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The march down south

Vishwanath Kulkarni | Updated on January 24, 2018

Homebound Migrant workers return to their sheds after the day’s work at a coffee estate near Madikeri, Coorg. - GRN SOMASHEKAR

Hard labour: Migrant workers in Nilgiris’ tea estates are paid on par with the locals

Migrant

Though migration of labour from the east has helped revive the plantations in southern India, questions remain on the long-term implications, Vishwanath Kulkarni reports

As the harvest season starts in Coorg, Karnataka, coffee planter MC Kariappa has a lot of issues to contend with — productivity, weather and, the biggest worry of all in recent times, paucity of labourers. So when a dozen labourers from Assam landed at the gates of his coffee plantation at Madapur in January, at the start of the harvest season, Kariappa heaved a sigh of relief.

Though not adept at, or trained to work in coffee plantations, these migrant labourers -– both men and women -- proved useful for Kariappa in harvesting Arabicas, the mild and premium variety of coffee. “Some of them are as good as the local workers, picking up to 100kg of ripened coffee a day,” says Kariappa, relieved that the harvest this year went off smoothly.

Migrant workers are now a common sight in Coorg’s coffee plantations, especially during the harvest season, as the country’s key coffee-growing region has been facing an acute shortage of labour over the past few years. Traditionally, plantations in Coorg and Chikmagalur attracted migrant workers from the drought-prone regions of North Karnataka and the plains of neighbouring Mysuru. This pool of labour now increasingly prefers urban centres such as Bengaluru, as jobs in malls, petrol bunks and garment sector are better paying. There is less toil too, compared to work in the plantations.

“Most of the worker quarters in my plantations were vacant until these people [migrant workers] landed here,” says Kariappa. Adds N Bose Mandanna, former vice-president of the Coffee Board and a planter in Suntikoppa: “Without improved labour availability, we would have been in a soup.” There are no official figures, but the number of workers from Assam and other eastern parts of the country migrating to Karnataka’s plantations are commonly believed to run into ‘thousands.’

The movement of labour is not towards Karnataka alone. Plantations across South India, including those in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, now depend on the labourer from eastern or north-eastern India.

A ‘healthy’ phenomenon

The daily wagers at Coorg’s coffee plantations largely come from Assam, while tea gardens in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris, and the Kerala estates growing coffee, spices, coconut and rubber get their workforce from Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal.

In the other two southern states — Andhra Pradesh and Telangana — the migration is confined to urban areas.

This was the case elsewhere in the south too, with migration initially confined to urban job sectors such as construction, security services and jewellery-making. The plantations have recently emerged as a favourite destination for the migrant unskilled labourer and the trend is seen to be gaining momentum now. It helped that connectivity between the two corners of the country improved with the addition of train connections.

“Growth in the South is creating employment opportunities. And migration is a healthy sign for the economy,” says Gopinath Parakuni, founder and General Secretary of CiviDep India, a non-governmental organisation working among labourers in the plantation, construction and garment sectors.

It helps that mechanisation has not caught up with plantations, as it has elsewhere in the agriculture sector for tasks such as land preparation, sowing and harvesting. In Punjab and Haryana, where farms were once a favourite destination for labourers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, mechanisation has taken over, leading to falling numbers of migrant farm workers.

Rural migration mirrors a larger trend in the country, with about two million migrating annually from rural to urban areas and vice versa, says Ram B Bhagat, Professor and Head, Department of Migration and Urban Studies, International Institute of Population Sciences, Mumbai. In other words, about two per cent of India’s 1.21 billion population migrates every year. Half of the population is under the age of 25 and migration helps them secure jobs and livelihoods.

Inflection point

In all the southern States, the arrival of migrant workers was preceded by the movement of the local workforce to urban job markets.

In the Nilgiris, the tea sector had for decades depended on farm hands from the southern districts of Tirunelveli, Ramanathapuram and Salem. In 1999, the labour unrest in two estates set off several changes.

Workers moved to the plains and the knitwear cluster of Tirupur began to emerge as a hot destination for jobseekers back then. “This was followed by the boom in the IT services sector, which created allied jobs. The workers realised that plantation wages could not match the package offered in the urban markets. The rest is history,” says an executive from the plantations industry, who declined to be named.

Though officials from the local tea industry were unable to provide any figure, it is estimated that over 50,000 migrant workers currently work in the Nilgiris.

Tea plantations in Kerala traditionally employed labourers from Tamil Nadu, but are increasingly replacing them with migrants from the eastern and north-eastern parts of the country.

