Victims of stereotyping: How Chennai treats migrants to the city


A group of workers who have moved from West Bengal, working at a construction site in Velachery. Pic: Meenakshi Ramesh

A migrant belonging to Jharkhand is labelled a rowdy, a person from North East is assumed to be sexually open and those from West Bengal are supposedly ‘dirty.’ From the local tea kadais to the cafeterias, such preconceived notions often form the subject of gossip and casual talk. Migrants who come to cities such as Chennai, are typically at the receiving end of such misplaced bias.

A 2013 research report by J Jeyaranjan of Institute of Development Alternatives, based on a survey of 315 migrant workers across three sectors known to employ them in large numbers (namely, Construction, Manufacturing and Services), found 23 percent of them to be from Assam,  14.6 percent from Odisha (14.6 percent), 14 percent from West Bengal, 13.7 percent from Bihar, 9.5 percent from Andhra Pradesh and 0.3 percent from Tripura.

However, social workers working in the field say that the percentage of people migrating from North east has been increasing over the past five years.

“Finding cheap labour is a problem in food, manufacturing and fashion industries in Chennai. Migrants from the Northeast satiate that demand; all they require is short term training,” says Anupriya Murugesan, a social worker who has prepared a thesis on migration in Chennai.

Lost in despair

“How would one feel when they are forever treated as an outsider? When you walk on the road, and you know that you are being judged for your skin or your appearance, how can you walk comfortably?” questions Alice, a 24-year-old from Nagaland, who has made Chennai her home.

Alice, a makeup artist has migrated to Chennai four years ago. She did not stay in a house for more than six months, due to harassment from house owners Pic: Laasya Shekhar

Four years ago, Alice came to Chennai, in the hope of pursuing her passion of becoming a make up artist. Her dreams, however, were rudely interrupted. Her abilities were doubted and her existence judged. “The chances of getting a good break is much less…(as a migrant and a North-easterner). The recruiters did not have enough faith in me only because I come from the North east. They decided, in a stereotypical way, that my place is backward,” she says. Alice managed to finally find a job as a makeup artist in a reputed salon, but has not seen much growth in her career since then.

The story is almost always the same. Meenu, a native of Darjeeling in West Bengal has been working in a salon for more than ten years. Her increments are usually less, when compared with other workers. “The blame is always on the language. My social skills with customers have been good. When I manage to communicate in Hindi and English with them, why should not knowing Tamil be a problem?” she asks.

Auto-drivers are the worst, they say. Both Alice and Meenu speak of instances when auto-drivers charged them outrageously exorbitant amounts. “I paid Rs 700 to commute a distance of 5 km once,” Alice remembers.

Despite the odds, however, a good number of people migrate to Chennai, in search of jobs. “Chennai is known for its safety. The crime rate is less than in other metros. It is the reason why I came back to Chennai, after a brief stay in Bengaluru,” says Alice.

Testing times

It is perhaps not news that migrants are taken for granted. As the world observes International Migrants Day this year, with the theme ‘Migration with Dignity,’ accounts from our cities show that there is a long way to go before that is achieved. In work places, migrant labour is often deprived of the most necessary and basic of amenities such as a clean toilet, drinking water and a place to rest. During the construction of the St Thomas Mount Metro, for example, migrant workers from Bihar had to adjust in asbestos-sheeted rooms and dilapidated restrooms.

“The construction agency paid us only once in three months. Our houses resembled war-time shelters. We could not go back to our homes either, as we had nothing,” says Phanendra (name changed), a migrant worker who used to work at the St Thomas Mount metro rail site. 

Similarly, builders rarely allocate sufficient budget for providing facilities for these workers. One of the workers from a construction firm, a supervisor said, “It is a fact that they are not given decent homes. But that’s all we can do with the minimum budget set aside for the workers. It doesn’t matter, as these workers from West Bengal are so untidy.”

Then again, rental housing comes with its own share of challenges. Alice, for example, has not stayed in a house for more than six months. House owners lay down may conditions, that include strict curbs on cooking non vegetarian food and allowing visitors. Add to that the prejudice arising from preconceived notions.

“The questions get so personal — extending to our relationships and sexuality. My house owners even had an issue with the way I dress,” says Alice. She has faced sexual harassment at the workplace. “The recruiters, in many occasions, asked for a date in exchange for a promise of a job. One of my bosses casually remarked that we (North east people) are sexually open in general,” she said.

Pattern of migration

The Jeyaranjan report had clearly stated that poor socio-economic status is the arterial reason for migration. The “Inter state migrant worker stream, which started as a trickle a decade ago, rapidly grew in numbers and turned indispensable for the economy of Tamil Nadu. It has evolved as a neatly worked out system with its components of the system of migration, hiring, provision of housing and other amenities, payments, remittances, return migration of these workers etc. A new migrant has to figure out the system and in no time he is part of it,” stated the report.

Even though a majority of locals raise eyebrows at the very sight of migrants, it is the lack of job opportunities in their towns and villages that drive people to migrate to metropolitan cities. Chennai is a temporary option for the migrants whose goal is to save up money and go back home. “I have been working as a cleaner in this hotel for three years, without any increment and weekly offs. We can’t negotiate with the bosses, as they think that we get all that we deserve,” says Malswamthulanga, a Manipur native. It is the absence of agricultural land that forced this Manipur native to work in Chennai. “I am saving money to start a tea shop in Manipur. After all, home is where you are not treated as a stranger,” he said.

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About Laasya Shekhar 287 Articles
Laasya Shekhar is an independent journalist based in Chennai with previous stints in Newslaundry, Citizen Matters and Deccan Chronicle. Laasya holds a Masters degree in Journalism from Bharathiar University and has written extensively on environmental issues, women and child rights, and other critical social and civic issues. She tweets at @plaasya.