Migrants from the northeast are stuck between hostile employers and unemployment at home

In this photo taken in 2012, people from India’s northeastern states wait to board trains to leave for home, at a railway station in Chennai. During the national lockdown in 2020, tens of thousands of migrants from the northeastern states working in mainland India are among the most vulnerable populations. Many face severe abuse by their employers and landlords, and are struggling to return to their home states. Arun sankar K / AP Photo

“I had this dream. That I will work hard and save up all my money this year to buy a land in my village in Arunachal Pradesh and build a home where I can stay with my children,” Anita Chakma, a labourer who worked in Tirupur district of Tamil Nadu, said. “My husband used to take drugs and alcohol and beat me up. After we had a son, he told me he would not beat me anymore if I gave him a daughter. Two and a half years later, we had a daughter. But he continued to beat me.” Anita told me she bore the abuse for six years but decided to leave him for good when she found out that he was having an extramarital affair. To fend for herself, in 2017, she decided to go to Tirupur in Tamil Nadu and join her cousin who was working in a garment factory.

She planned to save up her income and build a home for her son, who she said is facing physical abuse in her ex-husband’s house. Her dreams, however, ground to a halt when the central government announced a nationwide lockdown on 24 March, to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The garment manufacturer she was working for closed the factory, and the last paycheck she received was for the work she did in April. She told me that if she did not go back to her village in Arunachal Pradesh soon, she was bound to starve. “At home, we can go to the forest and search for vegetables but here everything costs so much money and we are running out of money,” Anita said. She lives in a hostel accommodation in Tirupur with four other female workers of the company. Their employer gave them five kilograms of rice, two kilograms of lentils, one kilogram each of wheat flour and semolina in March. But since that ran out six weeks ago weeks ago, they have been struggling to make ends meet.

Anita’s story is similar to tens of thousands of migrants from the northeastern states working in mainland India. Gyms, spas, restaurants and malls were a part of the worst hit sectors due to the lockdown—many of them shuttered down even prior to 24 March and are expected to be among the last to resume operations when the restrictions are eased. Several migrants from northeast India whom I spoke to worked in these sectors in mainland India. Migrants from these states often work in precarious conditions and are dependent on their employers, who often control their food supply too. Many a times, they have to live in accommodation owned or rented by their employers as well.

This has led to several cases of employers abusing, starving or evicting employees who hail from northeast India. With very little support from the governments of their host and home states, they were left with little access to money or food during the lockdown, and also struggled to return home. Many of them are further scared that returning to their homes, which have few job opportunities, will lose them the livelihood they were able to earn in mainland India.

Tirupur, one of the largest industrial hubs of the country, is heavily reliant on migrant labourers. According to a survey carried out by the Micro Small and Medium Industries Development Institute, based in Chennai, the district alone accounts for 90 percent of India’s cotton knitwear export. This export is estimated to be valued at around seven thousand five hundred crore rupees. The Chennai-based newspaper Daily Thanthi reported this month that there are 1.3 lakh migrant workers in the district who make up a majority of the industrial workforce.

A sizeable number of the workers in Tirupur come from the states of the northeast, according to Dilip Chakma, the president of the All India Chakma Students Union. The AICSU is a students’ union representing Chakmas, an ethnic group scattered across Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Assam. He told me there are around a thousand Chakmas who are engaged as laborers in Tirupur. The AICSU has been in contact with several migrants from the community who have been mistreated by employers and landlords in Tamil Nadu.

A Chakma migrant who worked at the Ritika Garment factory, in Tirupur’s Anna Nagar locality, described the persecution that employees from his community had faced at the workplace during the lockdown. Twenty-seven Chakmas work in the factory, including nine women. On 5 May, Raja Shekar, the owner of the Ritika Garment factory, beat up seven of his employees who were from the Chakma community. The owner had also disconnected the electricity and water to their residence because they did not show up to work on 5 May.

