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In search of greener pastures

In search of greener pastures
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K S S Pillai
The migration of people to greener pastures has been taking place for long. Scriptures of different religions depict several such movements and ask the locals to treat the newcomers as guests. The Holy Bible says, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat him as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
The recent politically motivated killing of some migrant workers in Jammu and Kashmir has rightly evoked the condemnation it deserves. Those who had come to the state in search of jobs are frightened. Some of them have been leaving the state, vowing never to return.
There are several reasons for the migration of workers from one state or country to another. Lack of work opportunities in their native place, low wages, absence of trade unions to fight their cause, and social discrimination are some of the prominent ones. Those who migrate usually prefer to try their luck in big cities, where they could get some kinds of work.
The problem of migrant workers was highlighted during the lockdowns caused by the current pandemic. Workplaces were closed indefinitely, depriving workers of their livelihood. Most used to live from hand to mouth and had no savings.
More than the fear of the virus, it was the dread of economic uncertainty that bothered them. Since the problem was not confined to one place or country, the only option they had was to go back to their native places, do whatever job they got, and pray for the early end of the pandemic.
As if they have taken a leaf out of the scriptures, migrant workers are called guest workers in my home state of Kerala. It is the preferred destination of many from states like West Bengal and Bihar. There are even people from the neighbouring state of Tamilnadu doing all kinds of jobs like milking cows and buffaloes or working in barbershops. The wages there are the highest in the country. There are several militant labour unions there to safeguard the rights of the working class.
It is common to see people from the northeast working in the hotels of the state. People also seem to prefer those from Nepal as security guards. The security guards of the housing complex in Kochi, hailing from the northeast, told me that they usually fly to their state while on annual leave to avoid lengthy train journeys.
I was amused to see hotels that offer ‘traditional Kerala dishes’ have cooks from other states. Most of the migrants leave their families in their native place. Their primary aim is to save as much money as possible. Usually, several workers share a rented accommodation, and food is cooked collectively. It is estimated that they send crores of rupees every month to their native place.
During my last visit home, I was intrigued to hear my nephew shouting instructions to someone in broken Hindi. He was conversing with a Bengali, who had come to climb coconut trees. He was not the regular guy who used to do the job.
Climbing coconut trees used to be the monopoly of a family of traditional coconut tree climbers. The tree climber got a share of coconuts he harvested as wages. My nephew told me that the family had stopped the trade and the young educated ones had migrated to the gulf countries.
As workers in the state consider some jobs below their dignity, they leave them to the migrants. Since they knew only Hindi and scratches of Malayalam, Hindi was used to converse with them. They charged a minimum of ?50 for climbing a tree, irrespective of the number of coconuts harvested.
High literacy rate and low employment opportunities have resulted in many from Kerala migrating to the Gulf countries, where they forget the militant trade unionism prevalent back home and are prepared to work long hours. The local people are happy to have the migrants take their place.
(The author is a retired professor of English. A regular contributor to ‘The Kashmir Vision’, his articles and short stories have appeared in various national and international publications)

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