With several restaurants in Kozhikode shutting down following the recent exodus of migrant labourers, the spotlight has fallen on Kerala's overdependence on workers from outside for almost all manual labour.

Kerala has a strong reliance on migrant workers across various business sectors, especially the restaurant and construction industries. Nearly 30 lakh migrant labourers from West Bengal, Bihar and the Northeastern states eke out a living in various sectors in Kerala at present, according to a study. These workers play a key role in the state's economy, filling the void left by around 50 lakh Kerala natives who work elsewhere.

More than 600 migrant workers reportedly left Kozhikode and nearby areas over the weekend after a smear campaign on social media, allegedly spread by a syndicate based in north India, claimed that workers from West Bengal and the Northeast were coming under fatal attacks in several parts of the state. The unfortunate episode draws parallels with similar incidents reported from other parts of the country in recent years, especially the Northeast exodus from Bangalore in 2012.

Panic spread among the migrant community in Kerala after an audio clip was circulated widely on social media platforms, especially WhatsApp groups which had hundreds of people from Bengal, Bihar and the Northeast. The audio clip states that a hotel owner in Kozhikode's Sweet Meat Street beat a Bengali worker to death and hanged his body in the street. Ironically, photos of some old mob killings from north India accompanied the messages.

At least three restaurants in Kozhikode, which had employed migrant labourers, were forced to remain shut for the last two days after their workers left the state in a hurry and returned to their hometown. Restaurant owners have alerted the district collector and the city police commissioner about the situation and have demanded action to stop the hate campaign against Kerala and thereby end the migrant exodus.

“The hotel industry in Kerala is in fact one place that provides ideal working conditions for migrant workers, including food and accommodation,” said hotel and restaurant association president TV Mohammad Sohail.

Both the UDF and LDF governments in Kerala have acknowledged the importance of migrant workers to the state and have extended special schemes for them, including insurance cover for health and accidents. The government has also extended a helping hand to families of those who died working in Kerala on numerous occasions over the years.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Monday said a north Indian lobby was spreading canards about migrant labourers in Kerala, adding the state had always been appreciative of and considerate to these labourers.

"A north Indian lobby is trying to propagate a false campaign through the social media against the migrant labourers in Kerala and is meant to create unrest. This has been done on purpose to damage peace in Kerala and project it in poor light," reports quoted the CM as saying. "The truth is no other state in the country has done what we have been doing for migrant workers. The police has started to look into the malicious campaign and appropriate action will be taken against wrongdoers."

Interestingly, the migrant exodus in Kerala comes on the heels of the BJP's 'jana raksha yatra' in the state, against CPM-led "red terrorism" and political violence in the state. Several national BJP leaders including party president Amit Shah and Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath had participated in the yatra, criticising the Kerala government and spoke about the widespread political killings in the state.