Stranded workers’ struggle in finding travel back home continues as they face intimidation and violence
Gitesh (name changed) had set out from his lodging on the outskirts of Bengaluru. He was heading for the train home. Around 40 other migrant workers walked the 14 km journey with him. They had high hopes; they had managed to find a local, who registered them on the government portal, and the whole thing had cost only Rs 100 each.
But Gitesh was walking into a dead end. When he arrived at the Majestic train station in the center of Bengaluru, he was shooed away. He had registered online but had not been allotted a place on the train. He had paid for the registration but did not know that he needed to find thousands of rupees more to pay for the ride home. Maybe he had believed the tale that the central government would pay 85 per cent and the local government would pay the rest for the journey. Gitesh and his fellow stranded workers had no choice but to start the long walk back to their lodgings.
A broken system
The harsh truth is Gitesh could not have known when and where the trains leave from, how to pay for a ticket, or any of the other essential details. Even though the government portal is finally available in multiple languages, making it more accessible to migrants, many challenges remain. Some workers may not be able to read or write or have a smartphone to access an online portal. Even if they visit a cyber cafe to do this, they might not have their documents in a format that meets the specifications, or they might not have the required identity documents at all.
Even if a worker manages to register themselves despite these obstacles, they would not know how to follow up on the status of applications, or be able to find out whether they have secured a ticket. The required information is not available on the portal, or anywhere else we can find.
Even after speaking to hundreds of migrant workers and officials as volunteers at the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), and tracking all the government orders we could find, we as tech-savvy educated people do not know what is needed. Officials do not give contradictory answers; they do not give us answers at all. We are not able to reach their numbers on the published helplines.
The situation on the ground is chaotic. While the portal did work for a few, some workers are able to get transport home without even registering first, just by going to the bus/train station, waiting for the next bus/train, and boarding. Some approached police station, while other workers arrived at the local police station only to be beaten by the cops. Some workers in desperation hired a private vehicle. In all the cases where they have reached home, they have had to bear the cost of travel themselves. Either the system is broken, or there is no system. The difference is immaterial.
Gitesh’s story does not end here. Gitesh and his fellow workers faced more problems when they returned to their lodgings.
Intimidation and violence
Some days ago, a group of builders persuaded the government of Karnataka to stop the trains taking migrants home arguing that they needed these workers for their building projects. Since then, there has been a public outcry, and the trains have started again. It is a good sign that the government has responded. Yet, for many migrant workers, that welcome change has not freed them from the clutches of builders.
The builders are in a much more powerful position than the workers. They interact with workers through hired contractors who terrorise these workers. Countless workers have told us that they are terrified of the contractors who hired them. We have been told that the contractors have threatened them, said that they must stay and work. We have also heard that the landlords of the lodgings, the contractors arranged for them, have threatened them too, saying that they cannot leave until all rent has been paid. In at least two cases we have heard, the workers have been physically beaten. They are scared to leave. They are kept in place by violence and intimidation.
People, who try to help these workers and go to their home states, also face the ire of the builders. In Bengaluru, builders filed a police complaint against two activists R Kaleemulla and Zia Nomani, who were helping workers, leading to them being booked.
Workers’ choice should be heeded
In all this, no one seems interested in what the workers want. Everyone presumes that they are better placed to decide what is in the best interests of the workers. It is tough to decide to leave the city and go home. This is not because of any fear of infection; none of the workers we have spoken to even mentioned the threat of catching the virus. Instead, they are concerned about whether they can feed their family. As one of them told us: “I came here because I had no employment. If I can be employed now then I will stay here. If not I would rather go back home. I would rather be unemployed there than here.”
Various state governments and builders want workers to stay back to revive their economies once the lockdown eases. The workers’ agency is denied in this game of table tennis. Perhaps not a few are being spurred into returning by way the government and the contractors have treated them. We suspect that many of those we talked to want to escape whilst they can, fearing that the crackdown will become more severe in the days to come.
Gitesh and his fellow workers can decide for themselves. They know their own homes and their own hopes best. Others should not make the choice for them.
(Abitha Chakrapani works at Azim Premji School, Yadgir and Nithya R works for a community development NGO in Chennai called Pudiyador. They are also volunteers with the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN). The authors would like to thank Leah Verghese for her inputs on the article)
The views expressed above are the authors’ own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.