OPINION

Living on the margins, but central to the economy

Migrant workers who wished to go home wait at the Bangalore International Exhibition Centre in Bengaluru for arrangments to be made for their travel, on May 15, 2020. (Below): Migrant workers walk towards their home States, on the Mumbai -Agra highway in Bhiwandi, Thane district, on May 4, 2020.K.V. Aditya Bharadwaj, Sandeep Rasal

Migrant workers who wished to go home wait at the Bangalore International Exhibition Centre in Bengaluru for arrangments to be made for their travel, on May 15, 2020. (Below): Migrant workers walk towards their home States, on the Mumbai -Agra highway in Bhiwandi, Thane district, on May 4, 2020.K.V. Aditya Bharadwaj, Sandeep Rasal  

The lockdown has lifted in most places and the economy is slowly re-opening, but there is a severe shortage of labour. Ajeet Mahale and K.V. Aditya Bharadwaj report on how cities that had turned their backs on migrant workers for more than two months now want them back

Until the novel coronavirus outbreak and the consequent lockdown imposed by the government to curb its spread, migrant workers lived hidden from the public gaze in the Garden City of India. The workers who had built the fast-growing city’s houses, apartment complexes, workplaces, and other imposing and immediately visible structures, and others who had worked in them, were largely “invisible” themselves. They lived in structures held up flimsily by tin sheets; these were the boxes that these builders called home. Like the Indian community in London in Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses , migrant labourers in Bengaluru were a “city visible but unseen”.

But when the lockdown was imposed and economic activity came to a grinding halt, these workers emerged on the streets, demanding that they be allowed to go home. With no public transport to take them anywhere, and as they were abruptly left unemployed and hungry, many decided to do what was unthinkable until then — walk to their towns and villages situated as far as in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Jharkhand.

Seeing the humanitarian crisis unfold before its eyes, the Karnataka government then organised Shramik special trains to take the workers home. Since the beginning of May till June 24, around 4.6 lakh migrants, the majority of them working in Bengaluru, boarded 284 Shramik special trains to leave Karnataka. (The data does not include those who hitched rides or attempted to leave the city on foot.) Bengaluru is no longer under lockdown, but with a large section of its labour having left, the city finds itself crippled.

Feeling the pinch

During the lockdown, apartments and residential townships did not allow domestic workers into their premises. Many families chose not to pay their domestic workers their monthly salaries. Now, with no signs of the pandemic abating, they have flung their gates open, but few are trickling in. WhatsApp groups of gated communities are flooded with messages seeking domestic workers. “Our domestic help was from West Bengal and has returned home. There is no guarantee she will return. The search for a new help has been unsuccessful till now,” said Sapna Gowda, a resident of an apartment complex.

Gayathri Vasudevan, CEO and co-founder of LabourNet, a Bengaluru-based social enterprise working in the unorganised sector, said there has been a deluge of requests after the restrictions were eased. “Every day, we receive demands for at least 1,000 labourers, both skilled and unskilled. Employers have never approached us like this before,” she said.

The requests LabourNet have received over the last few days give a glimpse of the impact of this loss of labour. “A baker called me asking for four people who could handle ovens. Most of those who handle ovens in the city’s bakeries are from Tamil Nadu,” said Vasudevan. “APMC [Agricultural Produce Market Committees] and warehouses in the city are facing an acute shortage of loaders. If you buy a geyser, it will take nearly a week for it to be installed as electricians are hard to come by. These instances only show how dependent we are on migrant workers.”

It is not just residents, but small- and large-scale industries too that are feeling the pinch. Infrastructure projects such as the construction of a second terminal at the Kempegowda International Airport, road work, and the construction and hospitality sectors seem to be the worst hit by the crisis. “Nearly 40% of the labourers have left the city. This has crippled the hotel industry,” said P. Chandrashekhar Hebbar, President of the Karnataka Pradesh Hotels and Restaurants Association.

While most construction project sites have resumed work, they are working with limited numbers. Other cities too are in a similar situation. India’s engineering and construction behemoth Larsen and Toubro (L&T) said it is facing an acute shortage of labour as over one lakh workers, almost half its labour, have left their place of work. S.N. Subrahmanyan, MD and CEO, L&T, toldThe Hinduearlier : “We had 2.25 lakh labourers working with us pre-COVID-19; now we have 1.2 lakh people. We need to get back one lakh people to resume operations.” More than a thousand project sites of L&T across the country await the return of labourers.

