As Bengaluru landlords demand rent despite govt order, highway is only option for city’s locked-out migrant community
In Karnataka, as in the rest of India, landlords have been prohibited from evicting labourers or students from their premises. However, these orders are flagrantly violated
Bengaluru: For the past five years, a small room in the congested heart of Bengaluru has been home for Pratap Malik, his wife and their four-month-old child. They had migrated from Balasore district in Odisha to earn a living in a small tailoring shop in the city. They had exhausted their meagre earnings on food through the two months of the lockdown.
On 7 May, however, a group of men sent by the landlord arrived at their house. "They demanded rent for two months. That came up to nearly Rs 4,800 and I didn't have the money," he says. The house owner and his men returned later in the evening, threw out his luggage and locked the door.
In Karnataka, as in the rest of India, landlords have been prohibited from evicting labourers or students from their premises. However, these orders are flagrantly violated.
In Pratap's case, they first approached the jurisdictional police. Having found no help there, they set off from their home on 8 May, intending to travel nearly 1,600 kilometres. They managed to walk till the Karnataka-Andhra Pradesh border, some 100 kilometres away before being sent back by the police at the check posts. By the sixth day, they were exhausted and demoralised. When this correspondent met Pratap and his family, they were sitting by a highway divider a few kilometres from Bengaluru's international airport — effectively having travelled 40 kilometres from their former home in six days.
"The police kept stopping us (at check posts). They fed us, but asked us to return to Bengaluru. We have no home there. The only home we have is in Odisha and the police isn't letting us cross the border," said Jamuna, Pratap's wife clutching her baby, Joshna Rani. "We know it is dangerous to take the baby along the highway, but what option do we have?" she asked.
Bengaluru's highways continue to see hundreds of migrants making a treacherous journey by walk or huddled in trucks towards north India. The Centre's assurances of trains have done little for them. As of 17 May, the South Western Railways has operated 75 special trains (Shramik Trains) transporting 99,245 guest workers towards their home states. However, more than three lakh people have applied for permission to leave and the queues in front of police stations where registrations are ongoing has not diminished.
For many guest workers, they cannot afford to wait for their chance for a ticket. A common refrain is the threat of eviction or, in some cases, outright eviction by landlords.
"What other option do we have? We have to be homeless and on the streets for days in Bengaluru to wait for our chance to go on a train. We might as well as start walking through the day," said Rajesh Chouhan who migrated from Gonda district in Uttar Pradesh six months ago as a mason for a small-time contractor. He and 12 others had been living in a cramped room in Bengaluru, paying Rs 6,000 a month.
Soon after the relaxation of the 3 May lockdown, his landlord demanded rent that was pending. Rajesh saw himself having two options: Hope for a train ticket back home or start walking. After nearly a week of standing in queues, he decided to walk to his hometown. "All I got in the police station were dandas (beaten up). And all I could think about what that I was going become homeless in a hostile city… I will never come back to Bengaluru," said an emotional Rajesh on the second day of his 1,800-kilometre journey home.
For some, the demands for rent took a more violent form. Adarsh Rav, from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh who works a house painter, says he was beaten and thrown out by the owner of his house. "I don't have a rupee on me. How do I pay rent?" asked Adarsh.
Near Bengaluru’s glitzy Electronic City, which is one of the largest software hubs in the country, a group of 14 guest workers from Jharkhand were evicted from their homes for failing to pay rent. The group included three small children, aged between 2 and 6. The groups stayed in two small, tin-roofed houses in the city, and owed the landlord Rs 9,000 as rent for the lockdown.
"We had come back to Bengaluru to work for the tekedar (agent) only in mid-February. Within weeks, the lockdown was imposed. The agent said he could not pay us our salaries for the days worked. We had no money to eat, let alone pay rent," recalled Dilkush Ansari, a construction labourer from Bokaro in Jharkhand.
On 12 May, the group was evicted. "We were beaten out of our homes. We took whatever we could and fled. The only place we found to spend the night was a highway pedestrian underpass," said Vijay Rajbar, also from Bokaro.
A passer-by clicked a photograph of the group living on the roads, and this eventually reached the Jharkhand government on social media. The state machinery not only housed the group of workers but also sought to make the case an example for other landlords. A local police officer said this had become an embarrassment for Karnataka.
The landlord, Ramachandra Reddy, denied forcible eviction or beating the guest workers, but added, "For months they were staying in the house and I did not ask for rent. When the city opened up on 3 May, their agent told me that these labourers could start work. But these families said they wanted to go back to their hometowns instead of working. I only told them to join work and pay me the rent through their earnings. They left on their own and created a scene."
A mid-April study by Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) shows that this is a nation-wide problem. In Karnataka, the government has urged those being evicted to reach out to the COVID-19 helpline. Ministers have even threatened actions against landlords who collect rent during the lockdown. "These evictions are inhumane during these difficult times… We will take strict action against those who are evicting migrant workers," said BJP MP Shobha Karandlaje, who oversaw the rehabilitation of the 14 workers.
For the police, action against landlords is increasingly difficult as the enforcement of the lockdown and the burden of additional responsibilities has stretched out the force. "These evictions are widespread, but there is little we can do," said a senior police official. Even in cases where guest workers approach the station, there is often no action taken, he admitted. "We are working as much as we can. The police implement lockdown rules, manage containment zones, arrange for food wherever we can, help manage labour camps, and even register hundreds of migrants for special trains… In the midst of this, registering cases against landlords and persuading them not to evict their tenants is difficult," said a senior police official.
While landlords whose numbers were procured from migrant labourers were reluctant to talk, one home-owner — on condition of anonymity — said he pressed for collection of rent only after learning that the guest workers staying at his house had registered to leave the state.
In the small houses that he owns, his tenants had fled after he demanded Rs 10,000 as rent for two months. "My primary earning is through the collection of rent and I did not demand rent on humanitarian grounds through the lockdown. After the lockdown restrictions were eased, we asked for rent because we also had to make a living. These workers fled anyway and I've lost money," he said.
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