Bhubaneswar, June 22, 2020 : On June 9, 2020, I got a video message on a social media group about a group of guest workers in Kerala. They were from Kalahandi district of Odisha. Though unlettered most of them, they had a video recording of their situation and shared in the social media along with the contact details.

The guest workers were distressed, as the employer was not willing to send them back to their home states due to the protracted nationwide lockdown imposed by the federal government to contain the spread of COVID-19 since March 25.

The employer had taken away their belongings held back their due wages, snatched the ATM card of the leader of workers, and locked them inside a room when they were hurried to catch a ‘Sharamik’ (labor) train on June 3. They were requesting the Chief Minister of Odisha to help them to reach their home.

On the same day, on June 9, 2020 the Supreme court direcred the States and Union terriotries(Uts) to transport all the stranded workers to their respective destinations by train, bus or other modes within 15 days from today. But on whom the task is entrusted take no interest.

It pained me knowing their situation. I called up to talk to them and get confirmed the video message.

Frustrrated and emotionally drained, all these workers only wanted one thing: to return to the comfort of their loved ones. But even that was not happening.

They begged to help them out. I was resolved to help them at all cost, but I didn’t know how to go about.

To begin with, I shared the video with others.  A friend of mine, Sameet Panda friend who is the convener of Right to Food Campaign, Odisha gave me the contact number of PranabJyoti  Nath. Panda said, “Nath is an IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer or bureaucrat and a good person. He usually responds to situations pro-actively. He has helped me once when I talked to him about an issue.”

Pranab Jyoti Nath

I telephoned Nath for help on behalf of the distressed migrant workers. I didn’t know he was the Labour Commissioner of the Government of Kerala. He received the phone. When I started to explain the situation, he listened to me without interruption. He told me to send him the details about them. He talked to the distressed guest workers personally. In just two hours I got a message from him saying, “The matter settled! The employer is ready to arrange a vehicle and send them to Odisha on his own expense.”

The labor department’s fame spread far and wide. Many other guest workers put up their requests with Nath to arrange their travel. Some of them shared their anguished stories of not getting relief from employers.

I sent these requests to the labor commissioner and his officers. The department acted immediately.

Nath said, “the last Shramik train from Kerala to Odisha was on June 6,  but if you have more requests I will consider and run a train for the distressed workers”. On June 12, the labor department launched a train from Kannur- Kerala to Ganjam-Odisha. In few hours messages were spread to the guest workers stranded in different districts of Kerala. The department immediately arranged local transportations for the guest workers to reach the stations. Screening tests to detect COVID-19 was conducted at different places rapidly.

Finally, the employers not only allowed the guest workers to go home but also paid all their dues (unpaid wages) and arranged vehicles to reach them to the train stations. Some employers were at the station to see their workers going home. Hundreds of guest workers of Kerala were able to travel back to Odisha.

It was so satisfying to see the photos of the guest workers happy and emotional as they were finally returning to their home, Odisha. They could not stop thanking the government of Kerala, for the opportunity to travel freely to their home states. They also shared some of their photos that display their state of happiness.

Besides transportation, sufficient safe drinking water and food were provided during the train journey.

Purushottam Harijan, Kalahandi who was trapped by the employer with nine other people, said,”You are the God for us.” After I intervened in their matter and settled their issues, Nath made the migrants’  travel arrangements.

The guest workers by then spread my number as a helpline to others were also in great distress. I started to receive calls from many people. I requested the labor commissioner again to consider providing a Shramik train to other stranded workers in Kerala.

He told me to collect datas from the distressed workers in Kerala who wish to go to Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar, and Jharkahand. After getting about two hundred workers in number, On 17 June, Nath arranged the train again.

Here is a painful story of SangitaGauda, pregnant lady, from the Gajapati district of Odisha. She was stranded in Kerala.

“It’s been three months I was begging everyone including the police to arrange my travel but there was no hope. This opportunity came to me as knocking my door,” Gauda said when I informed her about the movement of the train, the night before June 17.

So far about 300 guest workers of Kalahandi, Ganjam, Rayagada, Gajapati, Kandhamal, Basasore,  Balangir have returned to Odisha last week with the additioanal help of the department of labour, Kerala.

I could not believe things happened so fast. Who would have thought, such high profile officers could take a keen interest in the common folks’ issue?

In a country that has been criticized for the irresponsibility of the government and its employees, the Labour Commissioner of the Government of Kerala is an antidote. Nath, a civil servant, proved trendsetter!

His vast network and hassle-free and friendly coordination with local bodies have led issues such as this to a successful human story.

All I did was in constant contact with the guest workers, and labor officers. It is just my bit to bring a smile to some people by sharing my time and ability to connect people. But I am inspired more; how every person of the department gave his/her best self to facilitate the safe return of migrants during these trying times as the country braces the public health emergency. It is certain, without the intervention of the labor department these workers would be languishing still.

Nath has introduced me to all the officers of his department from additioanl labour commissiner till taluk labour officers.

Thanks to all the officers of the department who were patiently receiving my requests and also sharing information with me.

This was the first of such experience of networking with the government officers. It was an inspiring, successful, and hope-giving experience for me for life.

All the guest workers expressed their gratitude and appreciation for the wonderful service provided by the Government of Kerala.

Back in Odisha, they mourned about the inefficiency of the ‘sarapachs’ (heads of local village councils) and Block Development department or local government officials who in contrast didn’t receive them in quarantine centers without hesitation and some hurdles. Some of the groups spent half a day in front of the local office for no avail.

Thanks to Nath and all his officers—Arun, Srilal, Sunil, Renjit and others for bringing smiles to the life of many with their committed and prompt services.

I believe networking is a powerful means to build a better community.

‘The ‘Duty Bearers’ if want can do such life changing miracles. We can repose trust and confidence in officers like Nath! May his tribe increase!

We continue to network for the rest of the guest workers’ safety and safe return to their home states.

Working with Kerala Labour Department – Too good to believe!

 Pranab Jyoti Nath, IAS the Asam- born, 44-year young man took his office as the Labour commissioner of the Government of Kerala from Janunary 2020.

Previously he was the director of Industries 2019, Government of Odisha(2019), CEO of Odisha Livelihoods Mission(2015-2018) ,Director of Employment, Governmnt of Odisha ( 2014-2015), District Collecto and District Magistrate, Kollam district (2014) , Mission Director, Mahatama Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, Kerala (2013) to name a few.

Sujata Jena  is a social worker from Odisha


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