Just close to the famous twin arches of Anna Nagar in west Chennai, a group of people from the Northeast are waiting on the footpath at a sparsely shaded spot. Surrounded by suitcases and bags, they are looking up the main road for the bus that would pick them up and take them to the Central Railway Station. There they would board the first Shramik Special meant for the Northeast that would terminate at Manipur’s Jiribam railway station.

Waiting for the bus, Namdi says he and his elder sister, 30-year-old Ling, have been working in Chennai for the past five years. While he was employed as a salesperson on the counter for a high-end textile showroom at Phoneix Mall in Velachery, his sister worked as a beautician in a parlour nearby. “Chennai has been kind to us until this lockdown happened. We managed on our savings for a while before deciding to return home and stay there until things became normal,” he adds.

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Paid a monthly salary of Rs 20,000, Namdi says he could send home at least half of the amount as he shared a flat with five others from Manipur, who would pool their money for meals. “People from the Norteast comprise at least 50 per cent of the workforce in our 650 beauty salons across the country,” says C.K. Kumaravel, co-founder of Naturals. “While 20 per cent have returned home, the others have stayed back. We paid the April salary, and took care of accommodation and food during May. As the government is permitting the gradual opening of salons, the outward traffic would slow down.”

“There is no point working long term in Manipur as the pay is not good enough,” says Namdi.

One reason why salons like his prefer employees from the Northeast is their disciplined work culture and their ability to converse in English. Namdi points out that no one from his group would stay away from work unless they are really ill. “Also, Chennai has a very accommodative culture, with very little of the kind of racial discrimination one witnesses in Delhi. If our parents agree with us on working in the South in spite of the distance, it is because it is safer here for people from our region,” he adds.

The train, which left on the evening of April 20, reached Jiribam on the night of April 23. For 25-year-old Namdi, it took another five hours of bus journey to reach his home outside Senapati town. “It was a long and tiring journey, but we are thankful for it. We must thank the Manipur and Tamil Nadu governments for coordinating our return trip,” says Namdi over the phone during the last leg of the journey. There are 1,300 people from Manipur travelling with him in the train, who are among 3,000-odd migrants from the state working in Chennai’s beauty parlours and spas, in restaurants as cooks and waiters, and as shop assistants in malls.

Back home, what does Namdi plan to do? “I will help my parents with their rice farming and also find a temporary job for a few months…maybe earn some money under MNREGA by working in the fields. There is no point working long term in Manipur as the pay is not good enough. Once the parlours and malls reopen here, most of us will come back. This is our workplace,” he says.


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By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai

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