A day after its decision to stop train services for stranded migrant workers came under severe criticism, the BJP government in Karnataka on Thursday decided to resume train services.
By by then, Chandrabhushan Sahani, 24, a worker at a construction firm in Hebbal, north Bengaluru, had started walking. With Rs 300 in his pocket and his phone at 90 per cent charge, both of which he hoped would last him on the 2,100-km-long journey home. On Thursday afternoon, Sahani began walking on NH-44 highway, towards Hyderabad, hoping to reach his home in Siddharth Nagar district in Uttar Pradesh.
“We will reach Hyderabad, and then somehow if they let us cross the state border, we will keep going. I need to keep speaking to my mother and wife at home. I am worried about running out of charge. So I am using it sparingly,” he said. With him were a group of 23 fellow workers at the same construction site, all from UP’s Siddharth Nagar and Gorakhpur districts.
They were among several groups of migrant labourers in Bengaluru who set off on foot for their home states, after the state government halted train services for migrants on Wednesday. The Opposition and others reacted angrily to the government decision, alleging it had stopped trains under pressure from the construction and infrastructure lobby, which feared the long-term stalling of their projects if migrant workers left the state capital.
As the government reversed its decision, the state revenue secretary wrote to the governments of other states, asking them to prepare for the arrival of migrants.
“Once the train schedules are fixed, then workers will be brought from construction sites to the place of departure of trains. They will be taken to railway stations and will be put on trains going to their states,’’ said Karnataka Education Minister S Suresh Kumar.
“Train services could resume in a day or two. Logistical decisions have to be taken as to who should be accommodated on the trains and where they should be allowed to board the train in order to prevent chaos. It is going to be done discreetly and all those who want to go will be allowed to go,’’ said a senior functionary in the government dealing with migrants.
But Sahani, who worked as a painter at the Hebbal construction company, isn’t waiting for the trains to start.
“There is nothing for us here. We have not been getting food, nor money. Bahut pareshani hai. Yahan ka sarkar humari sunti nahi hai. Woh log andar baithe hai, hum dikhte nahi unko (There is a lot of distress here. The government here does not listen to us. They are all inside their homes, we are not even visible to them),” he said.
He said that for the last five years, he had been coming to Bengaluru to work, earning about Rs 20,000 a month, of which he would send Rs 12,000 to his family. “Now, we are having to ask them to send us money. I am the only earning member at home,” he said.
“We went many times to the Amrutahalli police station, filling up forms to request for a train ticket. But then they said they have cancelled trains, so we packed a few clothes and started walking. The police might stop us. But what else can we do? Dheere dheere pahuch jayenge (We will slowly reach),” said Bhagirathi Sahani, a 22-year-old from the same region who was walking with Sahani. Other than a few hundred rupees each, the workers said they carried no food supplies.
In the initial weeks of the lockdown, the company that employed them gave them each Rs 500, once a week. “For three weeks now, they have stopped giving even that. The water tanker that used to supply to our colony stopped coming because we have no money. There is no water to bathe or wash hands. We got some ration but that too got over. The government here helps only the locals, they do not care what happens to us,” Sahani said.
Both the workers said they were so desperate to reach home that they were not waiting for the contractor to pay them. “The company has not been paying us full wages since December. It owes all of us about Rs 8 lakh. Even then, we don’t want to wait. Here, our lives are in danger,” said Sahani.
Raju, 28, a paani puri vendor in Bengaluru’s Wilson Garden, had also set off with his family members and a few friends. The group of seven walking migrants included his brother, sister-in-law and the couple’s one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. They were all headed to Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh, a distance of 2,100 km.
“Right now, there is no way to travel other than by foot. But by evening, I am sure some lorry will agree to take us for a reasonable amount,” he said. Some lorry-drivers were demanding Rs 5,000-Rs 8,000 per head, Raju said.
He said the family decided to start walking because their earnings had dipped to zero and they were certain the lockdown would extend beyond May 17. “Not just us, others have started walking too. We have met many groups on the way,” he said.
In the city, Raju said, while his landlord waived the rent for the duration of the lockdown, it was difficult to make their money last with the prices of basic goods shooting up. “What should cost Rs 50 now costs Rs 100. And they kept saying trains would run today, tomorrow, day after. Yes, some people did donate us some ration. But how long can we survive on charity?” he said.
Some acquaintances did the same journey a few days ago. “They were caught at the Andhra border, but then they paid Rs 2,000 commission and slipped off in the night. Let me reach the border, ma’am. I will call you and tell you if we make it or not,” he said.