This Article is From Mar 10, 2023

Opinion: The Migrant Malaise - Search for Belonging in Tamil Nadu

Sunil Kumar's signature dish when he applies for a job at a Chennai home is rasam. The cook from Jharkhand has perfected the balance of tamarind and spice, impressing prospective employees by making variations of one of the most popular dishes in the country.

For over two decades, he has been perfecting his culinary skills, learning to make traditional south Indian food, picking up the nuances of the language and finding his way around Chennai.

Yet each time his phone lights up with a message about an incident involving migrant workers, he instinctively checks on his friends, calls home, and weighs his options, pushing down the fleeting thought of going back.

When recent videos of north Indian migrant workers being beaten up went viral, Kumar and thousands like him plugged into the informal network they have formed in the absence of effective government information systems or welfare mechanisms to double check ground reality.

The Tamil Nadu state government was quick off the blocks to dispel the videos as "false and baseless" and arrest some for spreading rumours, but it fell short of completely allaying the fears of workers who keep the manufacturing hubs humming and service sectors functioning smoothly across the state.

Migrants like Kumar - who weathered past cases of misinformation, patiently waited for Covid restrictions to be lifted and stuck to their jobs - are aware that while the videos were fake, the reality is that their jobs are precarious and their acceptance in the workplace limited.

Kumar has reconciled to the fact that he will always be considered an outsider in the city where he first arrived as a 15-year-old to work with a catering company, learnt the basics of cooking and slowly went on to become a full-time cook.

But for thousands of younger men and women making the journey into a state where Hindi is opposed, where they are often dubbed 'Biharis' and where they face locals who are deeply resentful of "outsiders stealing their jobs", rumours are enough to send them rushing to buy a return ticket home.

Many took two days off from work, losing wages to stay in their rooms and watch if the fake videos led to any real violence. Some packed their bags, unwilling to wait for something to happen, feeling safer on board a train home.


Researchers estimate that there are around 100 million inter-state migrants in India, while the last Census of 2011 puts the figure at around 4.1 million.

Tamil Nadu has the highest number - over 25 lakh people - engaged in factories in India while states like Jharkhand and Bihar are amongst the lowest, according to the Economic Survey of 2022-23.

State government estimates suggest there are between 6 to 10 lakh migrant workers across manufacturing and service sectors in Tamil Nadu. Post pandemic, while there were promises of a database to account and provide for migrant workers, they have mostly remained on paper.

Ad hoc help desks set up at railway stations and manufacturing hubs have failed to effectively capture the movement of largely unskilled workers from Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh to brick kilns, rice mills, farms, construction sites, spinning mills, factories and services sector in the south.

Government-run skilling programmes have been big contributors to this rising number in recent years, with tens of thousands of trained youth finding placement in factories down south.

There are now factories that employ only "out of state workers" who put in extra shifts, don't unionise and rarely miss work.

In Tirupur and Sriperumbudur, where thousands of migrants work in the auto manufacturing units, there are an increasing number of translators being hired on factory floors to facilitate communication between managements and workers, while canteens are reworking their menus to suit the north Indian palate.

Employers are putting these mechanisms in place, aware of the fact that in the future they will be hiring many more young migrants as the local labour force declines.

The Population projection report of the health and family welfare ministry suggests that Tamil Nadu is expected to have among the lowest population growth rates (8%) between 2011-2036, when India's population will rise to over 150 crores, and urban growth would account for about three-fourth (73 percent) of this total increase.


The absence of a coherent action plan that compliments the slogan that Tamil Nadu is a welcoming and safe state for workers is reflected in the frequent newspaper reports on skirmishes between migrants and residents or trending memes and YouTube videos on the lifestyle of migrant workers.

Pictures of policemen playing Holi with migrant workers and asking them to share it with others, the latest in a series of outreach attempts by the state government, are viewed only as a quick fix.

On Kumar's WhatsApp feed, worried discussions continue even as he plans to bring his wife and three young children to Chennai this summer, hoping to show them a better life in the port city - the beach, idlis, better schools and the friends he has made over the years.

(Anuradha Nagaraj is an award-winning, independent journalist writing on migration, climate change and just transition.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.