Every day, trains bring over 1,000 migrant workers, mostly unskilled casual labourers, who arrive with the help of friends, relatives or labourer-turned-labour contractors. They are immediately absorbed into the urban job markets in the far corners of Kerala, which is today home to nearly 25 lakh migrant workers — the largest pool in the southern region.

A third of the migrants joins the construction sector, while not that many find work in agriculture.

In the past five years, though, a sizeable number of them have found work in the plantation sector, including rubber estates. After the recent fall in rubber prices forced farmers to leave trees untapped, the migrant workers had to look elsewhere for work.

Moreover, “individual, homestead farmers prefer local workers,” points out Jose Sebastian of the Thiruvananthapuram-based Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation. “Migrant workers are not much preferred on the rubber plantations,” adds Ajith BK, secretary of the Association of Planters Kerala. “Rubber-tapping demands specific skills and requires staying close to the plantation, reporting to work before daybreak and a long-term commitment, as it is not a seasonal harvest,” says Ajith. But in other plantations, the dependence on migrant labour has increased.

For a better life

Noor Mohammad has come to Coorg for the second time this year, seeking work in the plantations. This time, the 25-year-old has brought along his wife and younger brother. “It is good working here in these estates,” says Mohammad, who hails from Darrang in Assam.

He was initially brought to the plantation by a labour contractor or raj mestri. Similarly Asadullah, another worker in his mid-50s, has brought along his family from Guwahati. Back home, the likes of Mohammad and Asadullah own small plots, cultivating rice and vegetables. It is a hand-to-mouth existence, worsened by the violent unrest caused by the Bodo movement.

Life is better in Coorg. The migrants are paid on a par with their local peers, based on the quantity of coffee beans picked daily. This is different from the wages specified under the Plantation Labour Act, which is in effect during the rest of the year. The more the labourers pick, the more they earn — a major incentive. Estate owners pay ₹3.50 to ₹5 for one kg of coffee beans picked. The rates are higher when labour is scarce and time is running short for the harvest.

Many workers tend to remit their earnings back home on a weekly basis. Noor Mohammad and his family plan to save about ₹50,000 during the current season. While many return home at the end of the two-three-month harvest period, others stay back for work such as weeding and trimming.

They get accommodation on the estates and wages are paid according to the Plantation Act, which includes benefits such as provident fund, insurance and gratuity. A male labourer is paid ₹270 a day, and the female counterpart gets ₹230. “Back home, it is difficult for women to go out for work, even in their own rice or vegetable fields,” says Mohammad.

The wage structure is similar in the Nilgiris. “I was earning a daily wage of ₹95-100 back home, but am now getting more than ₹250 a day,” says Rabi, an Assamese working in a tea estate. Industry associations say there is no discrimination in the package or amenities offered to migrant workers. “They are provided accommodation, crèche and all other benefits on a par with the locals,” said the industry executive.

Social dynamics

In Kerala, migrant workers earn as much as ₹700 a day, but their living conditions are not as good as the local labourers. Although squalid, the lodging is often offered for free or at low rates, so the labourers accept them unquestioningly. Factors such as low literacy and unfamiliarity with the local language act as a barrier to integrate with the local community.

In Coorg, locals say they work in harmony with the migrant workforce. “They work on their own and we are on our own,” says Sundri, a local who has been working in coffee plantations for several years.

But experts warn that rising migration can lead to socio-economic issues. In Kerala, which ironically is a major source of manpower for West Asian countries, the locals are increasingly voicing concerns about the alleged rise in law-and-order troubles due to the migrant population. Incidents such as the one in early February where three workers from West Bengal were arrested for allegedly killing a hotel employee in Kozhikode are fuelling such fears. This has prompted the Kerala police to create a database of migrant workers, including their photographs and fingerprints.

In Karnataka, the recent arrest of a terror suspect hailing from Assam has triggered concerns. Plantation associations have advised members to insist on documents such as identity cards from the labourers as a precautionary measure. In the Nilgiris too, the situation is similar.

“It is difficult to do a background check of these people. We do not know if there is infiltration, but there is all-round concern about engaging them. We can’t shoo them away either. Estate managements maintain a register, but it is still not organised,” a planter said on conditions of anonymity.

Though the arrivals of migrants have increased the workforce, the long-term implication on the social fabric remains to be seen, Mandanna adds. This would depend on on how long they would stay back and whether they pick up the local language and integrate well with the local population.

With inputs from LN Revathy, KPM Basheer and KV Kurmanath

Published on February 16, 2015

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