Given a choice, Narendra Majhi, 30, (name changed) would have preferred to stay back home and mourn his two-year-old daughter who died just over a week ago.
But faced with a life of abject poverty in his native village of Thuamul Rampur block of the extremely backward district of Kalahandi district in Odisha after being forced to return from Kerala during the lockdown, he could hardly afford that luxury.
So, there he was on a bus to Kochi arranged jointly by the Kochi-based Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID) and Gram Vikas, an NGO working towards rural development in Odisha, to facilitate safe migration from one of the most backward districts in the country, and thus protect its desperate residents from the exploitation of middlemen who make money by exploiting the distress migration situation. This was the second such bus to Kochi from Kalahandi in as many months and all other 49 occupants who reached here on Wednesday had similar heart-rending stories to share.
“There were people who sold their smart phones, their only assets, to raise the ₹5,000 towards their travel and food expenses for the two-day journey. Thuamul Rampur could hardly provide livelihood for all those who were forced out of their migrant jobs and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme didn’t have the same attraction,” said Jobin Chacko, junior manager of Gram Vikas, from Kalahandi.
The largely agrarian district doesn’t have any alternative livelihoods to offer and remittances from migrants has propped up its economy over the years. But the disrupted train service and the largely non-existent unreserved class in existing services meant that they were stuck in the morass of poverty and joblessness.
In Kerala, Kochi and Thrissur remained their preferred destinations and the hotel industry their favoured sector.
“The idea has been to link up potential employers and the jobless who are in desperate need of each other and help shift the latter from the unpredictable informal job market to the formal one with accruing benefits. The employers were willing to recruit credible migrants with genuine identities who could be traced back in the event something goes amiss,” said Benoy Peter, executive director, CMID.
Gram Vikas set up four resource centres in Kalahandi while the CMID created a virtual centre complete with a helpline in Kochi.
Prachodan Development Services, another NGO in Thrissur in partnership with ESAF Small Finance Bank, helped migrants and potential employers find each other.
While all 50 aboard the bus had been assured credible employment, high levels of attrition remain a major concern.
“The attrition is not surprising thanks to their largely herd mentality to be among their own community and their proclivity to work for their past employers in whom they have greater confidence. It will take the formation of a critical mass in new jobs and spread of word of mouth before they have the same level of trust in their new employers,” said Liby Johnson, executive director, Gram Vikas.
But things seem to be improving with Shibin Jose, director of the Kochi-based KLR Facility Management, which supplies manpower for housekeeping in malls and hotels across the State, confident of increasingly being able to convince migrants with emoluments such as provident fund and ESI coverage.
“We are training them for housekeeping works in hotels that come with an attractive package of stable income, food, and accommodation,” he said.