Jisha case: Arrest of migrant may upend Kerala’s labour dynamics

Kerala predominantly depends on domestic migrant labourers


Every 14th person in Kerala’s population of 33 million is likely to be a migrant labourer. Photo: Mint
Every 14th person in Kerala’s population of 33 million is likely to be a migrant labourer. Photo: Mint

Bangalore: Will the arrest of a labourer from Assam suspected of raping and killing 28-year-old law student Jisha affect the labour market in Kerala?

Jisha was killed on 28 April in the small tenement that she shared with her mother. It was a particularly brutal rape-murder and her body bore as many as 38 injuries, including one to the head that is thought to be the cause of death.

Kerala depends inordinately on what the state calls domestic migrant labour to get work done. A 2013 study by the state labour department estimated the number of people from other states employed in mostly menial jobs at some 2.5 million.

That means every 14th person in the state of 33 million people is likely to be a migrant labourer. Every fourth male between the ages of 20 and 64 in Kerala today is likely to be a migrant. Most of the migrants are from Uttar Pradesh and Assam, the study says and they send about Rs.19,000 crore home every year.

But will the Jisha incident tip the balance in a state that itself is no stranger to working outside of one’s homeland?

“Jisha’s murder has the potential now to deepen the already existing social alienation towards the migrant population. People seems to be almost relieved to hear that it’s not one among them but a migrant labourer. In private discussions, I’m hearing even learned men saying bad things about migrant labourers now. To me, it’s as same as someone saying all Muslims are terrorists after some Islamic outfit carries a terror attack,” said P. S. Sreekala, a writer and director of a Kerala-based think tank called Women’s Studies Centre.

Not that it isn’t already happening. In May this year, soon after news of Jisha’s brutal rape-murder broke, a migrant labourer, also from Assam, was lynched in Kottayam district after locals accused him of robbery. In the months before that, another man spent some months locked up after a mob at a railway station accused him of theft—only for him to be acquitted by a court later for lack of evidence.

“The discussion that migrants are more prone to make such problems, that is very unhealthy and we shouldn’t be promoting such discussions,” says Harilal K. N., a professor at the Thiruvananthapuram-based Centre for Development Studies.

“The migrants will show every other characteristic of a floating population. They will drink and have pot, because their families are not around...The question is whether we can set aside our prejudices and accommodate them into the mainstream society,” said S. Irudaya Rajan of CDS, who has been studying India’s domestic labour migration for long.

“The broader question that needs to be asked is can Kerala manage without migrant labourers. The migrants may go to any other state where they are well paid. But can Kerala manage without them? I don’t think so,” he said.

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