Dhirender, a migrant worker from Banda district of Uttar Pradesh, was working in Bengaluru for just five months when he decided to leave the city in a Shramik Special train arranged for migrant workers on May 24.
Two months after leaving the city, the 26-year-old says that he has no plans of coming back until the spike in COVID-19 cases subsides in the city.
“I left because there was no work and there was no way to support myself. I am only coming back when there is a vaccine for the virus and the cases subside because in this situation, I want to be close to my home,” Dhirender tells TNM.
Dhirender was one of the thousands of workers employed in the construction of the Bengaluru metro, but he says he has now found a new lease of life.
He is not alone and many others like him are thinking along the same lines. Even though the week-long lockdown was lifted earlier this week in Bengaluru, migrant workers who left the city are trickling back in passenger trains in small numbers, two senior police officials in Bengaluru told TNM.
More than 3.5 lakh workers left the city in Shramik trains operated by the Karnataka government in May to facilitate the interstate travel of migrant workers. Officials said that they have not observed a large influx of migrant workers returning to the city. “Few workers have come back, but a majority of them are yet to return. We will be speaking to establishments in our area to find out how many have returned,” a Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) in Bengaluru told TNM.
The nationwide lockdown imposed in March left thousands like Dhirender without work and forced him out of his rented accommodation in Kudlu Gate in Bengaluru. He stayed in a migrant workers colony set up by his company — ITD Cementation — one of the companies involved in building the metro line in the city.
Dhirender photographed before he left Bengaluru in April 2020
Dhirender shared the space in a three-storey building with over 200 other workers like him hailing from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. Dhirender says all the workers he lived with were desperate to leave Bengaluru and return home.
“We had nothing left here. I don’t think people understood our desperation, but that has not changed even though it has been two months since we left,” he says. Dhirender is currently working in a farm in his hometown and says that those who were able to find work are not considering returning to Bengaluru any time soon.
One of the main reasons for his decision is the lack of physical distancing in migrant labour camps. As many as 80 construction workers who were building the Nagawara-Gottigere metro line of Phase 2 of Namma Metro in Bengaluru tested positive for the coronavirus in July. The workers were contracted to Larsen and Toubro.
A report by Maraa, a Benglauru-based media and arts collective, highlighted that living conditions for metro workers was a challenge during the pandemic. “Living and working conditions during COVID-19 are of alarming concern. It is not possible to maintain distancing in most of the camps, due to the inadequate area provided to workers. There are still 10-15 workers living in each room. In some cases there are more than 20-25 workers in each room. We noticed that while much of the workforce left during the lockdown, there are new groups of workers who have arrived to work on the metro sites,” reads a report by Maraa.
Maraa surveyed seven migrant worker colonies in Bengaluru and observed that workers lived in dingy conditions and did not have access to sanitation facilities. It reported that workers were asked to work 12-hour shifts on six days of the week and were only given half of the day off on Sunday. “There are fewer workers now. The construction work near Kudlu Gate is now continuing with around 500 workers while there were over 2,000 workers in March. The work is naturally going to progress slowly,” Dhirender adds.
Migrant workers leaving Bengaluru on foot in May 2020
However, while migrant workers from other states have largely decided to stay in their hometowns, a section of migrant workers, particularly from north Karnataka districts like Raichur, Kalaburagi and Gadag, have returned to Bengaluru in search of work. Basavaraj, who leads a group of construction workers in northern Bengaluru told TNM that in the past two months, the size of his group has halved due to the pandemic.
“Our group of 50 construction workers are now down to 25 workers. Only bachelors or workers who recently got married have returned to Bengaluru in search of work. Those who found work in their home town in Raichur have not come back,” Basavaraju says.
A one-week lockdown starting on July 14 was lifted in Bengaluru on Wednesday morning. But despite the relaxation, construction of large apartment complexes in Bengaluru’s Whitefield area have not resumed, activists told TNM. “Many construction activities have stopped, but the government works are going on. The cleaning of stormwater drains and pending works like road repairs, tarring the road, are underway and workers searching for jobs are finding work like this,” Hemanth, an activist from Mahadevapura in Bengaluru who works with migrant construction workers told TNM.
Bengaluru is currently grappling with 30,561 active COVID-19 cases with around 2,000 cases emerging everyday. Activists say that little is being done to test workers for COVID-19 and stop outbreaks among them.