“We did not go to work because we were afraid that we would catch the virus as we had heard of some positive cases in the district,” one of the Chakma migrants, who wished to remain anonymous, told me. By then, 114 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Tirupur district. “We even asked for masks but we were not given any. Our company owner came to our accommodation and without saying anything started beating us up.” Drishya Muni Chakma, the president of Arunachal Pradesh Chakma Students Union—a student organisation for the Chakma students of Arunachal Pradesh—said that they had taken up the issue with the local police. Following this, Drishya said that the owner apologised to the victims assuring them that such an incident would not happen again.

Drishya told me that since 3 May, the APCSU had received complaints every day of Chakma migrant workers getting beaten up, mostly from Tirupur area. “They are forced to go for duty even though it is a containment area. It is happening in many companies.” According to him, from the complaints they have received so far, approximately forty people have been beaten up at their workplaces. He told me the issue has been taken up with the police, but they are not helpful. Drishya said their usual response is that such cases are getting reported everywhere across India and that there is no solution to it. 

A 16-year-old migrant worker who worked at a factory in Tirupur told me, “I am scared, I want to go home.” He hails from Diyun village in Arunachal Pradesh’s Changlang district. None of the workers had been paid since the lockdown began, he said. “I had Rs 3,000 with me, but that is finished. The government said they will give us money, but I have not received anything.” He was referring to the Arunachal Pradesh government’s promise of giving financial assistance to stranded migrants. But those who wanted to access aid had to apply through a form on the Arunachal Pradesh government’s website, which is not easily accessible for all migrants.

“A majority of Chakma migrant workers do not know of the government provided links to access aid,” said Paritosh Chakma, the general secretary of the All India Chakma Social Forum—an organisation for the economic and cultural development of the Chakma community. “They don’t know where to fill and how to fill up, some of them don’t even have bank accounts,” he said. “To create a bank account, you need to have address proof but many of them do not have it because in Arunachal Pradesh, they don’t have voter cards due to exclusion from voter list,” he said.

The Chakma and Hajong communities were given voting rights in Arunachal Pradesh only in 2014. Both communities had migrated from the Chittagong Hill Tracts in erstwhile East Pakistan in the 1960s, but many still remain unrecogonised in Indian electoral rolls. According to the latest records for the Bordumsa-Diyun region and Miao district—which house 90 percent of the Chakma and Hajong population in Arunachal—there are only 4,293 registered voters from the two communities. This is only a fraction of their total population, which was estimated to be 65,851 in a 2016 state survey.

Chakma migrants in other parts of Tirupur too complained about facing similar struggles. Mayasona Chakma, 20-year-old who works at a factory of the Acme Exports, a textile company, told me about how her employers were going back on the promises they had made when they were hired. “We were told we would be provided a free room, but now they are asking for rent,” Mayasona told me. “If we tell our owner that other companies are providing their workers with rice and dal, he tells us, ‘Go to that company.’”

“I left school and came here because there was no one to provide for my family,” she continued. “Earlier, I used to keep Rs 300 for myself and send all my earnings to my parents every week. But now since I have nothing, my mother took a loan and sent me Rs 5,000 but even that money is finishing.” She told me she has not received her salary since 2 April. “We eat only twice a day, because we have very little rice. I will go home if there is a train for us, but I will have to come back because I have to earn for my family.”

Everyone I spoke to emphasised that workers from the northeastern states were potentially looking at a long period of unemployment. Lalnuntluanga Colney, the general secretary of the Northeast India Welfare Association in Chennai—a platform that represents the interests of members from all eight northeastern states—told me he was concerned about the future employment opportunities for the migrants from the northeastern states. “Most of the people in the unorganised sector are now in a dilemma as the places where they are working have already been shut down and many of them have not received their wages,” he said. “According to financial experts, the places where they work—movie theatres, shopping malls, restaurants, bars, spas and hotels are likely to be the hardest hit industries post COVID-19. People are likely to be reluctant to go for a movie or go for a massage post COVID-19 due to fear and physical distancing. A lot of these migrants are likely to come back to their villages and towns unemployed, leading them to greater poverty.”

