At a time when images of migrant workers desperately trying to return home play out across the country, only 1.6% of the estimated 2.5 million such labourers in Kerala have made way back to their hometowns.
Some estimates peg the migrant worker population in Kerala at over 3 million.
Be that as it may, the figure underscores the state's deft handling of the crisis and is indicative of how the local authorities have been taking care of this vulnerable lot during the lockdown which has led to job losses and made their survival difficult.
Kerala has been offering them food, shelter, and more recently, jobs.
Only 40,000 workers have returned home so far in the 'Shramik' special trains arranged by the Centre, said an official with the state labour department, requesting anonymity.
Kerala has been for years an attractive destination for a large number of workers from northern and eastern states for blue collar jobs, much like how the Arab Gulf countries attract working-age youth from Kerala.
It is a nearly three-decades old phenomenon, which has made ‘Mishti Doi’, a Bengali specialty, common at some places in the state.
The state has waived off rent, electricity and water charge for migrant workers until 31 May. The police have shared their numbers, including that of the top cop Loknath Behra, for migrants to reach out for help.
Labour contractors have been asked to provide for food and accommodation of migrants in distress, in which they are also assisted by welfare organisations. The state has been proactively offering free food and shelter to nearly every migrant since as early as 27 March, when it opened 5,000 relief camps and over 200,000 community kitchens. Migrants are also offered dry ration that they could cook.
The labour department has formed WhatsApp groups to push multilingual messages assuring help, besides opening call centres in at least five languages.
In Perumbavoor, a major migrant cluster of nearly 9,000 people, the police had distributed ten carrom boards and five 32-inch television (TV) sets that can play movies on pen drives, in order to keep the migrants engaged when they do not have work. The state benefits from a well-entrenched database of migrants and training dozens of them over the last year to be 'link workers' in order to connect with the local population.
But not all is rosy.
There were protests by migrants on Tuesday in Kozhikode and Kannur when their ration ran out. After the protests, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced that officers of Deputy Superintendent of police (DySP) rank will visit all labour camps and ensure the supply of ration, essential commodities and medical services. They will also convince the workers to remain in their current places of stay, and ensure all safety practices until train services are re-started to take them home, he said.
The low-return rates could well be a result of welfare initiatives, as well as a factor of the long distance to travel, the fewer number of trains and the high fares charged by the Railways, said Shivaprasad, an official at Perumbavoor police station. "....But we still get hundreds of calls, day and night, asking when is the next train."
While most of India continues to see a rise in covid-19 cases, Kerala managed to flatten the curve earlier this month and allowed businesses to reopen. As a result, migrants have also started getting work.
"We have restarted work in our factory, only 20 have left out of the 100-odd workforce," said Hamsa, who runs a large plywood factory in Perumbavoor.
Till Tuesday, nearly 50,000 citizens of Assam had returned but not among them came from from Kerala, where an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 youths from the northeast state are employed, reported Times of India on Wednesday. "Except for only a few, we are comfortably placed and do not want to go back to Assam," Dimbeswar Baruah from Assam’s Dhemajo district, who has been working in Kerala since 1995, told the paper.