COVID-19: ‘We have built so many houses. Can’t we just go back to our homes?’

Workers at a construction site on Amruthahalli Road had packed their bags and gathered at the gates of their labour camp on Wednesday in anticipation of boarding trains to their hometowns.   | Photo Credit: SampathKumarGP

The Karnataka government’s decision to cancel trains to prevent migrant labourers from leaving Bengaluru has sown seeds of distrust and anger among those who want to go back to their native towns. Tension was brewing at a labour camp of over 700 construction workers at the site of an upcoming apartment complex in Konanakunte Cross on Wednesday.

Hundreds of people had packed their bags and gathered at the gates waiting to return home, but were not allowed to leave by private security guards. The labourers wanted no part in the government’s attempt to kickstart economic activity. As their anger and frustration mounted, they started shouting slogans: “We won't work, let us go home”.

The crowd eventually spilled out onto the streets, and the police had a tough time ‘pushing them in’, as a senior officer put it.

“This is a ticking bomb. We do not know for how long we can manage them. Going home is an emotional issue, not just an economic one,” said a senior police official from one of the outer zones, which has a large concentration of labour camps.

Across the State, as many as 2.13 lakh migrant labourers, a majority from Odisha and Bihar, registered on the Seva Sindhu online platform to return home, said sources. However, just over 8,000 labourers were able to leave on eight trains before services were cancelled.

Ravindra Ram, 32, from Jharkhand, was one of the hundreds gathered at the gates of the labour camp in Konanakunte Cross with his luggage. When informed that trains were cancelled, the workers refused to believe the representatives of the contractors. “Two of my friends had boarded a train on Tuesday. I did a video call with them while they were on the train,” he said.

Pointing to a 31-storey apartment complex he helped build, Ravindra Ram said, “We have built so many houses. Can’t we just go back to our home?”

Despite politicians claiming otherwise, labourers say their living conditions are pathetic. “We were given rice and potatoes, and ₹200 per week, which was stopped two days ago. Now we have been asked to resume work,” said Imran Khan, 42, from Bihar.

He alleged that the contractors have informed that the money will be cut from their wages. “We have been told to begin work, or we won’t be allowed to live in the shed. They are treating us like slaves. We won’t resume work and want to go home,” he said.

Labourers throng police stations

Many police personnel were not aware of the government’s decision to cancel trains, which led to further confusion. Hundreds of labourers from Garudacharpalya turned up at Mahadevapura Police Station on Wednesday morning, wanting to register on Seva Sindhu.

Gulab Mandal, a labourer at Garudacharpalya, said there were over 1,600 labourers in the camp where is based.

Caning at Anchepalya

In another instance, a group of labourers from Dabaspet went to Bengaluru International Exhibition Centre (BIEC) where the government had housed those wanting to board trains. On finding that the camp has been disbanded, they proceeded to Majestic on Tuesday night in search of a train.

They police made them walk back to their camp near Dabaspet. They were picked up by a bus midway and housed in a ground in Anchepalya for the night. On Wednesday morning, they had an altercation with the police. “The police resorted to caning to control the situation,” said a police officer.

Suresh Hari, chairman, CREDAI-Bengaluru, said builders need to reach out to their labourers, give them emotional support and convince them it is better to go home after normalcy returns. “If they go home now, they will be stuck in their villages without work or pay. With lockdown, they may not be able to return soon. Work is restarting here. They can earn some money and go home after a few weeks,” he said.

However, police officials are bracing themselves for more trouble.

“Many of the people who have registered to return home are neither construction labourers nor live in labour camps. They live in small rented accommodation and hostels. They work in malls or as security guards. None of the business establishments are open yet. At the same time, they have been denied a chance to go home. It is tough to manage crowds comprising such people,” a senior police official said.

Walking to Uttar Pradesh

Small groups of migrants have begun an arduous journey back to their hometowns in Uttar Pradesh on foot.

Byatarayanapura MLA Krishna Byre Gowda spotted some of them near Devanahalli on Wednesday afternoon and posted a video of his interaction with them on Twitter. One of the labourers making the journey said that they decided to make the journey on foot as they had neither food nor work in the city, and that trains were cancelled.

“This is inhuman. They are so disturbed as to walk home. Some may die,” said Mr. Krishna Byre Gowda in a tweet.

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Printable version | Jun 15, 2021 7:13:00 AM |

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