Establishments such as gyms, spas, malls and restaurants were among the first to shut down when states, including Tamil Nadu, started announcing protective measures against the spread of the pandemic. Migrants from the northeast such as Ringsophy Lutkham, a powerlifting and boxing enthusiast from the state of Manipur, were among the first affected by the lockdown. Lutkham was training in Chennai while also working part-time at a gym to make ends meet.  

“Because I am a boxer, I needed some job plus I want to study more and go abroad for boxing,” she said. Lutkham had previously trained in Mary Kom Boxing Academy, in Imphal, Manipur. She came to Chennai in March 2016 hoping to get a chance to enhance her skills. In 2019, Lutkham started seeing success when she bagged the second position at a powerlifting championship organised by the Chennai Powerlifting Association. The lockdown has however brought a sudden end to her hopes.

Due to the lockdown, the gym was shuttered. Facing difficulties in paying her rent, Lutkham moved to a shelter home arranged by the NIWA’s in Chennai, in partnership with the Tamil Nadu government. “I want to stay here because if I go back, my landlord may not allow me to enter,” she said. “Even if I go home to Manipur, I will not have money because I was not paid for March but it is better that I go home. I will try to come back after everything is solved.”

A 20-year-old from Mizoram who also stays in one of the three NIWA shelters in Chennai spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. He began his first job as a trainee in a hotel in April 2019. It was his first job. “I had a vision that after I completed my one-year experience I would arrange for a passport and apply for the receptionist position at the Princess Cruise in California,” he said. However, now that the hotel has closed due to the lockdown, he cannot receive his experience certificate, which is mandatory to apply to the cruise.

The 20-year-old plans to return to Mizoram but is concerned about his future. “For someone in the management line, there are no hotel facilities where we can be employed in my state and in the few good hotels, such as Floria or Regency, the starting salary is very low,” he said. “No one who works in the restaurant and spas in the cities here wants to return home and work in Aizawl because we all know the pay is very little there.”

Returning to Mizoram will also be a struggle for him. He told me that he and his friends are concerned that their savings had entirely dried up during the lockdown and their only hope was that the government will finance their travel. According to a report in the Deccan Herald, there are 5,546 Mizo people stranded in 32 states and union territories, out of whom 3,194 are private sector employees. The Mizoram government arranged a train for 884 stranded Mizos in Chennai who reached Mizoram on 15 May. SJ Chiru, Tamil Nadu’s nodal officer for the movement of stranded persons to Assam and the northeast, did not respond when contacted over the phone.

Migrants from the northeastern states suffer the same issues in other parts of the country too. In Gujarat, Inalito Koshe, who hails from Zunheboto district in Nagaland, lost her entire savings. Koshe, a 20-year-old, works at Iscon Mega Mall in Ahmedabad and has not received any wages since the lockdown began. Her parents are farmers and she has seven siblings whom she helps support. She plans to return home, but has no idea how she will contribute to the meagre household income even if she reaches back. The government of Nagaland is advising migrants to remain in their places of work and offering Rs 10,000 to citizens who do so. Over eighteen thousand stranded people from Nagaland have registered themselves with the state government’s online portal to return to their homes.

With minimal government support for migrants, organisations that represent the interest of communities from northeastern states have been played a pivotal role in ensuring welfare of people from the northeast. Pranab Jyoti Borah, the former general secretary of the Assam Association—a joint forum of Assamese people in Bengaluru—said he has received over a thousand calls from residents hailing from different parts of the northeast.

“In the first part of the lockdown, people called because they did not have food and also, because they were not getting salary,” Borah said. “In the second phase of the lockdown, they started calling for issues with paying house rent and job layoffs.” He said 20 people from Assam had recently lost their jobs after a hotel in Bengaluru’s Indiranagar area where they were working shut down. In Shivaji Nagar, also in Bengaluru, the northeastern employees of another hotel were also fired without their salary and asked to vacate their accommodation.

