COVID-19 and the state of Tamil Nadu

With one of the largest automobile sectors in the country,  one of the largest knitting industries and a rampant construction sector, Tamil Nadu (TN) remains one of the primary locations for interstate migrations. Official estimates indicate that the state is home to more than ten lakh migrant workers (Ref. 1 & 2, though the actual numbers may even be higher). During the first decade of the 21stCentury, the biggest employer and exploiter of migrant workers was the construction sector. This “honour” has now switched to the manufacturing (especially, automobile sector) which employs the highest number of migrant workers in its web of vendor companies. Unlike in the bigger factories like Hyundai or Nissan where the migrant labourers are mainly used for unskilled work, in the ancillary companies, the migrant workers also work on the shop floor.  Kancheepuram, Chennai and Tirupur have the largest concentration of migrant workers in Tamil Nadu. Also, the lowest strata of the service sector (that is, housekeeping staff and security staff) is dominated by workers mainly from Bengal, Orissa, Assam, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh. 

Even before lockdown, conditions of migrant workers in all the sectors were abysmal, with a delay in payment of salaries, abuses by managers and forced overtime were everyday occurrences. Post lockdown their condition has worsened beyond imagination. A large percentage of the migrants (especially the ones in construction and textile sectors) were given little or no salary in March. Even in the organised sector, most of the migrant workers got only partial wages even for March when the factories were running for three weeks. With little to no money left, and with the state government taking well over a week to spring into action, starvation was rampant among workers. 

A large section of textile workers in Tirupur and Coimbatore are migrant women who have not been here too long. We spoke to many workers who were as young as seventeen years and had just arrived in Chennai in February or March. They had barely worked for a few weeks before everything closed. Many of them have not seen a single rupee in the form of wages. They also live in hostels provided by the company and so intimidation by HR managers is common. Even the movement of these workers outside the hostels was carefully restricted. Several of them were made to clean the hostel premises without wages. They have also been threatened that management will not allow them to return home, and they will have to continue with the work once production resumes. The psychological trauma experienced by these workers in particular and by migrant workers, in general, is beyond description. 

With the third phase of the lockdown, a majority of the migrant workers want to return home at any cost. Over the last few days, TamilNadu government has released several forms that workers need to fill to return home! There is no clear communication as to why more than one application form is released. Workers are filling any form they can find (either online or through local police stations) in their desperation to return home.  It remains unclear if these forms are just some futile bureaucratic exercise invented to quell the anger or if the government has any concrete plans to send lakhs of workers back home.  We are hearing reports of workers leaving the state on cycles or hiring buses out of their money to return to their respective states. Some of the workers had undertaken perilous journeys by boats to reach Andhra Pradesh or even Odisha. Their patience has run out.  

Irked by the absence of any concrete plan from the government, the workers have resorted to protests. Workers at the site in Pallavaram L&T construction work in Chennai and Koodankulam construction site at Tirunelveli district took part in these protests which continued for a few days starting from 2nd May. After government intervention,  these workers were assured of returning home soon with travel arrangements through railways. However, nothing has materialised so far.  This protest was the second instance of protest that TN witnessed after the announcement of lockdown. 

The first one was just after the lockdown was announced. Hundreds of workers, many of whom had come from Kerala to avail North-bound interstate trains, were stranded at two major stations ¾ Chennai and  Coimbatore.  They were caught unaware of the sudden decisions on cancellation of transports and with no way to go forward or return. With no shelters and facilities for food,  water and accommodation, they were restive and went on roads resulting in sudden pandemonium. Police had tried to disperse the crowd with lathi charges. Later they were accommodated in nearby halls due to the intervention of civil administration in both the cities. 

A large number of civil society groups sprung into action right from the beginning of the lockdown and tried to distribute food and ration to as many workers as possible.  In Chennai, a broad-based COVID-19 Support Group, comprising of civil society activists, have been working round the clock since the beginning of lockdown.  But the enormity of the task implied that a large section of the workers remained in an extremely precarious condition.  Tamil Nadu government has tried to distribute rations in many of the areas, but it has been extremely inadequate. With a minimal amount of rice and daal, even where the help reached, workers did not get enough to eat. In many places, we have witnessed that workers simply got dry rice and salt to eat. In other measures, the TamilNadu government has appointed area wise nodal officers. They, along with district surveillance officers, were entrusted with the task of distributing food, ration and making arrangements for accommodation for the migrants. However, the lack of awareness and accessibility of these officers and language barriers meant that a large section of migrants, especially those who had arrived recently or who were stranded at construction sites, suffered from delays in getting any assistance.  The affinity of the government with RSS-linked organisations was also on display as groups affiliated to RSS were allowed free movement in the initial phases of lockdown. At the same time, similar efforts by civil society members were questioned. However, these RSS-affiliated groups had a somewhat limited reach. 

