Worker unions pointed out that this is a violation of fundamental rights of free movement and amounts to forced labour.

Migrant workers boarding train from Bengaluru amidst the pandemic
Coronavirus Rights Wednesday, May 06, 2020 - 10:22

Workers, labour unions and activists in Karnataka took strong exception to the state government’s unilateral and sudden decision to stop trains meant for transporting interstate migrant labourers amidst the COVID-19 lockdown.

Starting from Sunday till Tuesday, the South Western Railway had operated eight trains from Bengaluru with 1200 passengers in each train to three states--Bihar, Jharkahnd and Odisha. These trains were run as advised by the state government follobhlwing the Ministry of Home Affairs guidelines. 

While a formal decision stopping the trains was not announced by the state government, a letter surfaced which clearly pointed to the same.

In that letter, Manjunath Prasad, who was appointed as nodal officer for interstate travel of migrant workers, wrote to AK Singh, General Manager of South Western Railway and said that while 10 such trains were requested by the state initially, the letter was being withdrawn.

While no other official communication was available, Labour Department Secretary, Captain Mannivanna on Twitter said, “Now, they can go only after the lockdown is lifted. Let them stay put. We will take care of them.”

 

 

Incidentally, this comes after the Chief Minister earlier on Tuesday had met leaders of the real estate industry and urged them to start construction activities and ensure proper living conditions for workers. The industry members in turn had asked the CM to convince the workers to stay back, or there would be shortage in the labour force. 

While a specific government order is awaited, a source in the Chief Minister’s office said the government was desperate to start economic activities in the state as the construction sector like any other labour intensive industry is dependent on migrant workers.

READ| Why BS Yediyurappa has appealed to migrant workers to stay back in the state

 

What about our rights?

Most of the workers who wanted to leave the city have been living without pay for the last 40 days and were forced to seek help to feed themselves, from the government, employers or volunteer groups. But with no trains, these workers cannot even escape the deplorable living conditions exacerbated by this lockdown for the comfort of their homes on their own will. 

Nitish, a construction worker for Bengaluru metro in the Bommanahalli site, said that though they were getting food and water from their employer since Monday following protests on Sunday, they have been told that this will be deducted from their salaries. More than half of the construction workers at that site boarded the trains to leave for their hometown after living in pathetic conditions for days. They were not paid salaries too.

He said, “Right now, only around 400 out of the 1,000 labourers are at the site. Even I wanted to go and we were promised by the government that we will be allowed to go. Now shouldn't I get angry if the government stops the trains all of a sudden? Now we have no other option but to stay. We don’t want to work here anymore.”

 

READ| Bengaluru metro construction workers agitate over lack of water and ration

Rajender Yadav, a worker at the same site who is currently on a train to BIhar said most of the workers do not want to work further for the same employer.

“Nobody wants to work there anymore, we all want to go home. We can’t wait for our payment for this, we do not know if they will pay or not,” he said.  

But it is not only those who received a raw deal from their employers who desperately want to go home. 

Laltu Sheikh, who used to work as a driver for a private school in the city, has been left unpaid for a month. But more than finances, he wants to go home to see his ailing mother. He said at least 1,100 people living in his area in Thubarahalli want to go back to West Bengal.

“We were not even aware that the trains have been stopped. I handed over applications of more than 1,176 people to the police. We were not sure how we were going to be selected,” he said.

He added, “In most unorganised sectors, work was stopped and people were exposed to financial hardship and back home also there is no money for their families. I personally want to go home to my mother, she has been unwell and if something happens now to her, there is no way I can go. Spending some time with my mother is now more important than earning money even if there is work.”

He slammed the government for not taking care of the workers when they lost their incomes.

Freedom of movement guaranteed by Constitution

Maitreyi Krishnan, an advocate and member of All India Council of Central Trade Unions in Karnataka said the decision was shocking. “Workers have a right to go home. Article 19(1)(d) guarantees freedom of movement, this was suspended, how long more? Article 23 prohibits forced labour. What Karnataka government is doing on behalf of the real estate lobby is forced labour,” she said.

Reacting to the development, Vinay Sreenivasa, Bengaluru-based lawyer and activist, said, “The poor in this country are only meant to serve the rich. It is disgusting to see the government behave like this.”

Confusion and chaos 

A senior IPS officer, on condition of anonymity, said, “Yesterday there was a lot of unrest and confusion as rumours started spreading among a few labour communities that there will be trains arranged for them. One police inspector was also injured in the commotion. There is also another view in the government that once they leave, they won’t come back for the next 3-4 months and that will not help the economy.”

To begin with, each train could carry only 1200 passengers each and the state government had no clear, transparent plan on what basis the passengers will be chosen given the number of interstate migrant workers in Bengaluru itself is around one lakh.

The state and the central government had also received flak for charging these workers for the train fares at a time when many of them were unpaid.

In many areas, the local police station was asking migrant labourers to register in the government’s Seva Sindhu portal and their respective native state government’s portal to be eligible to travel in these trains.

In some places, the police visited construction sites or shanties to register workers who want to leave.

 

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