The association has made efforts to negotiate with hotel and restaurant owners in such cases. While some cooperate, several instead resort to taking more punitive measures against their employees. “When appeals are made with employers, they in turn harass their workers saying why are you complaining against us,” Borah said. “There is no arrangement for the northeast people from the government’s side in Bangalore and we cannot help much, all we can do is listen to their pain patiently.”

An NDTV report published on 11 May claimed that Assam has more than six lakh migrant workers stuck in different parts of the country. The state government announced that they would arrange special trains to repatriate migrants. The state government says that a train from Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Kochi in the next few days. GP Singh, Assam’s additional director general of police (law and order), who is the nodal officer for returning migrants to the state, did not respond to queries when contacted over the phone.

In Pune, the Northeast Community Organisation Pune—an organisations representing people from the northeast who live in Pune—felt unequipped to handle a crisis of this scale. “There are a lot of issues faced by the whole northeast population, many people work in hotels or unorganised sectors,” SK Sourriio Hitler, an advisor at the NECOP, told me. All the people who called and complained to them about their conditions said that they had not gotten their salaries for the month of March. He said that his organisation had not complained to the police because the owners promised to pay the workers once the lockdown ended.

He said that most migrants were now more concerned about trying to get home than receiving their pending salaries. According to data collected by the NECOP, there are roughly five hundred migrants from the northeastern states in Pune who have listed themselves as wanting to return home. Assam was the first state from the northeast to submit the list of stranded citizens who wanted to go home. However, Hitler said, that state governments from the northeast had not organised any transportation for migrants in Pune who are intent on returning. “For us it is impossible to move by bus from Pune to northeast,” he said. “The northeast migrants are really helpless, transportation by road is impossible because even by train it takes up to four days to reach certain parts of the northeast.”

Another such organisation working with migrants is the Bangalore Bru Welfare Association. They represent Bru migrants from Tripura, with around one thousand from the community in Bengaluru, who work in restaurants and garment factories. “The Bru welfare association has not received any help from any government so we partner with NGOs to provide relief to those who are in need,” Khakhom Hebral, the president of the BBWA told me. He said that monetary aid promised by the Tripura government had reached only some stranded migrants while others were left without any money. He added that Karnataka had about four thousand Brus who wanted to return to Tripura. Manjunath Prasad, Karnataka’s nodal officer for interstate travel, did not respond when contacted over the phone.

I spoke to a 32-year-old man in Bengaluru who hails from the Bodoland Territorial Region’s Chirang district, in Assam. He told me he is afraid to share his identity or speak about his problem because the owner of the restaurant where he works has been threatening him against making any complaints. “The owner lives right above me and is keeping a keen eye on me so I am sitting quiet,” he said. “We are having problem with money and problem with food. Bangalore Bodo Association gave us some food and the Assam government gave us Rs 2,000 which is sustaining us.” He stays with 20 other people from Assam in a room attached to the restaurant.

He came to Bangalore in 2014 and has been working in the same restaurant since. The government of Assam announced that stranded migrants from the state could give a missed call to a government helpline number which would allow them to register onto a “stranded residents” list. The 32-year-old has registered and is awaiting government-organised transportation back to Assam. “Things will be difficult even if I go back to Assam, but at least I can be with my family,” he said. “Here, even if we get sick, we don’t get to meet any doctors. That’s why I want to go to my village.”

However, returning to the northeast seems economically unviable for many migrants. A 35-year-old Mizo woman, who requested anonymity, said that she worries for her future if she returns to Mizoram. She is currently working as a spa therapist in Pune and said she would not be able to get as stable a job if she returns to the city after the end of the lockdown. “I am not educated, I studied only till class ten, so there is no chance for me to get employment in Mizoram,” she said. “If I had completed my education there might be some chances but now even the educated are not getting jobs so I don’t have any hope from the government. Even if I wanted to start a business, I do not have money as we are quite poor. Here at least, I have a source of income.”

Rosalyn L Hmar, an advocate with the Mizoram chapter of the Human Rights Law Network—a collective of human-rights lawyers and activists—said the situation is similar for many from Mizoram. She has been working with BS Gill, a retired brigadier, in reaching out to the Mizos stranded across the country.

