At the migrant settlement in Konanakunte cross in JP Nagar in South Bengaluru, the tension was palpable on Wednesday afternoon. The migrant workers were aware of Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa's decision that they cannot go back to their home state, as the lockdown was on. In the morning, as some of them tried to leave, the police tried to stop them, resulting in a skirmish.
To reach the labour colony, one has to pass past a luxurious 41 acre apartment complex. Though the apartment complex was calm, with not too many people moving around, beyond a small corrugated metal gate was the migrant settlement.
While the grass in the apartment was green, and freshly tended to, the mud path to the labour colony had burnt rubbish on either sides, covered partially by flowering creepers.
Three police vehicles stood outside the gate, and policemen were on standby holding shields and lathis.
â€śProblems happened there, itâ€™s better not to go there,â€ť one policeman warned.
As you keep walking, the stench from the waste dumped from the neighbourhood hits you.
At the end of the path lies the labour colony consisting of around 200 small hutments, spread out like a slum. A lone Maruti omni ambulance waits under a tree. On stone slabs around the tree, men sat around, watching out for any stranger entering the area.
One man took off his shirt to show his bruises. Two red welts on his back and his left bicep are visible. â€śThe police did this,â€ť Pratap says. â€śThe police would not have entered the colony, without permission from the JMC construction company that hired us. How can they beat the workers when we didnâ€™t do anything wrong? All we want to do is go home.â€ť
â€śWe want to go home, please help us, we will pay you if you want!â€ť was the continuous demand from all who were around there. The workers say that they are from various states: Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal.
The workers were agitated that they have not been paid. â€śEven when the lockdown was announced, we were made to keep on working, but they havenâ€™t paid us for April,â€ť they alleged. One man said that he was angry that he could not send back money to his wife and three children back in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. â€śWhat are they supposed to eat? I came here to earn for them, but I myself am struggling.â€ť
A representative of the company said that ration was provided for April and Rs 250 per person, but the salaries had not been given. The representative also added that once trains were functional the workers were free to leave. The company refuted allegations that it had asked police to stop the workers from stepping out.
â€śThere are around 400 workers here, and 100 want to leave. We handed over their list to the police and are waiting for the police to get back with train details. As soon as it's available, the workers can leave,â€ť Girish Jalwadi who works with JMC Projects said.
Police insisting on local address
Having made a decision to go home, around 100 workers had gone to the police station with their documents: their Aadhar card photo copies, and the form which needed to be filled so that they could catch the trains back home. The local police told them that they couldnâ€™t leave because their local address was the labour colony and that people from colonies cannot leave for now.
â€śWe went to the police station with our Aadhar card number, they took all our details, but they are saying that the local address of the labour camp is not accepted! What should we do? We are willing to pay!", another worker says.
A complaint from many workers across Bengaluru is that there seems to be no uniformity in the documents and proof that a migrant worker has to provide, in order to secure a train ticket.
â€śWhat if we get sick here of coronavirus? There is no one here to take care of us. Look at how crowded this place is. Can we maintain 1 metre distance here? This place is disgusting, and we want to leave.â€ť
Geeta Devi, the woman who runs the mess, alleged she had not been paid by the company. â€śMr Ganesh from the management told me that I will be paid for last month and this month by May 3. But today is the 6th, and I still havenâ€™t seen a rupee. Where should I go? How will I pay for groceries to cook for all these people?â€ť Some of the workers pointed out that Geeta pawned off her chain because she had no money to pay for vegetables and meat to continue feeding the workers.
The workers also complained of the deplorable conditions they lived in. The water being pumped up for baths was visibly filthy, the tank brown in colour and growing fungus on top. The doors to the toilets broken, the toilets filthy. The womenâ€™s toilets were worse, with the bottom half of many doors completely broken, allowing no privacy.
But more than anything else, what was irking the workers was that the police posted outside the colony were not allowing them to move out, literally making them prisoners within their compound.