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Reuters/Adnan Abidi
Crowded and lonely.
UNSEEN AND UNHEARD

The invisible mental health crises of India’s migrant labourers

By Gokul Vannan

In November 2017, the owner of a popular Chinese restaurant chain in Madurai rang his friend, who happens to be a leading psychologist, with what could be considered a managerial problem. The morale of his staff, all of whom were migrants from Darjeeling, was dipping. Although the restaurateur did his best, including paying them a “decent salary” and providing them accommodation, the staff appeared demotivated. They no longer had the enthusiasm or focus they once showed.

Dr Vikhram Ramasubramanian, the restaurateur’s friend, took the problem to his colleagues at the city’s Ahana Hospital. His team studied 32 restaurant employees, and startlingly found them battling a host of issues, ranging from stress and depression to alcohol and drug abuse. Living away from home, the workers missed their loved ones deeply. What worsened their loneliness was the language barrier, their inability to communicate or socialise with locals in Tamil.

“We found about 65% of these workers suffering from stress and 40% of them from depression, mainly due to social (and) cultural discrepancies, difficulties in adapting to a new environment due to the language barrier, staying away from home for longer periods and financial issues,” said Dr Ramasubramanian. The workers were treated at a rehabilitation centre for addiction and depression by the team of psychologists for six months between November 2017 and April 2018. Some of them continue to attend regular counselling sessions.

Loneliness and addiction

One of the workers to get counselling was the head chef, Subash. In his mid-30s, Subash is of medium build. He left Darjeeling close to a decade ago in search of better job opportunities. He came to Tamil Nadu and started off as a cleaner in a hotel in Ramanathapuram for a monthly salary of Rs500. “I learned cooking while working in various hotels before moving to Chennai to work as a full-time chef for a salary of Rs3,000,” he remembered. He joined the Chinese restaurant in Madurai seven years ago.

Subash lives in a three-bedroom apartment with 20 co-workers, all from Darjeeling. He wakes up around 7am and after completing his morning chores, makes his way to the hotel, which is close to the apartment. Once duties in the kitchen are assigned, he plans the specials of the day with the owners. The diners start coming in at 11.30am and Subash and his colleagues are busy till around 4pm. After a two-hour break, dinner preparations start. The team usually finishes work around 10.30pm. A short conversation on the phone with his wife and two children is his only respite during the day.

Every day the same cycle repeats. Subash works on his weekly off as well, so that he can save up the holidays and take a long break during summer to spend time with his family. Given this busy work schedule, there is little time to socialise. In all his years in Tamil Nadu, Subash has been able to learn only a few words of Tamil from colleagues. For most part, his interactions are limited to other migrants from Darjeeling, who, like him, speak Nepali.

Bored and mentally fatigued, Subash turned to alcohol whenever he had free time. It soon became a nightly habit. “It gave me temporary relief from my mental worries, but I never realised I was getting addicted. As many of my colleagues were also (drinking), I (took it) lightly.” Subash then started turning up drunk at work. Shocked, the hotel owner approached Ramasubramanian.

Lack of jobs

According Nirnay John Chettri, general secretary of the non-profit Mankind in Action for Rural Growth, thousands of people from Darjeeling, particularly the hill districts, are migrating for work to New Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru, and Goa. Left behind is a homeland that for 70 years has been demanding a separate Gorkhaland state. “The political uncertainty and lack of employment are the main factors (that led) many people in the region to migrate to (other parts of) India and the Middle East.”

The migrants are lured with the offer of advance money. Once they join, they are forced to work long hours and subjected to ill-treatment, said a hotelier who has been in the business for more than 20 years. Their salaries are often withheld to prevent them from moving to another job. “It is very hard for the workers to escape from these exploitative conditions in the hotels,” he said. “That is why they always live in fear and don’t trust the local people.”

It’s not just the struggles at work. “The local people mock us calling us ‘Chinese’ when we walk on the road,” said Subash. “Even if we try to keep away from them, they will heckle us and harass us.” A group of locals once picked a fight with Subash and his colleagues when they were returning from work at night. “When I refused to give the money they demanded, they started beating me,” he said. “Everybody was witnessing it, but nobody came to our rescue even though we screamed for help.” The police, too, seem indifferent to their plight. Instead, they often subject the migrant workers to random questioning, often landing up at the restaurant whenever a crime has been reported in the locality. “Every time I have to explain to them that my workers will not indulge in crime and give them an assurance,” said the managing director of the restaurant chain.

According to psychologist R Gopi, a member of Ramasubramanian’s team, this unfriendly atmosphere and a life of deprivation adds to the loneliness and alienation, compelling many migrant workers to turn to alcohol and drugs. To avoid raising suspicion, some take to cough syrup. “Cough syrup has a soothing effect, so we will be relieved of our worries and will not feel dizzy,” said Subash.

Regular abuse of liquor or cough syrup feeds into the depression. Four years ago, Subash says, a migrant worker in Trichy overdosed on pills “to overcome depression while watching television in his room He became a statistic. The incident hardly evoked any public interest.”

Lack of basic facilities

According to a survey by the Tamil Nadu government in 2016, there were 1.067 million migrants in the state, of whom 27% were employed in the manufacturing sector, 14.1% in textile and 11.4% in construction. In August 2018, a survey focusing on three districts—Chennai, Kancheepuram, and Tiruvallur—found that migrants working in manufacturing sectors were underpaid and deprived of housing and health care. The situation is worse for migrants employed in seasonal jobs in construction, brick kilns, and hotels, says Bernard D’ Sami, senior professor at the Loyola Institute of Social Science Training and Research, Chennai.

It is little wonder then that their mental health is severely compromised. In her research paper Mental Well-being of Migrants in Urban Centre of India: Analysing the Role of Social Environment, which was published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, Ghuncha Firdaus, a research scholar from Madras Institute of Development Studies, writes:

“In most of the cases, the migrants do not feel very welcome by the host society and perceived cultural differences such as language, traditions, food habits and a way of life as the main reason hinder the development of social networks outside their own community…The massive urbanisation in the developing countries like India which is fuelled by migration from rural to urban centres is associated with poor social conditions and consequent high level of stress. For instance, uneducated or less educated and underemployed urban migrants, who were facing hardships in acquiring basic necessities for survival…are at much greater risk to experience poor mental health.”

Temporary solutions

Subash now earns Rs20,000 a month. And while he is thankful for the counselling, he feels it will only provide temporary respite.

R Karuppusamy, director of the Rights Education and Development Centre, an NGO in Erode, says that as per the Interstate Migrant Workmen Act 1979, labour departments are duty-bound to register migrant labourers both in the source area and the place where they have come for work. “If the workers get registered, they are entitled for Provident Fund, Employees’ State Insurance, access to health care, which includes mental health and minimum wages as prescribed by the government,” said Karuppusamy. But the labour department has initiated this process only in a few districts of Tamil Nadu. What would also help, Karuppusamy says, if like Odisha, more states establish a help desk for migrants in distress.

Subash is unconvinced. He believes that his lot in life will improve only if the Gorkhas of Darjeeling the rights they have been demanding for the past several decades. In the meantime, he hopes that working in Tamil Nadu for a few more years will save him enough money to build a house in his village. “After that, I will go back to my place and start a hotel.”

* Name changed on request

This article originally appeared on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.