Mohanlal Rishi, a construction worker in north Bengaluru, has made several trips to the nearby police station seeking to get back home to Bihar’s Kishenganj district. Then, came the news that the Karnataka government has decided to scrap trains ferrying migrants back home.
Angry, the 51-year-old, who has been travelling to Bengaluru for work for 10 years now, said: “There was supposed to be a train in the morning, but they sent us back. Now, we hear that trains are being cancelled. But, how can this happen? Majboori hai, ghar mein log bimaar hain (I don’t have a choice, there are people ailing at home). Those who want to go should be allowed to go.”
On Tuesday, the state government wrote to the South Western Railway withdrawing its request to arrange for train services scheduled for migrants the next day. In a series of tweets, Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa said that, after a meeting with officials of the Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association of India, “to discuss issues related to migrant labourers”, it was “explained that unnecessary travel of the migrant workers has to be controlled” since the Covid-19 situation in the state was under control. “The builders said that the labourers were given all essential facilities and construction activities have already started. Directions were given to the ministers to convince the labourers to refrain from returning to their home states,” the CM said.
Eight Shramik Special trains have so far left Bengaluru, carrying 9,586 passengers to Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh.
Tuesday’s decision triggered disquiet in labour colonies and factories across the city, where thousands of workers have been waiting since the lockdown to go home. They contest claims of builders of having paid their wages, saying they have been struggling for the past month and a half.
The AICTU has moved an application in the Karnataka High Court, seeking an urgent hearing, given the “grave consequences of the state’s order”.
Rishi, a worker from Bihar, said he is surviving on food provided by employers. “We get a paltry Rs 270 a day, because the contractor takes away a big chunk. That, too, we haven’t got. How long can we wait? All this talk of paying us more is nothing. All these companies are worried that once we leave, there will be no one to do their work. Par humne unka theka le rakha hai kya (However, are they our responsibility)?” he says.
Fayaj Alam, a tailor from Bihar’s Purnea district, said he applied to travel back home through the portal. “It’s maddening to spend the days here, just waiting. My employer gives us food — that is his generosity. But we have not been paid. Our debts are growing… If students can be sent back, why can’t mazdoor (labour)?” he asked.
At a labour colony in Bommanahalli, those working for contractors employed by Bengaluru Metro are not convinced by promises of Rs 3,000 if they stayed on. “Many workers from Jharkhand, Bihar have already left. Only some of us from Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh remain. How can the construction company even run with so few people? What is the guarantee it won’t fold up?” asked Harinder Singh, who is hoping to catch a train to his home in Mau, Uttar Pradesh.
Several workers are afraid of being left stranded away from their families amidst the coroanvirus pandemic. “It is not just about money or food. There will be no one to look after us if we fall ill… no one will be able to reach us,” said Rajesh Kumar, a 25-year-old JCB operator from Bihar.
Karnataka Congress chief D K Shivakumar opposed the government’s decision. Having arranged around Rs 1 crore to facilitate the travel of the migrants earlier, he said, “We are for free travel of migrants, inside the state or inter-state. They should be allowed to go if they want to. We have asked the government and the real estate sector and other industrialists to instead declare a package for the workers. You should sit with them, ask what their problems are. They will work only if they feel protected. If Indians in other countries can come back, why can’t they?”
An official admitted that the decision at a time when other states were arranging for the migrants to return home and Karnataka was itself getting back its stranded people, showed the Karnataka government as having yielded to a lobby of builders.
BJP MLC Lahar Singh, however, claimed that it was the home states of labourers, such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, which had failed to provide the requisite clearances. “The decision to ask the workers to stay back was taken in their own interest. If they go back to their states too, they would have to be in quarantine… The feedback we are getting from the states is not very encouraging. There are not enough quarantine facilities.”
Singh added that the timing of Yediyurappa’s decision, after a meeting with builders, was just “coincidental”. “Our request is for as many of them as possible to stay back, but if it is really necessary for them to go home, their travel will be arranged. Train services are going to be restored soon.” About details, he said he could not reveal the same as it would lead to commotion at railway stations.
A call to the nodal officer for migrant workers’ welfare, Director General, Internal Security, P S Sandhu, was answered by an official, who said, “We have no information on why the trains were stopped. Those who have to leave cannot go for now but those who want to return can come back by following due process.”