“We had made up our minds to walk or hitch a ride all the way home. We believed that we would find someone along the way who would help us,” Chandrabhushan Sahani says, speaking about the moment when he was preparing to start on his long journey by foot from Bengaluru to his home in Siddharthnagar district of Uttar Pradesh on Thursday.
But on the same day that the 24-year-old migrant construction worker started his 2,015 kilometre long journey, the Karnataka government buckled under pressure from the public to reverse its decision and re-start train services for migrant workers.
Chandrabhushan was stopped at a checkpost and upon hearing the news of the trains re-starting, he decided to walk back to his residence in Amruthahalli in Bengaluru. But now, he is unsure about when he will get a train to head home.
“It has become like a lottery. Mila toh mila. Nahin mila toh nahin mila (If we get it, we get it. If we don't we don't),” Chandrabhushan says.
The decision to restart train services was announced after a case was filed in the Karnataka High Court by activists, and a public campaign was organised with many individuals and organisations writing to Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa to stop holding the workers hostage in the city.
Chandrabhushan’s comparison likening a train ticket home to a lottery ticket is not far-fetched. Nearly one lakh workers in Bengaluru have registered for tickets on these trains. And each train can only take 1,200 persons at a time.
The Karnataka government is in touch with many states in northern and north-eastern India over arranging travel for migrant workers.
The proposal to transport the workers is sent by the Karnataka government to the recipient state government, and once the recipient government agrees, the Railways is intimated to arrange a train.
“For tomorrow (Saturday), they will let us know only after 6 pm (on Friday) about the states which have agreed to their proposal,” a Railways official says. Following this, divisional police officers in Bengaluru are informed about the train and are asked to collate a list of migrant workers in their division.
Train for migrant workers in Bengaluru on Friday after services were re-started.
The city police then have the role of identifying the workers who wish to go back home. The process is heavily dependent on the surveys of migrant workers prepared by the Bengaluru police and the applications submitted by migrant workers at various police stations in Bengaluru seeking to return home.
“We have lists of migrant workers residing in different areas, so we know where they are and we have their mobile numbers. Workers have also approached police stations and submitted applications by providing their details. We will contact them when trains are confirmed,” says a senior police official.
The workers who are contacted by the police are asked to pay the full ticket fares, including the bus fare to take them to the railway station. Though this may sound simple, the process is neither transparent nor a straightforward plan.
Photograph of the ticket charged for workers travelling to Bihar including bus and train fare
In addition to the lists prepared by the Bengaluru police, the state government has asked workers to register themselves on the Seva Sindhu portal if they wish to return home.
But police officials in Bengaluru tasked with identifying migrant workers who wish to return home, say that they are not working based on the registrations made on the Seva Sindhu portal.
“Most workers may not register on the Seva Sindhu portal since it is online. The police department has not accessed the list of people who have registered through the portal,” adds the same police official.
For instance, if a train to Jharkhand is confirmed by the state government, divisional police officials identify police stations where workers from Jharkhand have registered to go home. Workers from a select few police station limits are chosen by the police, taking into account the logistical factors of transporting the workers to the railway station.
“But within the police station limits, there is no priority order and those who registered themselves first may get to go home earlier than others. Exceptions are made only if someone is unwell or on humanitarian grounds,” the police official adds.
Migrant workers heading to Uttar Pradesh hitch a ride on a truck on National Highway 44 outside Bengaluru
Two migrant workers and brothers - Niranjan Kumar Yadav, 18, and Vinod Yadav, 25 - who hail from Palamu in Jharkhand were given preference to leave by train on Friday night after officials were informed by a journalist that their 16-year-old sister had died earlier in the week. Bheemashankar Guled, DCP (Northeast), arranged for them to leave the city via a train leaving for Jharkhand.
However, there is no standard operating procedure and differences have emerged in the way this process is handled by different police stations.
Karnataka has requested for trains to nine states over the next week. On Friday, the South Western Railways confirmed that a total of four trains, including two trains to Uttar Pradesh, one train to Jharkhand and one train to Bihar, have left from Bengaluru and Kolar (42 km from the city).