A significant worry for these workers has been the lack of income due to which they are unable to send any money home. As the state government refused to take any pro-active action against the managements unwilling to pay, this has hit the workers hard, and it is a challenge that the civil society groups could not meet. The COVID-19 support group has been working round the clock not just in distributing food and rations but also talking to the labour departmentand management of various companies in ensuring that workers got paid in March. They had some successes such as in Hyundai factory, and several small vendor companies in Sriperumbadur area. This interaction with the management in ensuring payment of wages to the workers was a valuable initiative by this group. But in the absence of participation and intervention of trade unions, it had limited success.  

CPDR-TN stands in solidarity with the rights of the workers in general and the migrant workers in particular. Though the members of CPDR-TN felt the need to reach out to the stranded workers directly, this newly-formed organisation has its limitations. The members, with their individual ability, have coordinated with the migrant workers directly in a few instances and have also joined hands with the COVID-19 solidarity group.

So far, we have discussed the condition of workers and the response of the state. Now we take up the status of healthcare workers. Concerning the doctors, health workers or sanitary workers,  their safety was entirely compromised with no/sufficient PPE or masks allotted to them even though they have a higher probability of getting inflicted by corona due to direct contact with the Corona patients. Some doctors and nurses have already died, and many moreare inflicted by corona now. Even the one-day symbolic protest of Indian Medical Association has not yielded any result in attaining PPE though only a stringent punitive law for the attack on doctors is promulgated. Safety of the sanitary workers, most of whom are employed on a contractual basis, are not attended to by any state government and TamilNadu is no exception. 

Meanwhile, despite the extended period of lockdown, the Covid19 epidemic is spreading rapidly across the state, with different super-spreading events leading to subsequent large-scale infections at the community level, making Tamil Nadu the second-most affected state in the country. The largest concentration of these cases is in Chennai, and there the most number of affected people have been in the urban slums, as is the case in most other metro cities. In times of such an alarming and large-scale health crisis, it is the responsibility of the state to step in and provide the necessary testing and treatment infrastructure. The role of the state government in reaching out to the people must be in tune with World Health Organisation’s pledge of universal health coverage whereby “everyone, everywhere, should have access to essential healthcare services without facing financial hardship”.  While large-scale and perhaps targeted testing has happened in Tamil Nadu, it has not been able to stem the growth in cases in the densely populated areas, where norms of physical distancing are more difficult to maintain and hygienic conditions are genuinely challenging. More importantly, the testing process has been quite slow, often leading to quick deterioration of health and fatality after positive detection. And now, with the number of hospital beds running dry with cases exponentially surging, denial of proper treatment and care stares in the face of the citizens. People are confronted with this crisis despite the promise that the period of lockdown would be utilised to build adequate capacity, which has not happened. This inadequacy especially hits hard the poorer and vulnerable sections of the society who are entirely reliant on the public health care system, however fragile and ill-structured it might be. As in regular times, and maybe exponentially more during this pandemic, private vendors continue to fleece people merrily. With the system in crisis,  non-COVID medical emergency services have also been mostly inaccessible,  in the absence of a comprehensive plan, causing immense hardships to the people. Thus, the fundamental right to healthcare as enshrined within the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the right to life as guaranteed within the constitution have become more distant dreams in these troubled times.Hence, TamilNadu government must take over the responsibility for providing testing and hospital treatment, for free. TamilNadu boasts one of the most excellent networks of public health services and private corporate hospitals in the country. Hence, as the load on public health workers has intensified, and their wellbeing is increasingly at risk, the state government must ensure that there is total compulsory participation of all private clinics and hospitals in the frontline healthcare forces combating the epidemic. This step will provide the possibility of the people to avail proper treatment at the government hospital rate, as necessitated upon the govt. as per Public Epidemic
Act of 1896.

The current period of lockdown is utilised on the other hand by the government to incarcerate political activists who raise the voice of protest against government policy. Though some of whom were arrested, got bail soon, the gagging of democratic voice in the name lockdown is anti-democratic and needs to be condemned. 

A long spell of court closure in the name of lockdown affects the ordinary people trying to secure justice. With no court functioning, the legal professionals are also under high strain with limited means for survival as the Bar Association, courts and government have failed to address and mitigate their sufferings.

Overall, CPDR-TN condemns the hasty steps taken by the central and state governments in imposing lockdown without ensuring the safety, security and well being of the people and also for utilising the lockdown period in curbing the democratic rights of the people and arresting of the defenders of democratic rights.



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