Migrant workers in Kerala travel over 3,000 km to vote

KPM Basheer Perumbavoor (Kerala) | Updated on April 11, 2014

Plywood units near Kochi hit by staggered poll schedule

The staggered polling schedule in the eastern and north-eastern States has hit the work and production schedules of hundreds of wood-based manufacturing units in this faraway town in the country’s southwest.

Thousands of migrant workers from West Bengal, Odisha, Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Mizoram and Manipur, employed in the plywood, veneer and other wood-based industries in Perumbavoor, have left for home to cast their votes in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections.

Perumbavoor, 40 km from Kochi, is the hub of the wood-based industries in Kerala. Their departure, for periods ranging from a fortnight to a month, has disrupted work and upset production targets of these small-and-medium enterprises.

“The temporary departure of the migrant workers has caused a 40 per cent production loss in the wood-based industry,” MM Mujeeb Rahman, President of the All-Kerala Plywood and Block Board Manufacturers Association, said.

Around three-fourths of the workers in most of the units were migrant labourers from the East and North-East, mainly West Bengal, Odisha and Assam.

Rahman pointed out that there were 1,100 wood-based industrial units – of them 350 plywood units – in Perumbavoor and nearby areas. He estimates that these units together employ 60,000-75,000 migrant workers. A sizable number of these workers have already left for home, and each day hundreds are leaving.

The staggered poll schedule has made the situation all the more worse. For instance, in West Bengal, the polling takes on April 17, 24, and 30 and May 7 and 12. This means batches after batches of workers are leaving in phases, thus upsetting all work and production schedules.

The trains bound for Guwahati, Kolkata and similar destinations are packed. Aluva, 20 km from Kochi, is the favourite railway station of the migrant workers in central Kerala. (Perumbavoor to Guwahati, by train, is roughly 3,600 km).

Political compulsion

“I don’t think these workers, many of whom are hardly literate, care much about politics,” said an employer, who did not want his name mentioned. “They are under compulsion from the political parties to go back home to vote. They and their families cannot afford to offend the local politicians and parties.”

A major concern was to keep their names alive on the electoral records as this was a crucial proof of identity. Local activists of the political parties back in their villages regularly call these workers on phone asking them to come home to vote, offering incentives of various kinds as well as threats.

Many workers, of course, are genuinely interested in exercising their democratic right and many others combine voting and spending a few days at home.

Sister Roselyn John, a Catholic nun who works for the welfare of migrant labourers, recalls that workers from West Bengal, Assam, Odisha and Bihar used to go home en bloc during elections, be it assembly, Lok Sabha or local body elections.

“They have pressure from local politicians and leaders to vote,” she said.

Kerala, which is the land of external migration, particularly to the Gulf region, rely heavily on migrant workers from the East and North-East in all sectors of the economy.

According to a 2012 study, there were around 25 lakh migrant workers in the State. Together, they remitted about ₹17,500 crore out of Kerala. The number of workers is expected to double by 2020.

Published on April 11, 2014

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