IT STARTED as a call centre to help workers in other states with food and money as the first Covid curbs came into force early last year. Today, the Jharkhand Migrant Control Room has become a lifeline for their families, too — bringing back stranded workers, helping them get outstanding salaries, and coordinating the return of bodies of those who lost their lives in other states.
“Last year, close to 200 bodies of labourers were brought back to Jharkhand but there were multiple agencies involved. This year, we have on our own helped the families of 68 labourers, who died at work sites in 16 states, get their bodies back,” said Shikha Pankaj, the team lead at the control room.
“Workers died from illnesses, mishaps at construction sites, electric shock, suicides, heart attack, natural disasters and accidents, among other causes. It required constant follow-ups and mobilising our own funding through our partners to get their bodies back. Counselling the family members is another challenge,” she said.
Shikha is a part of PFIA Foundation, a Delhi-based NGO that was picked by the state government to run the control room with a work force of 30 from various backgrounds, such as management and social service.
Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren said: “When the pandemic struck and the lockdown was announced, we were looking for an organisation which could understand the plight of the state’s migrants and act as a bridge between the government and them. That is where PHIA Foundation pitched in…In the last one-and-a-half years, the control room has been the backbone of our entire campaign to help our state’s workers across the country in time of need.”
According to a government official, the foundation started working with its own “initial capital”. “The government supported them with space and manpower to receive calls at night,” the official said.
“We have been mobilising resources to support this initiative since the beginning,” said Johnson Topno, state head of PHIA Foundation, which focuses on marginalised communities. “We have constantly been at work since March 27 last year,” said Shikha.
The control room also plays a key role in rescuing stranded workers. In June this year, control room staff said, they secured the return of 32 members of a tribal community who were stranded at a brick kiln in UP’s Deoria after not being paid salaries for the past six months.
In October, a group of labourers were “rescued” from Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh after some of them called to complain that they had been assaulted by their employers. “This month, 42 women, who worked in a textile company at Karur in Tamil Nadu, were brought back after complaining of lack of amenities and low salary,” said Shikha, the team lead.
According to data maintained by the control room, 9,66,393 migrant workers returned to Jharkhand between March 27, 2020, and October 31, 2021. “Another major challenge is to get the wages and remuneration of labourers who returned, with the help of the Jharkhand government,” said the team lead.
Their data show that around Rs 85 lakh in dues were collected from various employers in coordination with the state’s Labour Department and given to these labourers through “constant follow-ups”.
Yet, it’s the control room’s intervention in cases of deaths that has made a big difference, such as in the case of 30-year-old Ramdev Turi from Bokaro.
According to Turi’s family, he climbed the pole of a 11 KV line in Goa for repair work when he sustained an electric shock. “His motionless body hung from the pole in his protective gear with his relatives wailing from below. After a few days in hospital, he succumbed to his injuries on November 4,” Turi’s 20-year-old nephew Karma said.
A complaint lodged at Porvorim police station on November 9 stated: “The body has been lying in the hospital for the past four days and the project manager of the company is not helping us to get it back to our village in Jharkhand.”
Amid the distress, staff at the control room came across a video appeal posted by Karma on social media. “We got in touch with the authorities in Goa and mobilised resources to bring back the body within the next few days,” said Shikha.
“The process starts with a unique code for each case, and verification with documents and enquiries with co-workers, contractors and authorities. We also inform family members and counsel them. The information is also shared with Deputy Commissioners and the Labour Superintendent to escalate the matter. At destination sites, details of the company and contractor are sought, FIRs and post mortems are done, and the process of bringing back the body is initiated,” she said.
However, the families of migrant labourers in distress want the state government to take a more proactive role.
Turi’s pregnant wife and three children continue to struggle every day since the “only help” they received was Rs 2,000 given by the village chief. And the labourers rescued from the brick kiln complain that they got only “Rs 15,000 per couple” as wages for six months. “This is pure exploitation, and we want our government to intervene,” said Somnath, one of them.
“I appeal to the government to investigate the death of my brother,” said Saroj Kapri from Dumka, whose 41-year-old elder brother Manoj died allegedly by suicide two weeks ago while working for a construction company in Mizoram. “But I am thankful that we got his body back.”