Updated: March 18, 2020 2:01:37 am
Dropping out of school in his native Murshidabad in West Bengal, Milon Shaikh, as a minor, travelled 2,500 kilometres to the outskirts of Kochi in Kerala searching for odd jobs. For him, it was meant to be a short stint, to make some quick money and travel back home to his family. But, it’s been a decade and Shaikh has not gone back since. During this period, the 24-year-old worked extensively among the migrant communities in the area, understanding their problems and fighting for their rights while stitching his own livelihood on the side.
Last December, Shaikh was chosen alongside 10 other persons by the Ernakulam district administration in Kerala to function as migrant ‘link’ workers as part of the ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ project. The objective was simple: the local government would use the leadership and multi-lingual communication skills of people like Shaikh to engage more effectively with the guest workers.
For a state whose guest worker population has swelled to above 25 lakh according to some estimates, every potential crisis needs to factor them in too. And so, when the coronavirus infection knocked on the doors of the state, the district authorities were quick to call on the services of Shaikh and other ‘link’ workers to build awareness among the migrant communities.
People like him are at the forefront of the administration’s defence against the Covid-19 infection as it was crucial to not leak the infection into their community.
Akhil Manuel, nodal officer of the project, told The Indian Express, “We wanted to cut down on the communication gap with the migrants and penetrate into their society. So as part of training the link workers, camps were held by different government wings like health, labour, excise, police and legal.”
In the wake of the Covid-19 spread, special instructions were given to the link workers in terms of dissemination of the proper health protocol and the do’s and dont’s of basic personal hygiene in conjunction with the National Health Mission (NHM). As many of these workers lived in squalid, cramped spaces, ensuring hygiene was critical to arresting the spread of the infection into the community.
Manuel continued, “We didn’t want to create panic among them. Since many of them don’t know how to read and write, written messages essentially wouldn’t work. So we created audio messages in languages like Bengali, Odiya, Assamese, Hindi, Tamil among others and disseminated them through our link workers. We have been successful in allaying their fears to a large extent.”
Shaikh admitted that there’s a problem of personal hygiene within the community that has mainly to do with their accommodation choices. There have been some changes over the years, but in migrant hubs like Perumbavoor and Muvattupuzha, segregated colonies exist with guest workers packed into rooms in squalid buildings. Successive governments have promised to build them cleaner residences, but such promises have largely remained on paper.
“The houses we get on rent are never good. Many people even live in sheds with no proper bathrooms. The landlords bother only about the rent. They don’t care how we live. Because we don’t have much choices, we opt for such accommodation,” said Shaikh, who’s cultivating vegetables on 60-acres of leased land in Nedumbassery near the Cochin airport. Shaikh, who also moonlights as a labour contractor, speaks fluent Malayalam, thanks to dozens of hours spent on watching flicks of yesteryear superstars like Prem Nazir and Madhu.
In the time of coronavirus, Shaikh has been fielding calls from anxious workers enquiring whether they should head for their native states. “Obviously, there’s a sense of fear. Many of them are leaving too because there’s little work here at the moment,” he said.
The administration, which pays the ‘link’ workers dearness allowances for their work, have linked them to primary health centres so that guest workers can navigate the public health spaces without hurdles. “We have advised them to wash hands regularly with soap and approach government hospitals if they suffer from fever or cough. The treatment and medicines are free of cost so they don’t have to worry about anything,” he said.
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