Rights

Why Bengaluru's Migrant Construction Workers Are Marching Home

Apart from running out of money and rations, workers say landlords have demanded rent, while some are worried about their families.

Bengaluru: Under the shadow of Bengaluru’s elevated highway that leads out of the city, Bhajrangi Nishad (30) walks with a brisk, panicky stride. “We better pick up the pace,” he tells his six friends who are walking along with him. With them are bags, paint boxes and even a crowbar. “We have to get out of the city as soon as possible,” he says as he spots a group of policemen.

Their aim is to traverse National Highway 44, that runs through the spine of the country, towards their homes in Gorakhpur district. They are ready to walk 2,000 km? “It is 1,800 km. We will find a way,” says Bhajrangi resolutely.

Early on Thursday, they had left their tin-shed homes close to Electronic City, the home to some of India’s biggest software companies, some 40 km away.

There is no option but to continue walking until they reach home, he says. “We have no money. There have been no rations given for two days. Our contractor threatened to evict us if we didn’t resume work at the complex…Who knows when this lockdown will end. We know what is happening in Mumbai and we don’t want to end up being trapped in a city where no one cares whether we die of this bimari (disease) or of hunger,” says Bhajrangi.

Further ahead, thousands of migrants carrying their meagre belongings can also be seen travelling on NH 44, which eventually leads to Hyderabad, Gwalior and Jhansi. On Thursday evening, the BJP government, which had cancelled scheduled inter-state trains for migrants just two days earlier, announced that train services would resume for migrants.

Migrants rest under a flyover on NH 44. Photo: Mohit Rao

However, for many, it was too little too late. Like Bhajrangi, many had lost faith in a system that had deserted them. “They had told us over the past week that trains will be running. We waited for days outside police stations (to register a request to travel). All we got was the danda (baton). I have more faith that I can walk home than get a train ticket,” he says.

In Photos: As Lockdown Distress Continues, More Migrants Begin Walking Home

Desperate to leave

After more nearly 40 days without pay, work and depleting rations, the May 3 relaxation allowing stranded migrants to travel to their native places had given hope to the thousands of migrants in the city.

The desperation to return to their families was evident in the number of requests that the government received. Between May 3 and 5, over 2.13 lakh migrant workers had registered their intention to travel by train on the state government’s online portal. Many couldn’t register at all due to serpentine queues at police stations. Just 9,600 persons ended up boarding trains.

However, on May 5, this hope diminished. After a meeting with members of the real estate body Confederation of Real Estate Developers’ Association of India (CREDAI), Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa said that labourers should avoid “unnecessary travel” and would be “convinced” to stay back. The state was looking to restart its construction sector, for which migrant labour is the backbone. An exodus would have affected the sector. A few hours later, the government wrote to the railways, cancelling inter-state trains.

Bengaluru MP Tejasvi Surya had called it a “bold move” to help migrants “restart their dreams” in the city. The state government’s move and Surya’s tweet received flak, saying migrants cannot be forcibly confined in the city. In his defence, Surya tweeted that the train service was only for “stranded migrants” and not for the majority of the state’s migrants who had chosen to work here.

However, within labour camps, patience was running thin. Labour agitations and even some confrontation with the police were reported across the city. Labour unions accused the state government of siding with builders and against the fundamental rights of the workers.

The state government was forced to go into firefighting mode. In a quick reversal, the BJP-led government has now formally requested the railways for at least 14 trains between May 8 and May 15 to major states such as Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Bihar, West Bengal, and even to Manipur and Tripura.

With an average capacity of 1,200 passengers – social distancing norms mandate that the middle berth is empty – this would translate to nearly 1.15 lakh persons being ferried home. The train service will hinge on approval from recipient states.

Even if the trains are arranged, it may only accommodate a fraction of the expected demand. The 2011 Census enumerates that 8.9% of the city’s 85 lakh population are recent migrants. This number is assumed to have increased, considering the rapid growth of India’s IT capital that is fueled by a thriving construction sector.

Migrants leave with their belonging in tow. Photo: Mohit Rao

“Disillusioned” 

Mirajuddin, who migrated from Bhatat village near Gorakhpur (UP) to work in a construction site 11 months ago, couldn’t earn during the lockdown. “We were eating salt and rice for four days. It seemed like we’d starve,” he says. However, it was when the landlord of his rented house demanded the month’s rent that he knew he had to leave. “How do I find Rs 1,000 (the monthly rent) during this lockdown? We could no longer stay there. We had to go away,” he says. He had already walked 60 km when The Wire met him.

Ravi Pratap (27), who came from Gorakhpur five months ago, also decided to walk home after his landlord demanded that he pay his rent by May 10. “We have no hope of finding a home and job in Bengaluru. But, we have hope that if we keep walking, we may reach our homes,” he says.

The exodus continues despite construction activity picking up in the city.

Shyam, a Gond tribal from Sonbhadra district in UP, was working in a large residential construction complex, He was told by his contractor rations would only be provided if he resumed work. He refused to do so, as did many others from his camp. “We wanted to go back because we are worried about our families. We told them to release our payment for work done so that we could go back to our villages. We were abused and told that if we left, our previous payments would be cancelled,” he says.

The prospect of being trapped in a “filthy” tin-shed colony with no water and ration scared him. “We left at 4 am. I don’t know what lies ahead, but we will walk it back,” says Shyam.

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The highway

The experience of attempting to get a train ticket through the online portals had proved arduous for the migrant workers. Instead, the NH 44 has become their way out of a city they had been confined in.

The road simmers in the summer heat. The sparse vegetation by the highway provides little respite. At the Karnataka-Andhra Pradesh border, personnel at the check post have been forcing migrant labourers to return to Bengaluru. But even the police say that most have managed to slip past by walking through interior villages.

A police check post on the highway. Photo: Mohit Rao

It is their sheer resolve and the hope that the comfort of home, aided by the kindness of strangers – who offer rides, food and even money – that wills the migrant workers to make this treacherous journey.

On the first night on the highway, 25-year-old Akhilesh Kumar, who is walking towards Gauri Bazaar in Deoria district of Uttar Pradesh, had to flee cops by running into plantations and hiding in the fields. The police were attempting to round-up his group and transport them back to Bengaluru.

He hadn’t been paid since he came to the city in March to work for a construction contractor. Instead of sending money home, he was forced to take Rs 10,000 from his family, who had borrowed it from a village moneylender. “I’d come to the city to send money from my family. Now, I’ve put them in debt,” he said.

Akhilesh isn’t convinced by the state government’s announcement of inter-state trains for migrants like him. “They told us the lockdown would last only three weeks. They told us during lockdown, we would get rations. They told us on May 3, we can take trains home. We know we won’t get a chance to go on the trains even if we wait in queues for days. At least, with each day on the road, I know I’m closer home,” he says.

Mohit M. Rao is an independent journalist in Bengaluru. He tweets at @mohitmrao.