a department store or a beauty salon can pave the way for professional growth! There is a beauty salon opposite my house. It is a swanky place and is obviously doing very well! One of the things that you notice the moment you enter there is that there  are absolutely no Tamil men or women among the employees ! All the people employed there are people from Darjeeling and the North East! “ I can’t depend on the local people. They are too unreliable” says the proprietor!

 I agree that in terms of bargaining power the employer holds all the cards while dealing with migrant labour, I still cannot feel a sense of regret to see an opportunity like this go out of the hands of my Tamil brethren! Imagine, if some girls had been working there, they would have picked up new skills and probably opened up something on their own resulting in development of strong entrepreneurship!

It is sad that the government keeps alive this attitude by pumping in more and more money in subsidy schemes that are increasing the spirit of dependence on the state! As a person who has been working in the development sector within this state, I can say with confidence that there is only a minuscule minority of people who lack access to food, health care or education in this state.As a person who works for a NGO, I have seen over the years the spirit of people's participation in our programs coming down. About a decade ago people were more forthcoming to contribute to the projects from their side either in cash or kind. For e.g if we spent Rs 100 on an activity Rs 10 or Rs 15 of it would be the community contribution. Today, I am sorry to say they do not want to contribute even a rupee though in terms of standard of living I do see an improvement.!

While I must say that the government of Tamil Nadu had a big role to playi  in the  development of the state , what I fail to understand is why  has it not translated in ambition and industry among people to build on what they got and move ahead ? Why are people continuing to fall back on the state?


Basil said...

A thought provoking force that. Even in Goa, we have labour force coming from outside. Biharis/ Jharkhand ppl are seen working in households n peope from Karnataka, Maharashtra are seen working at construction sites ....Goans wanting to make a fast buck n not having much money in hand, either go to the Gulf n do menial work and earning higher wages than what an average man like me may earn as a salary if u take his wage and multiply it by 25/26. Then there r other Goans who are only 12th passed looking at lucrative opportunities as shippies.

Cloud Nine said...

Interesting post. Yes, it is difficult to engage labor these days.Those available also, work unwillingly. There is a general apathy to work. So, how do most people survive? In rural areas, the main deterrent has been the 100 days work program, that gives guaranteed pay- by hook or crook. In urban areas, the survival is by sluggish, half hearted work- most of them survive by plenty of petty jobs that require little manual labor. An ordinary daily wage labourer earns Rs. 400 per day in our area and they refuse to work for anything less than that! I tried in vain to look for someone to clean uo the garden for Rs 300 a day and failed miserably. Finally, i had to do the work, split to many many days:(

DeEpAK KaRtHiK (SarcaStic SaTan) said...

Advantages and Disadvantages are there !

Advantage: Labor's family get benefited much since the pay the mid east gives are much better ours, Reduces the risk of unemployment !
Disadvantage: Loss of better skilled workers

So for a first generation educated person , it becomes infra dig to go back to manual labour. They feel they are destined for “better” things. But they fail to understand that whatever the sector they work in there is going to be pressure of a certain type

Good lines :0 I enjoyed the post,, Great skill :) Good luck !

Deepak Karthik

anilkurup said...

A pertinent enquiry this.
Factors for the present plight of Tamil population in the State - the current mentality is nothing but delusion. Successive State governments have deluded them to believe that food, clothing and shelter is free till kingdom come. Rice for Re 1 ( without any verification of the persons purchasing power), free gas, oil, consumer durable, doles for no work etc. When you are provided bacon without having to toil why toil?

The pity side is that as you say education and language skills are poor that a Keralite will manage with Hindi be he in any corner of the country , but a Tamil will find it difficult.

Standard of living may have increased and so have wrong perceptions.

A keralite will have his nose up and waste his time in Kerala, but work like a flogged ox in the Middle East. Ironical indeed. And Tamilnad gentry is catching up with the brethren next door.

As for the penurious folks from Bihar and Jharkand southern States are their Middle Eastern havens.

KParthasarathi said...