Chandrabhushan was one of the hundreds of workers who decided to start walking on Thursday. He had Rs 300 in his pocket and a fully charged mobile phone when he set out but he is now back at his residence waiting for word on when he will be able to leave by train.
“We approached Amruthahalli police station and we were only told that we will get a call on our phone number. They have taken money from us, Rs 60, for the form,” adds Chandrabhushan. He also says that his employer will only pay him when construction work resumes.
Shivam Yadav, a migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh (pictured left) holds up his application form
The decision by hundreds of migrant workers to walk back to their homes was due to the apathy they faced at the behest of private employers and government agencies.
As one senior police officer describes, “It is no longer an economical issue but an emotional one. Their cultural differences also have to be taken into account. We cannot reason with them any further and the state government has been forced to recognise that.”
Since the start of the lockdown, the workers are grappling with hunger while living in unhygienic and cramped conditions, with 20 or more people in a room. Many were held captive within the construction sites or the shanties they lived in and were also not paid wages by many real estate and construction companies.
The magnitude of the crisis is exacerbated by the fact that the state government was unaware of how many migrant workers were living in the city at the start of the lockdown.
Activist and advocate Vinay Sreenivasa says that the reverse migration among workers in India is a result of the failure of state governments in following due process and implementing labour laws to ensure standard living conditions.
“If Bengaluru is booming today, it is because of the contributions of migrant workers. Our metro, our second runway, our IT parks were built by migrant workers. They continue to service the city just as security guards, domestic workers, facilities staff, plumbers, carpenters etc. But the city never cared for them. Our lax compliance with the law, our neglect of these workers as fellow human beings has led us to where we are,” Vinay points out.
He adds, “The provisions of the The Interstate Migrant Workmen (regulation of employment and conditions of service) Act 1979, mandates registration of establishments employing migrant workers, and this in turn mandates that they be given housing and adequate allowances. But these have not been followed. If indeed the law was followed, and the Labour Department had paid attention to violations, we wouldn't be in this position today.”
Bengaluru migrant workers walking along the national highway on Thursday.
The migrant workers are running out of patience with the system. In a metro construction site in Bommanahalli, there was minor violence reported on May 3 after the police were allegedly involved in a clash with migrant workers who were demanding wages, food and water.
After the lockdown restrictions were eased on May 4, more incidents of unrest among workers have been reported in parts of the city. In one such incident, workers who turned up at the Varthur Police Station asking for the status of their application to travel home, were dispersed aggressively by police officials.
In a migrant settlement in Konanakunte Cross in southern Bengaluru, workers reported that they were locked in by police officials who were not allowing them to step out.
Migrant worker settlement at Konanakunte Cross, Bengaluru
On Tuesday, a police inspector was injured as he was trying to persuade hundreds of workers gathered at the Bangalore International Exhibition Centre, off Tumkur Road, to return to their homes.
A senior police officer close to the Bengaluru Police Commissioner, says, “These events have left the police officials, who are already overworked, in a very tense situation.” He says that the city police had started a fresh survey of migrant workers’ settlements in the city after incidents of violence were reported elsewhere in the country during the first phase of the lockdown period.
The police official claims, “The city police is the only one doing it (surveys of migrant worker settlements). Nobody in the government seems to be having any details on how many interstate migrant workers there are. This process started only when there was major tension in Surat and Mumbai during the lockdown and as a precautionary measure, the police decided to engage with workers.”
He says that police officials were asked to reach out to migrant workers living in settlements in their respective police station limits.
“But we cannot do a systematic job, as we are buried under a lot of other work including maintaining law and order. We tried to cover as many labour camps as possible and noted the names and numbers based on their state of origin,” he says.
According to the survey by Bengaluru Police, around 1,86,000 migrant workers have registered in their database, and about 50% of all such persons want to return home. “We want to be with our families at this time. This is why we are walking even though our homes are so far away,” Chandrabhushan says.
While he returned to his residence after he was stopped by the police in Yelahanka in north Bengaluru, many workers slipped through checkposts by climbing onto trucks heading in their direction, a mark of their desperation and defiance, and a sign that this crisis is far from abating.