Life under lockdown

The journey of the migrant workers back home from Karnataka was a long-drawn episode characterised by uncertainty, chaos and confusion. Neither the government nor the builders wanted to let the labourers return home. In early May, several Ministers led by the Chief Minister appealed to the workers to stay back in the State, assuring them that they would get work as the economy was reopening.

However, the workers were desperate to leave. They recounted bitter experiences of life under lockdown. Several said that they were not receiving any of the promised food and other rations. Ravindra Ram, 32, from Jharkhand, who was working at a construction site of a large apartment in south-east Bengaluru, pointed to a 31-storey apartment complex he had helped build. In the first week of May he told The Hindu : “We have built so many houses. Can’t we just go back to our own home?”

On May 6, the Karnataka government decided to cancel all the Shramik special trains that it had scheduled to take the migrant workers back home. The fact that it made this decision soon after meeting the Confederation of Real Estate Developers’ Association of India (CREDAI)’s Bengaluru chapter sparked anger among trade organisations, workers unions and activists. Faced with a massive backlash, the government hastened to re-introduce the trains on May 8. Thousands boarded these trains and left the city.

But others did not wait for the government to change its decision on train services and began walking back thousands of kilometres to U.P., Bihar, Jharkhand and other States. Carrying less than Rs. 1,000 in their pockets, they began their long journey home, sometimes aided by trucks on the highway. “We want to go home at any cost. We have had enough of the city,” said Anis Khan, a carpenter walking back home to U.P., on May 8. Many labourers, forcefully evicted from their accommodations for non-payment of rent, said they had been rendered homeless by the lockdown.

Even when the government re-introduced train services, many chose to walk home. This was because the process to secure a berth on a train involved registering online on the Seva Sindhu portal and waiting for an SMS for confirmation, all of which was in English and ill-suited for the people it sought to serve. Thousands gathered outside police stations and camped there for several days, as police officers are the nodal officers in charge of putting migrants on trains.

Now the city’s civic body runs a transit centre where migrant labourers who want to return home can enroll and stay at till they catch a train home. The number of workers who want to return home has come down to a few hundred everyday. The State government is now bearing the cost of their journey home, unlike earlier.

The question of coming back

With the lockdown lifted and the economy re-opening slowly and cautiously, CREDAI is now mulling running chartered trains from U.P. and Bihar to bring migrants back to Bengaluru to kick-start work. “We are confident that they will return. We are ready to run chartered trains to bring them back,” said Suresh Hari, Chairman, CREDAI, Bengaluru.

But will the labourers return? Many vowed never to come back, but they may not have that luxury. Already some workers from the northern parts of Karnataka are returning to Bengaluru as they have been promised work. Industry remains optimistic of their return, at least after the ongoing monsoon sowing season, or once the COVID-19 curve is flattened.

Meanwhile, labour organisations hope that the crisis will serve as a wake-up call for the government, industry and citizens. “We see this as an opportunity to push for better living conditions for workers and better contracts. The crisis we face today is because the sector works under the informal sub-contract system. Employers desperately seeking labour seem to be willing to listen, at least for now. I hope this is not temporary and will translate into a behavioural change,” Vasudevan said.

Exodus from Mumbai

The workers’ longing to go back home and industry’s hope that they will return is no different in Mumbai. Late last month, Jayram Raut and 30 others walked along the coast of Mumbai at Haji Ali in the scorching heat. “ Majboori hai, isiliye ja rahe hain (We’re helpless, that’s why we are leaving),” Raut said. “In all my time in Mumbai, I never thought I would be leaving the city under such circumstances and that too in such a manner.”

Home for him and his fellow workers is Ganjam district in Odisha. Their work involved renovating buildings. Raut, a painter by profession, said they had been working at a high-rise apartment at a tony neighbourhood at Kemps Corner when the lockdown was imposed. “We had received Rs. 2,000 each [from the contractor] last month [April] to get bare essentials, but now even that is over,” he said as the group halted at a bus stop surrounded by high-rise buildings in Worli.

With very few trains going to Odisha, Raut and his group had grown fed up of waiting. They had engaged a truck to pick them up from Thane. When they got no transport to Thane, they decided to walk. “I have worked in so many buildings here,” he said pointing to the skyline of high-rise buildings opposite the Nehru Planetarium.