It is a well written article.It is a vast subject with many dimensions and you have tried to cover many aspects.Basically labour migration atleast within the country is spurred by regional imbalances and jobless growth in the economy where investments are made in knowledge and quick yielding sectors with very little towards agriculture and labour intensive rural industries.The movement is from backward states to prosperous states like Gujarat,Maharashtra,Tamilnad and Karnataka giving rise to the anger of sons-of soil proponents.Bihar labour is ubiquitous.They work hard for a fraction of wages that the labour from well off states would not accept.People want easy money with little effort.The increased demand for labour during specific seasonal activities like sowing and harvesting in the case of agricultural activities where local labour is inadequate has one adverse effect on the schooling of the children in the families that migrate.The lopsided development in capital heavy industries and IT sector though contributes to GDP growth is hardly an answer to the problems of large rural population in rain fed backward states and poor Eastern states.Doles and freebies cannot foster the climate for hard work.Employment guarrantees for 100 days to jobless have political undertones than a remedy to lack of jobs.The high rise in consumerism and the wide gap between the neo rich in certain sectors and the poor give rise to misguided youth wanting higher income with very little work.
There is a lot the state and central governments to do to rectify the situation but the voice of the business class claims greater attention.


Being a Bihari i know that situation for getting employment here is not that conducive, so these people migrate from here to earn their livelihood and needless to say that they work hard n ready to do anything for "DO WAQT KI ROTI".....moreover there is no such govt scheme here for these people so that they can get things for free as people getting in Tamilnadu etc.......

and i personally feel if things improve here and if these people start earning their ROTI within the state then there can be a problem of working hands specially in farming n construction sectors in states like Punjab, Delhi, Mumbai etc....

Meera Sundararajan said...

@ Irfan, yes Bihar is in a sad state of affairs. But I understand Nitish Kumar is serious about getting things to work..~ Migration is a result of poor conditions in one's own place which causes them to seek work outside. While work participation of migrant workers is most welcome what annoys me is that people here do not seem to want to work!

@ Nivedita you are lucky you got someone to work for Rs 300. I am sure the guy would have complained like anything - the problem is that people here will continue to work with the same lack of interest whatever you pay them!

@ Anil yes, we are learning from our neighbours. But as you say, the Keralite is far more enterprising than the Tamilian with greater skills.

@ KP thanks for the wonderful analysis. What you say is very true!

@ Basil never realized that Goa faces a similar problem.

Rahul said...

this blog deserves to be in the newspapers...:-)

Meera Sundararajan said...

LOL Rahul is that a compliment or an expression of disgust :D

Rhapsody B. said...

This phenomenon is everywhere, it was in the beginning of time and it will remain so. Every country indulges in the same. centuries ago the called them indenture labor a pretty name for the purposes of which they were unknowingly used, to keep the locals/enslaved in their designated place of mediocrity. Modern times give it a more modern name but the premise is the same. The government has a lot to do with it. In some countries “Antigua” for example, one cannot just come in and get a job unless it is established that no one else within that country can do that job.

Meera Sundararajan said...

Thanks Rhapsody for your comments. I would like to differ with you slightly regarding what you call "enslavment"and "indentured"labour. What my post is about is voluntary migration by people across region to seek employment as the conditions may not be favorable in their place of origin. This kind of migration is often a result of high demand for labour in a place where the locals are not able to ( or interested in ) take it up. The conditions of work as I say are not not bad-decent wages etc for hard work and people from other regions would like to make use of it!

Tomz said...

this is a long article..But the way u write ur ideas made it an easy read..Truly u r a responsible blogger..because u always write about some relevant socially important cases..

sunil deepak said...

Perhaps I looked at it differently because I come from Delhi, where everyone has come from somewhere else, so I never asked myself this kind of questions. However, now when I travel in India and a night guard from Assam in a hotel or a girl from north-east in a hair-dresser saloon and even a Kashmiri guy working in Bangalore, I feel that this will be the new India.

On the other hand, like Irfan I feel that if persons have even a small chance of dignified lives where they grow up, majority of them would not like to migrate for work. The problem is lack of opportunities in so many parts of India.

Meera Sundararajan said...

@Sunil Deepak and Tomz thanks for your comments - missed you guys ( long time since you visited me :-)) Sunil Deepak, I am completely with you on the issue of employment for people wherever they want to go to earn their "rozi roti". But my issue is about the local population who are just subsisting on the government subsidies turning their nose up at work opportunities. @ Tomz, thanks for your comments my friend- people like you are a constant source of encouragement!

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