Coronavirus lockdown: Labour unions accuse BS Yediyurappa of giving in to real estate lobby after Karnataka cancels special trains for migrant workers
In a tech park in Garudacharpalya, civic officials had to be called after 1,600 labourers were locked in their camps after they had demanded pending wages to return home.
Bengaluru: On a balmy Wednesday afternoon, tempers rose by the gates of a sprawling construction site in southern Bengaluru. In the backdrop of five under-construction residential towers, that will house over 2,500 families in 31-storey buildings, hundreds of labourers shouted out one demand: let us go home, even if it is by walk.
Bags had been packed and were lying piled up by the gates that had been closed by the construction contractor’s guards. “They are telling us there are no trains to go home. Then let us walk home. We can’t be here anymore,” says Bihari Sa, a 30-year-old labourer who had migrated from Pande Chapra village in Saran district of Bihar in February.
The relaxation of the lockdown on 3 May to allow for limited inter-state movement of migrants had raised hopes for many in the city wanting to return to their families in villages. However, on Tuesday night, the state government cancelled all scheduled inter-state trains indefinitely. Migrants were instead requested to refrain from going home and to resume construction work.
But, labourers had already spent 1.5 months cooped up in tiny tin sheds with little ration and the pervasive stench of open drains. Interest in resuming work gradually faded.
For Bihari Sa his desperation to return stems from his deepening worries about his four children and his wife. He is the sole earner and he has not sent them money for two months now. “I had come to Bengaluru hoping to earn Rs 10,000 monthly which I would send back home. I have not been paid since the lockdown started. Now, I’m forced to spend my savings on my food. My family tells me they are starving. How am I supposed to sit idle here when I know they are suffering,” he says.
As the labourers gathered in an impromptu-protest, construction managers resort to threats: ration and drinking water supply will be denied to those who don’t return to work.
Tabreez Ansari, who has not visited his family in over a year since he migrated to Bengaluru from Palamu in Jharkhand, is in no mood to comply with the threat. “It may take a month to walk home to Jharkhand? I’ll take the chance. Walking will give us some hope of reaching our homes, but here, I have lost all hope,” he says.
This anger is palpable across labour camps across Bengaluru. On Wednesday, police resorted to lathicharge after hundreds of labourers arrived at Marathahalli police station where registration for inter-state train travel was taking place. In a tech park in Garudacharpalya, civic officials had to be called after 1,600 labourers were locked in their camps after they had demanded pending wages to return home. In Madavara on Bengaluru’s outskirts, there were physical confrontations between police and migrant workers.
In these camps, the faint hope of going back was dissipating quickly.
At Whitefield, a sprawling tech hub that is the India home for some of the largest tech companies in the world and also arguably home to some of the largest labour populations, a senior police official had a dire prognosis: “There is considerable resentment. We can convince them to stay put for a couple of days. But, we fear it'll boil over in a couple of days.”
A migrant city
Bengaluru’s rapid growth, which is among the fastest-growing cities in the country, has come on the backs of hundreds of thousands of migrants. The Census 2011 figures estimate that 8.9 percent of the city’s — or, nearly 7.5 lakh of Bengaluru’s then 85 lakh population — had migrated into the city for work recently (less than nine years). This may be a considerable underestimation.
Their desperation to return is seen in the applications for train tickets, which is done through an online form developed by the state government. While over 2.13 lakh migrant workers in the state had registered to return home, barely 9,600 workers had boarded inter-state trains between 3 and 5 May.
On 5 May, members of the real estate body Confederation of Real Estate Developers’ Association of India (CREDAI) met with Karnataka chief minister BS Yediyurappa. Along with their demands, which included restarting of construction work as well as free movement of workers between building sites, they expressed a fear of an exodus of migrant labour.
“Workers should understand that if they go home they'll be quarantined and can't work. Here, they will get work and steady income now that construction can begin," says Suresh Hari, president of CREDAI’s Bengaluru chapter who says more should be done to “counsel” workers.
While BJP leaders have called the cancellation of migrant movements as a “bold move”, over 500 labour unions, organisations and individuals have slammed it as a capitulation of the state government to “appease” the building lobby.
“By not giving the option to take trains back home, the state government has effectively curtailed the fundamental rights of workers, including their freedom of movement and work. This is forced labour,” says Clifton Rosario, an advocate with Manthan Law Chambers who filed an application against the state government’s orders in the Karnataka High Court. “The Ministry of Home Affairs allows for the movement of workers between states. Karnataka’s decision to hold them against their will here just so that cheap labour is available in building sites is grossly illegal,” he says.
Searching for a way home
Far away from the machinations of policy decisions are thousands of migrants who spend their days shuttling from police station to the railway station to their temporary homes in the hope of a passage out of Bengaluru.
At KSR Bengaluru Railway Station, labourers continue to clutch to hope and arrive in groups. They stop to observe an event where volunteers shower roses as a gesture of appreciation to bus drivers who were ferrying persons travelling home to other districts in the state.
But for inter-state migrants, they are greeted with police barricades that have shut off entrances to Bengaluru’s central railway station.
Bipul Gamago, a Saora tribal community from Gajapati district in Odisha, had paid Rs 550 to travel here from his dry-cleaning centre on the outskirts of the city towards the station. “I saw in an Odiya news channel that trains were running between states. We came here thinking we can go back,” says Bipul. “There is no work, there is no money. We have to go back somehow.”
Shabab Ali, 28-year-old, had already spent the day travelling from his home to a police station where he hoped to register for a train ticket, and then to the Central Railway Station. He had migrated from Amroha district in Uttar Pradesh in February to work in the construction of a large hospital. He had already spent Rs 500 travelling. “I’m worried sick about my family. I have to go back now even if it means I’ll end up spending all my earnings,” Ali says.
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