With migrant workers like Raut fleeing the city, the construction sector is among the worst hit, said Sunil Rana, a contractor and supervisor working in Mumbai for nearly a decade. “The chances of new projects starting are low. Even current projects may find it hard to get additional labour if required,” he said. Rana also left Mumbai to return to his home in Jharkhand. “There was no work. Everything had stopped. It didn’t make sense to stay. When work resumes, I will have to go back. There is nothing here for us,” he said.

Construction workers were particularly hit during the lockdown due to the seasonal nature of their work. All construction activity comes to a halt when monsoons arrive in the city. During the four rainy months, no construction is possible, and many workers from Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Odisha and U.P. go back home. Workers typically start coming back to the city after Diwali and work until May the next year. “Under this lockdown we have lost two full months. Even our contractors started going back home because they were also not getting any income,” said Gopal Das, who has been working in the construction sector for nearly two decades.

The wait for trains made the workers even more desperate as neither was there any sign of any income in the near future nor were the workers getting a seat on any of the Shramik special trains. “For six days I came to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus in the hope of boarding a train. I was finally successful,” said Naseer Haq, a migrant worker from Bihar, over the phone as his train was crossing Madhya Pradesh. Naseer was repairing a building in Churchgate and said that he had left all his belongings at the construction site. “I wanted to get back home and I will come back once things settle,” he said.

Rana felt that even within the construction sector, the most neglected would be exterior building work. It is very labour-intensive compared to interior work, he said, and also cannot be done during the monsoons. “Interior work can continue even during the monsoon season, but getting labour for that will be a challenge too. People will come back only once they feel things are back to normal in the city. Even in villages there is fear of COVID-19. Many people like me have faced some form of social boycott in our villages after returning home,” he said.

Most workers said that there was nothing for them in their villages. They said they would return to the city in search of better economic prospects when things improved. “Majboori ” as Raut said, was the common sentiment amongst them. “We know there is nothing back home in terms of work. But at least we will be with our families and we won’t get infected,” he said. When asked if he and his group got any help from the residents of the high-rise buildings they were working in, Raut laughed. “Who thinks of the poor in this country,” he asked.

The exodus of migrant workers peaked in the final days of May as both Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and Union Minister of Railways Piyush Goyal traded barbs over the running of the Shramik special trains. Central Railway (CR), which caters to the bulk of the trains coming into the city from different parts of the country and especially those coming from States like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, witnessed a peak on May 25 and May 26 when 75 Shramik special trains were run, each carrying around 1,400 passengers.

Due to the labour crunch, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), which is building a slew of public infrastructure projects including several metro corridors, advertised for jobs on behalf of its contractors. An MMRDA spokesperson said that out of around 12,000 workers, about 6,000 had left the city, slowing down work across projects. “Many workers with small land holdings leave the city during the monsoon season. This time they left around 15-20 days earlier. We hope by the end of the monsoon season the situation in the city improves and they come back,” MMRDA’s spokesperson, B.G. Pawar, said. Workers who had left before Holi were already returning to the city in batches, he said.

Return to the city

The number of Shramik special trains run by the Indian Railways also reduced in June. Railway officials said that since June 1 they have seen a steady increase in the number of passengers coming into the city on the scheduled trains being run by the Railways. “Many of the passengers, we have noticed, are daily-wage workers. Over the last week, we have seen all the trains that terminated in the city return full of passengers,” a senior CR official said. Until June 24, 1.8 lakh passengers came into Mumbai using these trains, mostly from Gorakhpur, Lucknow and Varanasi. The three cities accounted for nearly half of all the passengers coming into the city, with other key centres being Howrah and Darbhanga.

The State government also started a special drive to screen migrant workers returning to Maharashtra. According to its estimates, around 13 lakh migrant workers who left the State during the extended lockdown are expected to return in July. The Maharashtra Police have been directed to conduct thermal screenings at border checkpoints, which are witnessing the entry of around 15,000 workers daily.

As the rain-gathering clouds gather over Mumbai, the question that remains is, when will all the workers return to the city that turned its back on them?

In all my time in Mumbai, I never thought I would be leaving the city under such circumstances and that too in such a manner.

Jayram Raut

Construction worker

A baker called me asking for four people who could handle ovens. Most of those who handle ovens in the city’s bakeries are from Tamil Nadu. APMCs and warehouses are facing an acute shortage of loaders. These instances only show how dependent we are on migrant workers.

Gayathri Vasudevan

CEO and co-founder, LabourNet

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