Labourers in camps down to one meal a day as supplies deplete

Many of them are out of work for over a week now and are running out of money and rations; there is severe water scarcity at most of the camps

Updated - March 29, 2020 12:33 am IST

Published - March 29, 2020 12:32 am IST - Bengaluru

Several migrant labourers from north Karnataka and States such as Assam, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal live cheek by jowl in camps, including those at Kundalahalli, in Bengaluru.

Several migrant labourers from north Karnataka and States such as Assam, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal live cheek by jowl in camps, including those at Kundalahalli, in Bengaluru.

Mohammed Shabbir, a migrant labour from Assam who lives at the Kariyammana Agrahara camp on the city’s outskirts, said his family of five, including three children, have started rationing their food. For the past week, they have been having only two meals a day; soon it will be down to one. The lockdown which has been enforced to check the spread of COVID-19 has changed the way such people live for the worse.

Several families at various camps of labourers in the city had a similar story to tell when The Hindu visited them on Saturday. They are running out of food supplies, which, they said, would last only for the next couple of days.

At least two families said they were planning to eat just one meal a day in a desperate attempt to stretch their rations.

“We have been out of work for over a week now. Money and rations are fast running out. Unless the government comes to our rescue in the next few days, many of us will starve,” said Bharamappa, a labourer from Raichur.

People from north Karnataka and States such as Assam, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal live cheek by jowl in these camps.

In desperation, some people are going to extreme lengths to get food. “Two days ago, a migrant worker sought to be admitted at a government hospital citing cough. But when doctors directed him to Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Chest Diseases fearing that he could have contracted COVID-19, he came clean and said he was only trying to ensure that he got food. He didn’t have any cough,” said Hemanth Kumar of Migrant Construction Workers’ Association, Bengaluru, and added that the incident reflected the desperation for food. As money and rations run out, he feard that loan sharks would make a killing and push the workers into a deep debt trap.

Migrant labourers at multiple camps in southestern parts of the city — Munekolala, Whitefield, Varthur, Marathahalli, and Kundalahalli — are short of staples and foodgrains, milk, and water. With no exception, all the camps reported that no representative of the government had visited them to date. No one has come to help them or educate them about COVID-19. This, despite the Labour Department allocating ₹15 lakh to each Labour Officer to create awareness and distribute masks and sanitiser for free.

‘No water to wash hands’

Most of the women were seen covering their face with their sari or dupatta , while many men had tied handkerchiefs to cover their nose and mouth. “We have been learning about COVID-19 through television and are scared,” said Utpal Dutt, a labourer from West Bengal.

Though they know they have to wash their hands regularly, they cannot do it as there is a severe water scarcity at most of these camps. “The landlord provides each house with three drums of water every week. But since this scare started, there has been no water supply as tankers are not plying. We are buying drinking water for ₹5 a can, but there is no water to wash our hands or bathe,” said Shivamma, a labourer from Raichur. Amid such water scarcity, talk of hygiene rings hollow. Social isolation is impractical.

The families, most of them with children, are also finding milk hard to come by. Ameena, who is in her late 30s, has five children. She sleeps with them in front of her shed at a camp at Kundalahalli. The youngest, just over a year old, is breastfed. But the other children, all aged below 10, are hungry. The camp had a ‘tent school’ where children would get midday meals and milk every day. But that has been closed now. “We are feeding the children a porridge without milk. But the younger ones need milk, which, however, is not available. And even when it is, we are not able to afford it,” said Ms. Ameena.

At Kariyammana Agrahara, two police constables visited the spot after reports of a clash between residents and a shopkeeper. “The shopkeepers are charging exorbitant rates and that seems to have caused tension. We are educating them to let go of profit at least for milk, which is essential for children. Milk is in short supply at these camps. We will try to fix the supply gap,” said the head constable, who did not wish to be named.

Returning home

The number of people at these camps has significantly dwindled. Sections of those living in these camps, especially those from north Karnataka, left for home over the last few days.

“Masons and others who are relatively better off left over the last two days. In trucks and mini-buses, they charged at least ₹2,000 per seat to travel back home. We did not have that kind of money, so we stayed back,” said Yellamma, a migrant from Kalaburagi district who works as construction labourer and stays at a camp at Kundalahalli. Very few of the migrants from northern and eastern States have left, as they found the travel back home daunting. They have heard reports that people who left are stranded midway as the authorities have stopped them.

Those who remain are struggling to make ends meet.

Govt. launches Hunger Helpline

The State government has launched a ‘Hunger Helpline’ — 155214, with 30 lines. K. Sudhakar, Minister in charge of COVID-19 affairs, said this helpline would coordinate both government and private initiatives to ensure no one goes hungry. “The lockdown and social distancing have impacted labourers and the homeless the most. Despite our efforts to make some alternative arrangements, it is true that they are suffering,” he said.

Following the Centre’s directions to ensure that migrant workers are not stranded on highways while trying to reach their home towns, the Karnataka government is taking steps to stem the tide by providing food, shelter, and other basic amenities to them. Deputy Commissioners have been instructed to utilise funds to provide relief. These include identifying lodging facilities in residential areas, PG accommodation, and university hostels. It will be applicable to homeless people as well. Those availing of the shelter will have to register and may be asked to give Aadhaar details, number of family members, and where they are headed. Basic facilities at the lodging should be cots, beds, electricity, and water for drinking, bathing, and toilets, the order said.

‘Efforts found wanting’

Many writers and activists wrote to Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa on Saturday saying efforts by the government to help the poor was found wanting. “Although Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package announced on March 26 provides for some measures, it leaves out large sections of the population who may not be covered under various schemes. It is necessary that basic right to food and essentials is provided to all persons irrespective of previous coverage under schemes,” the letter states. It has been signed by several activists and writers, including Devanur Mahadeva.

While welcoming the package, the signatories were critical of the gaps. “The relief package gives rations to families with ration cards for three months and free cooking gas under Ujwala Yojana, which has only eight crore people covered. Moreover, the government must make use of the capacity to cook meals at schools and anganwadis, and provide cooked meals to the poor and homeless twice a day. They may also open kitchens at stadiums and grounds for the same,” the signatories said.

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