From Assam to Kerala: In search of work and life

A report from the field by Nikita Singh, a journalist, who had travelled to Alappuzha for a field trip and interviewed some of the migrant workers there.

24-year-old Jainal Abdil, an Assamese migrant worker near Chengannur town in Kerala’s Alappuzha district, is only one of the 450 million internal migrants in India— many of whom make the population of marginalized workers who remain outside the purview of even the most basic government welfare schemes, including the public distribution system under the National Food Security Act.        

Hailing from a small village in Darrang district in Assam, Abdil came to Kerala two years back, to work at a tea plantation in Munnar. In these past two years, Abdil also lived in Delhi for a short while, returning to Kerala to work at Sabari Farm Milk, a dairy farm near Chengannur, about 7 months back. He says, “There is not much expense here, as there is nothing else to do except work.” Abdil earns a daily wage of Rs 500, stays at the farm and gets 2 kg of rice from the farm owner every month. 

“Besides the lower wages, for people like me, the availability of work is also less in Assam,” he says. Abdil starts his days at around 1 am with bathing at least five cows at the farm. “There are no particular work timings. It is like our own farm. We stay at the farm and work all day. After milking and then feeding the cows, we cut grass at the paddy fields until evening.” he says. 

The intersectional identity of the Bengali-Muslim Assamese migrant workers— who have significantly grown as a community in Kerala— brings one to the crossroads of the economic and social motivations of workers in India who travel far and wide in search of a shelter and work with dignity.  

“In Assam, we get about ₹350 per day for the same work. With a lot of friends and family there, the expenses are also much higher. We visit our village once in over a year or so,” he adds. Although his parents and brother-in-law work at tea plantations in Munnar, his 9-year-old brother and 20-year-old sister still live at their village in Assam.  

Abdil’s wife, Fariya, works as a house help near Sabari Farm and earns around ₹400 per month. Whereas, their three-year-old son Riyaaz goes to the Anganwadi of the village for pre-primary education. “My son has been going to this Anganwadi since he was an infant. My wife and I too have had health check-ups there. I want my son to study here, so he doesn’t land up where I am today. Most of the children in my village in Assam, skip formal education and only go to the mosque to learn to read Quran.” 

Abundance of labour-intensive work, higher wages, better availability of healthcare and education facilities, higher female work participation and the administration’s focus on migrant workers have been the driving factors for several like Abdil to migrate to Kerala, with their family.    

Dr Sangeeta, health officer at the Community Health Centre at Chengannur, says, “We regularly screen migrant workers for TB and Leprosy, and also guide them for any other health issues. In coordination with the District Committee Officer here, we conduct classes on healthcare and hygiene for migrant workers in their native tongue. Also making sure that the guidance on pre-natal care, breastfeeding and child care is also provided carefully.”         

However, the uncertainty of a migrant worker’s life, which is innately tied with a lack of job security and barriers to upward mobility, has still kept migrants like Shaidur Rahman (26) away from their families. Rahman, also from Darrang, works as a farm labourer and driver at Sabari Farms. He says, “I have worked in Bangalore, Coimbatore and even Rajasthan. I go wherever I get a better pay. There is a lot of uncertainty, so my wife and my three-month old daughter still live in Assam.”  

Despite owning a seven-acre farm land at his village, Rahman has been working as a driver since the past six years at different places across India. “Farming is not very profitable there. We barely earn anything to survive. My father looks after the farm, but my elder brother and I work as drivers,” he says.  

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