Purnima Gogoi of Abhoypuriya village, about 15 km from Sivasagar in upper Assam, is happy that her only son Indrajit, a Class VIII dropout, agreed to go to Kerala — 4,233 km and 83 hours away by train — instead of wasting on cheap liquor whatever little he used to earn in daily wages as a labourer in nearby villages. “Here he would hardly get Rs 200 a day for tilling land or working under a road contractor. He went to Kerala in May 2015, found a job almost immediately, and has been sending home Rs 10,000 every month. What else do you want?” asked the 60-year-old.
“I had been hearing about boys finding jobs in Kerala for a while, and when I discovered that a brother-in-law of my youngest daughter has been working there for over 10 years, I immediately contacted him and asked him to take my son, too,” said Purnima. Her relative, Jiten Gogoi, has so far taken 10 others from the village to Kerala, she added.
Indrajit’s wife Ritamoni, who has studied up to Class VII, does not know where exactly in Kerala her husband works or what he does there. “I am not bothered about that. He calls me up two to three times a day, says he is OK, that is enough for me,” she said, before picking up her mobile phone to dial her husband. Speaking minutes later to The Indian Express, Indrajit said, “I work in a tiles factory in Chingavanam in Kottayam. All 40 workers in this factory are from Assam, mostly from Sivasagar district, and we all stay inside the factory itself.”
In neighbouring Khongiyagaon village, Renu Borah does not want to “even hear the word Kerala”. “Everybody talks about sending their sons to Kerala. But what did we get? Our son Kailash had hardly reached Kerala in May this year when he was brutally murdered,” she said. Her husband Bimola Prasad Borah, who retired as assistant station master with the railways eight years ago, said, “He could not find a job here because we could not pay bribes. Whether in the state police or in the railways, they ask for lakhs of rupees for a grade IV job. When he finally decided to go to Kerala, we were happy because other boys working there were sending home a lot of money every month. But no sooner had he landed there, he was killed,” said Borah, sobbing.
Kailash, who had completed Class XII in 1996, had gone to Kerala with two other youths from the same village, and was beaten to death by a mob at Malakunnam near Chingavanam, who mistook him for a thief after he got separated from his friends after reaching Kottayam by train on May 6.
“There must be over 150 boys in different places in Kerala from these 10-12 villages here, most of whom have left in the last two to three years. There are so many reasons for this migration, the two most important ones being lack of opportunities here and better wages in Kerala,” said S S Zaman, principal of Shahid Peopli Phukan College, which is located right at the centre of these villages. “No wonder, about half the boys enrolled in the higher secondary classes (XI-XII) disappear before completing the two-year course. The same is the case with boys enrolling for the three-year BA course,” he added. And this has happened despite these villages being located in the heart of Assam’s oilfields.
“It’s not that the unemployed youth of Assam are going for work only to Kerala. But yes, Kerala is a new route for migrant workers that has developed over the last few years,” said Anand Prakash Tiwari, SP, Sivasagar. “The Kerala route started becoming popular after a direct train, the Dibrugarh-Kanyakumari Vivek Express, was launched in 2011,” said Saumar Jyoti Mahanta, principal of Sivasagar Commerce College. For boys from villages in the area, it is just about 60 km to Mariani, the nearest railway junction to board that train, and embark on the longest rail journey in India. This weekly train, leaving Dibrugarh every Saturday night, stops at 11 stations in Assam — Tinsukia, Mariani, Furkating, Dimapur, Diphu, Lumding, Jagiroad, Guwahati, Goalpara, New Bongaigaon and Kokrajhar — before entering West Bengal. And, on any given trip, “at least 400-500 young job-seekers” from the state head for Kerala, according to unofficial estimates.
While central government figures on internal migration are still based on the 2001 Census, the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) last pegged the number at 326 million in 2007-08, or 28.5 per cent of the population at the time. In 2013, a Unesco study ‘Social Inclusion of Internal Migrants in India’, projected that the number of internal migrants may cross approximately 400 million according to Census 2011 — nearly double that of China’s approximately 221 million in 2010. “There are conspicuous migration corridors within the country: Bihar to the National Capital Region, Bihar to Haryana and Punjab, UP to Maharashtra, Odisha to Gujarat, Odisha to Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan to Gujarat,” the study stated.
Researchers and officials have now added the Assam-Kerala pipeline to that list. In 2013, M P Joseph, a retired IAS officer and advisor to the Kerala government at the time on labour affairs, helmed a study ‘Domestic Migrant Labour in Kerala’ that pegged the annual number of domestic migrants newly arriving in the state for work at 2,35,000.
The Assam government’s Economic Survey says the registered number of unemployed people increased from 16 lakh in 2004 to over 23 lakh in 2015. Over 46 per cent of them are Class X-pass, and 30 per cent have completed Class XII. The government is yet to collate figures on how many people have migrated to different states for livelihood, but economist Amiya Sarma, executive director of the Guwahati-based Rashtriya Gramin Vikas Nidhi (RGVN), puts the number at around 20 lakh.
Sarma sees “a lot of positive impact of this new migration route” despite the problems in Assam that have pushed large number of young men to seek jobs outside. “The most important result is the cash flow to the state, which is already helping people in interior villages improve their basic standard of living,” Sarma said.