“Seeing how many youth have left the state in search of jobs makes it evident that the government has to do something to create more jobs for its youth,” Hmar said. “It is only in Ladakh, Lakshwadeep, Dadra and Nagar Haveli that we did not find any Mizos. I find it pitiful to see so many youth leaving the state to look for jobs.” Hmar and Gill helped provide food and medical relief to over a hundred people across the country but said that their means are limited and the crisis will be a long one. “With the precautions of social distancing, there is no time frame as to when hotels, beauty care and close contact businesses will open,” Gill said.

The states of northeastern India make up a large part of India’s migratory workforce because of the consistent lack of employment opportunities in the region. The Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation’s Report on Periodic Labour Force Survey for 2017–2018 concluded that the unemployment rate consistently crossed five percent in six northeastern states. In some states, they were far higher though—with 21.4 percent unemployment in Nagaland, 11.5 percent in Manipur, 10.1 percent in Mizoram, 7.9 percent in Assam, 6.8 percent in Tripura and 5.8 percent in Arunachal Pradesh.

These unemployment rates have likely further shot up after the lockdown was announced. As of April, 122 million people had lost their jobs in the last year, according to a report by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, a business information company. While the nationwide unemployment rate was 23.5 percent in April, by 3 May, it had risen to 27.1 percent. The rates are bound to be higher yet in a chronically underemployed region like the northeast. The CMIE report also argued that small traders and wage labourers—professions often taken up by migrants from the northeast—are hit the hardest. Between March and April, 91 million people in these industries lost their jobs, according to the report.

Many migrants stranded across the country said they will feel confident in returning to their home states if they can expect some form of employment there. Banteidor Lyngdoh, Meghalaya’s minister of sport and youth affairs, said, “Now everything is at a standstill but we can try our best, to create job opportunities for the youth.” He continued, “We cannot promise anything as everything is not going in the right track and things are very difficult for the government. We have been blessed in mineral resources and in the agricultural sector. We are a potential state for food processing, people can start entrepreneurship programs though it might take much time.” According to Prestone Tynsong, the deputy chief minister of Meghalaya, there are more than eight thousand youth from Meghalaya stranded outside the states of the northeast. Tynsong promised on 7 May that arrangements will be made for them to return from 11 May.

The government of Mizoram has also promised job creation within the state. “While we cannot provide employment opportunities akin to a company, we have made a post COVID-19 plan where we have decided to conduct profiling of job loss and are currently preparing the policies,” Vanlaltanpuia, the chairperson of the Mizoram Youth Commission—a government agency centered on youth development—said. “Through this data, we will help train the youth to be employable through skill development programs and other training courses. There are employment opportunities in logistics and supply of agriculture and horticulture production through digital programs.”

Officials from other states made even vaguer promises. “Our first priority is safety and security of human beings,” Thokchom Radheshyam Singh, Manipur’s minister of education, labour and employment, said. “As of now, there is a lockdown, so skill training and education is difficult. It is not proper right now to talk of employment. We don’t have any plan but we are thinking of engaging more people in agricultural activities. Once the lockdown is over, we can provide skill training depending on the demand of the state whether plumbing, carpentry or others which are of a short duration.” Tripura, too, did not have a plan to create employment opportunities for the returning migrants. “It has to be discussed at the level of the chief secretary; the matter has not been discussed till now. So, I cannot give a comment,” Deepa D Nair, Tripura’s special secretary for the directorate of labour, said.

The slow speed at which governments, both from the northeast and mainland India, are offering aid to migrants has left their lives in precarity. Small and financially weak community organisations can only carry the burden of housing, feeding and offering relief to migrants for a short while. “People have lost hope, some have not been getting salaries for two months. How many days can we feed them?” Hebral, the president of BBWA, told me. “If lockdown goes on, and people are asking for food for the fourth or fifth time, I can’t say no, so I have to beg someone.”