Home/ Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday/  A murder in Munnekolala

By the time the police were informed, 20-year-old Bashir-ul Shaik was already dead, his body lying outside a borewell pumphouse in Munnekolala, on the outskirts of Bengaluru.

He and two others had been beaten for more than seven hours, according to the police, for the alleged theft of a length of wire from near the pumphouse. Wires from an electricity meter box were removed and applied to Shaik, electrocuting him.

Shaik and the others were ragpickers, migrants from West Bengal who moved southwards in search of livelihood. In Bengaluru, that job was recycling—wading through trash often dumped on roadsides or in vacant city plots—isolating plastics and other recyclables.

Shaik was a recent immigrant from West Bengal’s Nadia district. He is one of thousands of such workers who are moving to cities such as Bengaluru in search of a job—any job.

In Bengaluru, the challenge of getting residents to segregate their waste has ensured that people like Shaik can make a living.

According to the police’s first information report (FIR), one of the other victims, 19-year-old Hafizul Shaik, was called by three other Bengali males to a neighbourhood pumphouse. There he saw that the accused—local landowners and their children, apart from the three Bengali males—were beating Bashir with a metal water pipe.

The FIR names 10 accused—the three Bengali men who were part of Shaik’s own community and seven other locals, of whom six are absconding. One, a 51-year-old man whose house was adjoining the plot with the pumphouse, and who police say went there upon hearing screams, has been arrested.

It is tempting to look at Shaik’s killing as simply a crime story; just a brawl gone wrong. But then, how many brawls end up in an electrocution?

These kind of attacks happen everyday, it is just that nobody notices, says Benoy Peter, executive director of the Center for Migration and Inclusive Development, a non-governmental organization.

“People tend to believe that migrants are responsible for a lot of crimes at the place where they come to work," Peter says. But what about the crimes, the discrimination and the violence that the migrants are subjected to, he asks.

But this is not just a migration story, either. This is also the story of how the city has developed; maybe even of how all cities develop. It is also the story of distress migration, driven in part by how little there is to do in certain parts of the country.

In Munnekolala, 22-year-old Zubair, a migrant, spent Rs65,000 of his own money to start a “bira stall" (a shop selling paan and cigarettes) but was forced to close it. Some local men ate and smoked at the stall and not only refused to pay, but asked for money from him. Zubair washes cars for a living now.

These incidents often go unreported because going to the police station to report a crime would consume time and, therefore, money. There is also the language barrier. Unfamiliarity with the local language prevents may of them from reporting crimes and besides, Peter adds, the policemen themselves are invariably local.

India is urbanizing at breakneck speed. It took 40 years (between 1971 and 2008) to accumulate the first 230 million urban residents in India. It will take half as much time to reach 590 million, according to an estimate by McKinsey Institute, based on Census numbers. The rise in numbers is bound to increase pressure—both on law enforcement agencies and on city civic bodies.

A 2013 Unesco report, “Social inclusion of internal migrants in India", says it is a myth that internal migrants—of whom there may be more than 309 million people, according to the 2001 census—enjoy freedoms because the Constitution guarantees it regardless of where they are.

“In practice, internal migrants do not have the freedom and dignity that the Constitution promises. Policy makers and urban planners mostly view migration as a negative process and have therefore created an unconducive and unsupportive environment through neglect and inaction," the report said.

In a March 2017 report on migrant labourers in an area called Hebbal in Bengaluru, researchers for the Indian Institute of Human Settlements write, “Interstate migrants are additionally vulnerable due to the language disconnect, with their lack of any sort of negotiating power in the city leading to social isolation."

The Karnataka State Human Rights Commission, taking cognizance of the attacks on migrants, has written to the chief secretary and the inspector general of police, asking for a report on attacks against migrants in six weeks, according to an official of the commission, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

This person said that, often, people of an entire community were blamed. There have been attacks on migrants in the past—most notably the attacks on people from the northeastern states some years ago.

Bashir-ul Shaik lived with his mother in a community at the tail end of a village called Munnekolala. It is one of several pop-up migrant colonies dotting Bengaluru. The police say Shaik had two children back home, the second a newborn.

