How an NGO and the Tamil Nadu govt worked together to send migrants home

Tamil Nadu probably managed the migrant labour situation better than most states till it came to planning their travel back home.

The next major challenge was when the migrants wanted to return home.
The next major challenge was when the migrants wanted to return home.

Chennai-based Bhoomika Trust had provided 93,000 cooked meals to hospitals, shelters and to the migrants heading home in trains till the end of May. It also delivered 65,723 ration kits for two weeks to migrant labourers and daily wage earners left in the lurch. Its aim is to bring up the number to 1 lakh in each category of delivery, and has played a role in helping the migrant labour exodus not becoming a horror story in Tamil Nadu, like in some other states.

Tamil Nadu is a heavily industrialised state—large industries and MSMEs practically run by labour from other states. It was earlier seen as resistant to outsiders, but has been welcoming labour from other states in the last 20 years. It, possibly, has over 10 lakh migrant workers and a majority of them are unskilled. Bhoomika Trust’s focus has been on crisis and disaster management since it was set up in 2001 to help Gujarat earthquake victims. It has worked extensively with people affected by the 2004 tsunami, Chennai’s disastrous floods of December 2015, the 2016 cyclone Vardah, and floods in Kerala, Odisha, Assam and other parts of the country.

Jayendra Panchapakesan, a film-maker and founder of Qube Cinema, launched the NGO, and is the founder-trustee of Bhoomika. “Whenever disaster strikes, we first look at whom it affects the most. With the Covid-19 lockdown, we found that senior citizens living alone, people with medical problems who need constant attention but cannot find transport, and migrant labourers who were thrown out of jobs and homes were suffering the most,” he says. “We started helping them by distributing ration kits. We were able to jump into action because of the experience acquired over the years. We keep aside a crisis management fund for emergencies.” It’s a challenge when you are dealing with migrant labour. “Under normal circumstances, we usually go to a village, and hand over ration kits to one person who distributes it to everybody. Migrants are spread out and live in small clusters. Disasters are normally limited to a particular geographical area, such as the tsunami in the southern coastal belt or Chennai floods, which makes things easier,” says Panchapakesan. “Here, however, we were working with our hands tied. There is absolutely no database on migrant labour. Getting in touch with them was difficult. We got the civil society and compassionate citizens to help us track them down.”

Panchapakesan tweeted Bhoomika’s senior citizen helpline numbers, asking for migrant labour details. Social media picked it up and information started coming from concerned citizens. Location planning was consolidated and companies like TVS Logistics provided trucks to reach the clusters.

Yet another challenge was resistance from local communities who had not yet received provisions from the government. “We knew the locals would get it soon. To avoid trouble, we asked a representative from the cluster to come to the main road to receive the kits. City Corporation did not want us to distribute cooked food to them in the earlier days, but came round to letting us do so.”

The next major challenge was when the migrants wanted to return home. Tamil Nadu probably managed the migrant labour situation better than most states till it came to planning their travel back home. For several weeks, there were glitches and major communication problems in arranging their return.

Aruna Subramaniam, managing trustee, Bhoomika, and a management professional, says, “Extraordinary situations need extraordinary solutions. Behind every call from a migrant labour, back-breaking work begins. It is a management nightmare. We have to constantly innovate and improvise. We have to be alert and stay in touch with the government, corporation and police. All the officials have been working tirelessly and selflessly to contain the crisis as best as they can.”

Bhoomika reached out to the Greater Chennai Corporation to help in sending migrant workers back home. To start with, it offered to validate the registrations on the official portal pertaining to one state, Jharkhand. “We started the process in right earnest on May 17, and overnight we formed a large remote team of Hindi-speaking volunteers. Over 70 volunteers, most of them professionals with jobs, were divided into subgroups and were assigned dockets of registered information. A data management team took charge, dividing and consolidating information.”

They went through thousands of registrations, which included group registrations, taking the potential tally of those wanting to go back home to over 20,000. The volunteers called each registered number, verified their information, their desire to travel, and their current location. The data of those wanting to go home was continually fed to the administration, which started directing them to trains. The police sent out texts of train details along with the location of the nearest police station to the migrants and volunteers to help them assemble on the date of travel.

After verification, they were sent in vehicles to the station to board the train. The volunteering team took this process to a different level. They tracked them till they reached the designated location on time.

These volunteers were from Chennai Volunteers, founded by social entrepreneur Rinku Mecheri, an MBA with an advertising background. “This initiative leverages technology to engage volunteers with non-profits.” Mecheri is also a trustee of Bhoomika. “The techies in the groups really rose to the occasion. A volunteer did some necessary coding at breakneck speed (4-5 hours) which would have normally taken a few days. There was so much compassion shown by the corporates. Zoho developed a special app for us. We now feel we can handle any disaster.”

There has been interstate cooperation as well. Bhoomika got a call from the Hunger Collective, an organisation in Mumbai, to inform them that migrant labour from Tamil Nadu was returning from Mumbai by a special train and that they were not likely to get food on their journey. With just over two hours left for the train to reach Guntakal in Andhra Pradesh, where it was to take a halt, Bhoomika approached the Commissioner of Police, Chennai, asking help to connect to the police team in Guntakal to coordinate and help organise food.

“Chennai police commissioner’s request to the SP of Anantapur, the district headquarters, was enough to swing the team into action. When the train reached Guntakal, the passengers were surprised to find an entire police team waiting for them with food. A sumptuous meal was put together in a matter of two hours,” Panchapakesan says. “When Bhoomika offered to pay the food bill, the police team refused and thanked us for giving the opportunity to serve the migrant labourers.”

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