Bablu Bhaiya, you stood poised to get into the bus that was to take you to the train station. To a train that would carry you back to Jharkhand, your native land of forests, waterfalls, and your precious family.
Your face bore only a deep relief and not the hate or anger that it could have had. You were returning home after nearly two years, more like a refugee in your own country than a hardworking son returning to rest for a few weeks. Around you, in this police station in Bengaluru, milled hundreds of other workers all seeking to get that special token that would allow them to take a train back home.
The scene, of crowds of young men waiting to be ‘processed’, the long lines of buses, the police who were huddled over papers and tokens, and volunteers who were filling forms, was reminiscent of the many films of the great war in Europe. Yes, for you it was your reality, a new kind of war against working people, which started since the lockdown when you were pushed out of the five-star hotel where you had started as a dishwasher and was now after three years a kitchen help.
Over the past seven weeks, you had huddled in your room along with your roommates whose numbers had swelled from three to eight. How could you have refused to allow these others who had no place to stay? You had pooled in your funds and cooked collective meals for a few days. Then, as money started to run out, you had joined the others to receive free food packets that were being distributed on the streets.
You remembered the leftovers you were entitled to eat at the five-star hotel but which you often did not. You had preferred to eat your own dal, roti, subzi cooked in your room. You recollected the 100 plus food items that were made in the five-star hotel. Remember those special meals cooked for birthdays, corporate parties, and weddings? You had been amazed at the amounts, variety and the cost of the meals. Why, a single meal with the 60 plus items, all in something called a buffet, cost more than what you earned for a whole week.
You had stayed on, learning Kannada, listening to Kannada songs and joining some of your companions to occasionally see a Kannada or Tamil film. From the monthly payments of Rs twelve thousand, you sent some home; for your parents to sustain themselves and to send your younger siblings to the high school in the nearest town.
Your dreams were simple and yet big; you would earn here in this big city, Bengaluru, which they said was to become bigger; a world city with tall towers, where the big people would travel by helicopters, and there would be plenty of jobs for you and for all those who the contractor had recruited from the villages in Jharkhand.
Being so far from home, meant that you did not go home for all the festivals, the rituals or when you fell ill. All this unlike the local workers who would return often to their homes and it was the key reason that employers liked to have workers like you; you provided steady labour; was docile, and happy with the small increments that were promised for regular work.
There were other workers around you; those who worked in restaurants as cleaners, bearers, or cooks, at construction sites, at the metro, and others such as sanitation workers, dhobis, street vendors, security workers, factory workers, coolies, gardeners, and numerous others. They came from different parts of Karnataka and also from other states and spoke different languages. Sometimes, you saw them at the park or waiting for buses. There were women, garment workers, who always seemed to be in a hurry. You saw them getting off factory buses, rushing to shop for vegetables, then walking down the alleys to their homes, sometimes accompanying children or elders.
Then, there were the domestic workers, all women of different ages, who worked in the houses and big apartment complexes. Sometimes you saw them return with food from the homes they worked in; food that they took back to share with their families. Sometimes you smiled at the girls who worked in the beauty parlours, the saloons, and the fitness places. You had been here since six years and you had got yourself a card that they had said was your ‘identity card’, it would get you all the ‘aadhaar’ that a government promised including your voting rights.
But, you could not vote here. You only watched on TV how others voted and followed the news about the governments that came and went. You heard and saw that the new government in Delhi promised, ‘sabka vikas, sabka saath’, ‘progress for all, with everyone”. Maybe, you thought, your village, your region, and all the people in it would no longer be left behind. Maybe that was why it was now easy for you to come to this big city and work here. This is vikas!
There was some talk about rights. ‘Rights’ what was this? Did it apply to your right to get fair wages so that you could afford to send your sister to college or get you medical attention if you fell ill? But, all this seemed to be for someone else. Now, since the lockdown, there seemed to be no rights. You and the other workers were paid your monthly salary for March. Imagine, how generous they were, paying you wages for five days of no work, all because of the lockdown!
But, there was no assurance about the provident fund and other dues, such as bonus for regular and good work. April and much of May, until the buses and trains were started, you had lived in the room and spent your own money. Some of you had called home and asked for money to be transferred to your accounts. “How could the owner pay you? There was no business”, that was what the contractor said. “We’ll see’ is what the manager had said in mid April and now when you called to see if he could help you return home, the phone was switched off.
You and your friends, all twenty of them from various villages in Jharkhand and a few from Bihar, had come to know about the ‘seva sindhu’ through which you had to apply to return home. You paid two hundred rupees to the DTP shopman to fill in the forms and then another hundred rupees to get the print out. Who would know, Bablu Bhaiyya, that a crisis economy could grow on your back? You had submitted the forms at the nearest police station. Ten days after applying, your number was not called.
‘Wait, wait, it’ll come’ is what the policeman at the entrance to the station had told you. Meanwhile, you saw that the number of workers, mostly young men but also a few women, were gathering in larger numbers near the police station. One day, you were told the trains were cancelled since the Karnataka government and the builders wanted the workers to stay back and make sure the economy did not collapse. “What will you do going back home? Stay here, work, and everything will be alright”. This is what you were now told at the police station.
But, for nearly two months nothing was alright. On the news, you saw that the deaths by the virus, something that could not be seen but was spreading, were increasing. Your families wanted to see you and have you with them, they said you could be safer in the villages. Believing that you could finally be going home, you and your friends had checked out of your rooms and reached the police station. Now, suddenly the trains were cancelled and with nowhere to go, you slept outside the police station. You ate when the meal packets were distributed and used the public restrooms.
For you, Bablu Bhaiyya, all of 24 years, working here since you were 18, with hopes of becoming a Bengaluru boy and now dreaming in Kannada, this was humiliating. Had you not thought that here, in Karnataka, you would be assured a time of ‘milk and honey’. Was it not the land that a great poet, Kuvempu, wrote about as one where ‘world humanity’ was to be realised? Where were all the promises in the songs that the famous actor, the state’s cultural hero, Raj Kumar, danced to and which were celebrated—about hard work, honesty, humanity, and fulfilment?
Bablu Bhaiyya, will you forgive us for all these were only false dreams? At this time of intense distress, we forgot all your hard work and contributions. We let the police scream at you and let them beat workers who had started to walk towards their homes. Forgive us, because we did not realise that it was not just food that you needed but also respect, dignity and assurance. We forgot that it was you and the lakhs of others like you who had worked and made Bengaluru into a 24×7 metropolis, its innards buzzing with business, lights blazing, and prosperity that was visible in all the fancy houses and buildings that were coming up.
Bablu Bhaiyya, as you boarded the bus to the railway station, escorted by volunteers, why did you not have hatred and anger for all the abuse we have heaped on you? As the bus sped through the city, Bablu Bhaiya, did you see how empty all the big buildings, the flyovers, the parks, the entertainment centres, and the malls are now? Did you see what was written at the entrance of the Vidhan Soudha: ‘Government Work is God’s Work’. Then, did you ask where was this government that was supposed to be doing god’s work?
Bablu Bhaiyya, forgive us, because we have not only forgotten what god and government are but we have also forgotten our own humanity.
Bablu Bhaiyya, can you forgive us?
A.R. Vasavi is a social anthropologist and is with the Punarchith Collective which is based in Karnataka.
This article was originally published in Kannada in Praja Vani on May 25, 202o.