On May 17, thirteen migrant workers in Chennai had no means of going back to their native state of Assam and were about to be homeless before Rajesh Ramaswamy, a former UAE resident heard of the news.
The Chennai resident did not think twice after he got a call from his friend, Lonney Jidung, living thousands of kilometres away, in Assam, asking for help for a group of migrant labourers stuck in Chennai.
Prior to calling Ramaswamy, Jidung had seen a video posted on Facebook by one of the migrant workers asking for help.
The first thing Jidung thought of was to call Ramaswamy, as he was the only person he knew in Chennai and hoped that he would help the group.
"Lonney is very active in social services in Assam, I knew that I had to help his cause," he said.
Ramaswamy visited the police station where he was informed that the group has been taken to a marriage hall temporarily turned into a housing facility for labourers. However, they could not spend the night there, he was told.
Ramaswamy explained that on May 16, the workers vacated their homes and went to the Assamese Bhawan in Chennai in hopes of being taken back but they were asked wait as thousands showed up. News reports and videos shared on social media have shown the massive crowd.
Ramaswamy and a friend tried to house them at Guru Nanak College that is currently holding over 700 migrants, mostly from Assam. But it was full.
Left with no choice, the businessman decided to take the workers to an empty flat he had in a building he owns.
“I could not deprive them of a roof over their heads. I could not leave them on the road,” the 47-year-old said.
Prepared for backlash
First, Ramaswamy took them to get tested for COVID-19 for his and the community’s safety.
After confirming that the group of labourers was coronavirus-free, he took them to the building.
However, he faced criticism from some of those who lived at the complex, while others supported him.
“I knew I would face backlash that’s why I had tests done for all of them, but some people were not satisfied. But I had to take a decision anyway,” he said.
As soon as the workers were taken to the building, some tenants, who Ramaswamy said are “workers from low income backgrounds and many have lost their jobs” offered to help.
“A mechanic who has had no business in the past months due to COVID-19 offered to prepare meals for the lot. I was surprised by how big some people’s hearts are,” he said.
Other tenets also lent a helping hand. “Some came with food, some gave money and others gave anything they could like fans,” he said.
The group Ramaswamy helped comprised of eight men and five women. Most of them working as daily wagers and the women came to Chennai to work at beauty salons.
Meanwhile, his friend Jidung made a Facebook post about Ramaswamy’s effort.
Ramaswamy said that his cousins in the US saw the post and offered to help.
“I did not tell anyone about what I was doing but my cousins saw the post and immediately called me. They sent money that was enough to give Rs 1000 to each worker,” he said.
The next morning, Ramaswamy arranged for transport to an assembly point where workers from Assam in Chennai were meeting to be taken on a special train to their native state.
“The government is collecting migrant workers from around the city to get them to a meeting point and then take them to trains to their respective states. I contacted a friend who helped me do that for the group,” he said.
Jidung posted an update on his Facebook page after the group arrived in Assam.
‘It was time to repay my friends in the east…”
Ramaswamy, who enjoys biking, said that he became friends with Jidung during a biking trip to Assam.
“A friend and I were stuck in Assam and Jidung and other locals helped us and treated us like kings. I had to help them during this crisis,” he said.
Ramaswamy lived in the UAE for 15 years before moving back to India in 2017. In Dubai, he was always a people’s person as he worked for a holiday company, as a salesperson, interacting with people everyday.
He moved back to his home in Chennai to take care of his ailing mother and father, who passed away soon after he returned.
“Dubai has always been my second home and I could not stay away from it even when I returned. I visited thrice after I went back,” he said. His sister and her family currently reside in the UAE.
Currently, Ramaswamy and his wife run a small-scale food business making pickles from his mother’s recipes.
“Now I have a lot of time and I am very content with life. I use my free time to ride bikes and I am currently devoting time to social services,” he said.
During the coronavirus crisis, he has been trying to help migrant workers in his city.
“This was one job done, there is more to do,” he said. He also asked others to contact him who know any migrant workers needing help.