Reporter: What is the policy of the government? Do you want the migrant workers or you don’t want them? Why is there so much ad-hoc-ism?
Minister: We want the migrant workers. We want them to stay ‘as we allowed them to stay 4-5 years back when they came here.’ But, today they just want to go home. When such is the case, there is no point in preventing them from going. The only issue was the governments in the states they want to go to, have not given us the green signal to send them.
The minister is the official spokesperson of the Karnataka government. Suresh Kumar is also the primary and secondary education minister, handpicked by chief minister BS Yediyurappa to be the public face of the government on COVID-19.
The question was posed to him at his official briefing after the government backtracked again – fifth time in as many weeks – in dealing with issues related to the virus.
First, the government decided to send back the migrant workers as they told Suresh Kumar himself during his rounds of their camps: “We just want to go back. We don’t want to stay here.”
In right earnest, the government arranged rakes to send some of them to their states. It created a buzz in the camps of these workers, stranded without work, wages and even food in a large number of cases.
But soon after a review of the financial situation with officials and a crucial meeting with the office bearers of the Confederation of Real Estate and Developers Association of India (CREDAI), the chief minister made a fervent appeal.
Stay back, he told the migrant workers. Economic activity will begin soon. The appeal simply fell on deaf ears. From various corners of Bengaluru, the migrant workers simply walked towards the city railway station.
It was only after they reached the station – some walked 35 kilometres from different corners of the city – that they realised that the government had cancelled all the trains.
Frustrated, hungry and angry, their defiance of all norms of prohibitory orders and physical distancing and some amount of unruliness rattled the government. Revenue minister R Ashoka and police commissioner Bhaskar Rao rushed to the spot and addressed them.
Rao told them: “This is how it works. We are prepared to send you home as per your wishes, we have written to the governments of Bihar and Bengal. But we need their written permission to send you. As soon as we get their clearance, we will send you. Until then please go home.”
Their number had reached some three to four thousand by then.
“How can we go home? We have left our place. We have told the landlord we are not coming back. Nobody is listening to what we are saying. We just want to go home. There is no work here and we get no food here either,” said Durgacharan. But there was none to listen to him.
Nobody said anything reasonable, like: “Please wait here. We are arranging buses to different parts of the city. You can all go back home just like the state-owned buses were used to send back all those who had wanted to return to districts within the state.”
It took the administration a good 24 hours to arrange buses to send the migrant workers to wherever they lived.
On an aside: Even ‘in-state’ migrants managed to get home only after some trade unions and public-spirited individuals raised a hue and cry over the Rs 950 per head ticket being charged by the KSRTC (Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation) to take them to various districts of Karnataka. Chief minister Yediyurappa ordered free travel for the first two days and again extended it.
But migrant workers from other states are not getting anything at all, let alone concessions from either Karnataka or the Indian Railways. There is no ‘nationalism’ in it, after all.
Is Anyone Listening?
Gajendra, 28, a cook from Odisha says: “We were paid our salary in March even though we did not work during the last week due to the lockdown. But for all of April, we were not paid any salary. We don’t know what to do here. We want to go home.”
Did you fill up the form to travel and hand it over to the government? “No. The police told us to only write our name and phone number and the place we hail from. It has been three days since we wrote that in the police station. But we have not received any information as yet.”
Gajendra lives along with some 150 others from Odisha close to the Hosur road, the inter-state highway to Tamil Nadu. “All our people here are security guards or cooks. The security guards have not been paid salaries even though many of them are on duty. At least, if we go home, we don’t have to pay rent or search for food,” he said.
Have you got any food? “Nobody came to give us food. First few days, the people living in the apartment nearby gave us some food. We were told the government is going to give us food. That also did not come. Then one Madam (an NGO) got us 10 kgs of rice, two kgs of dal, one kg of oil and salt. We are surviving with whatever we have got,’’ said Gajendra.
But, Gajendra is lucky. At least he did not have to face the humiliation of being asked what language he spoke, unlike others in the northern part of the city who were mocked and shunned on those grounds.
The ground situation for these people is nothing short of chaos. All kinds of elements are operating with differing agendas. The result – representatives of various organisations, including many public-spirited groups of volunteers are being stopped from even distributing food packets.
“We were told to hand over our bags of essential commodities to some of them who wanted to give it ‘on behalf of the government’,” said Geetha Menon who runs an NGO for the welfare of women domestic workers.
The Situation Takes A Sudden Turn
But on the second day of the relaxed lockdown, a brainwave struck those attending the meeting of the chief minister with the representatives of the construction industry. The migrant workers became “essential” for the revival of the industry.
“Without them, the government and the industry realised the value of these people. Even one month ago, they had not even looked at the migrant workers as people,’’ said Vinay Srinivasa of the Alternative Law Forum (ALF).
Result of brainwave: A few hours later, the Indian Railways are informed that the Karnataka government did not require any more special trains to transport migrant workers.
“Our administrative machinery has never been this bad. There is no pointsperson in the government who can think through and direct operations. Everything cannot be driven by the chief secretary (TM Vijay Bhaskar) alone,’’ a senior bureaucrat said.
Srinivasa is more explicit: “There is no desire and concern. You just want their labour. You don’t see migrant workers as people. They have no ration card. They were invisible. You have realised the economy will not move without them. Now, when they say we want to go home, they don’t want them to go.”
So is it any surprise that Cartoonist Satish Acharya should make this telling comment on the state of the migrant workers?
As the mood turned sour and anger swept through the camps, bolstered by some harsh treatment from policemen who treated them as “outsiders,” the government picked up a hint from the First Bench of the Karnataka High Court.
That it was asking the state government to respond to many questions about the arrangements for travel and other details in response to a writ petition filed by trade unions.
Politically, too, Yediyurappa realised that the advice he had received on the first day from a few cabinet colleagues, which formed the basis for the cancellation of trains, was going against the freedom of movement in the country as enshrined in the Constitution.
The decision was promptly reversed. Several trains have left for Uttar Pradesh but the states of Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand and others are yet to show the green flag to receive the travellers returning to their state.
Why Are Migrant Workers Treated Like Pariahs?
“Our Kannadiga boys will not come and clean the machines at 7.30 am before the machine operator arrives. They think it is below their dignity to do so. They prefer to move around in mobikes and deliver couriers. But, that Bihari boy or Bengali boy will be at the gate at 7 am because he needs to send home money,’’ an office bearer of the Small Scale Industries Association had once said.
Despite this opinion, the political class has not taken note of these migrant workers who are spread across all sectors of economic activity. Note the words of the government spokesperson: We want them to stay “as we allowed them to stay here 4-5 years back when they came here.”
To the politician it is a favour that the state is doing to the migrant worker from another state (not even a country) because they do menial jobs. He is not an IT or management professional.
The reason is drearily familiar. The migrant worker is not a vote bank. Period!