Bashir and his mother chose to make their home in this small village connected to what is still known locally as the Old Airport Road, by a chicken’s neck of a road leading off an old single-lane-each-way railway overbridge. The chicken’s neck has since been widened; a wide bridge now passes over the railway line, which still brings passenger trains from Tamil Nadu and beyond into Bengaluru. Other, newer roads also now connect Munnekolala to the city.

But the chicken’s neck—one side bounded by a railway line and the other by a valley which is now a housing layout—still serves as the main thoroughfare for those wanting to reach Munnekolala. It serves both to join Munnekolala to the metropolis of Bengaluru and keep it apart.

A city divided

Munnekolala formally became a part of Bengaluru city when the village was one of 110 subsumed by the city government to form the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike. Bengaluru was the fastest-growing city in India over the first decade of the 21st century. And Shaik’s Munnekolala in some ways symbolizes all that is wrong with the way the city has developed.

“The current land values in Munnekolala are in the range of Rs4,500-5,000 per square feet for smaller plots of up to 5,000 square feet in size. The value was about Rs600-700 per square feet during 2007, when it formed part of BBMP," according to Shubhranshu Pani, managing director, strategic consulting, Jones Lang Lasalle India.

In the mornings in Munnekolala, the deep, stuttering growl of a tractor, common enough in these parts, punctuates the almost steady hum of vehicles on the main roads. Buses for local schools, including Vagdevi Vilas a few hundred metres from Shaik’s residence, add to the general white noise.

The noise is only punctured by the sounds of the neighbourhood children playing or planning some mischief, or sometimes, the shrill cacophony of neighbours squabbling loudly.

It was in this bucolic atmosphere, the police say, the cries of men in pain drew a neighbour to the pumphouse. The property owner’s son apparently wanted to teach Shaik and his friends a lesson for the alleged theft.

A police officer from the local police station says Shaik and his cohorts did commit the crime. The stolen wire was later found in his house, but it was no reason to beat the men, he added.

The men are ragpickers but if they see anything (unguarded), they may take it, said the officer, who did not wish to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

As it turned out, the pumphouse was the scene of unparalleled ferocity.

There is no way of knowing exactly what went down in that out-of-the-way pumphouse in that out-of-the-way building in a remote corner of Bengaluru. But photographs of Shaik’s body, shown by the policeman, tell a sordid tale.

He is shirtless. There are dark discolourations on his torso. The elbows of both hands appear to be swollen, and the skin is marred by what appear to be bruises.

He is wearing a printed blue lungi tied at the waist. The lungi is drawn to his knees, to show his injuries. Again, there is swelling around the knee joints, the discolouration, and the bruises.

What the photo taken from a phone doesn’t show are the places where wires from an electricity meter box were placed to electrocute Shaik, or the fact that water had been poured on his body—either in a vain attempt to wake him from unconsciousness or to exacerbate the electrocution; the police couldn’t tell.

Nine suspects are absconding while one—the 51-year-old man from the property neighbouring the pumphouse—has been arrested and is in prison pending trial.

Shaik’s settlement

The road to Shaik’s tin shed, around a kilometre from the local bus stop, swiftly deteriorates as you leave behind the village of Munnekolala, northeast of Bellandur lake.

The craters on the road widen to canyons until, a few hundred metres from a local temple that is a big landmark in this area, occasional pools of slush give way to occasional pools of road. At some point, the road gives up altogether, ending in a morass of dark, brown mud and foot-deep water that would take a man boots and a deathwish to wade through.

There are many settlements such as Shaik’s in Bengaluru, and most of them are out of sight for the casual passerby.

The brutal murder of a ragpicker might be a story that affirms the suspicion and fear with which outsiders are viewed by local communities. But the location of the alleged crime also says as much about the nature of the city’s growth than anything else.

When the Marathahalli police responded to a call from the public helpline, they found Shaik’s body lying outside the pumphouse belonging to a local landlord. The pumphouse was used to pull out groundwater, which would then be supplied to the high-rises and residences in the area.

That, in itself, tells a story.

Bengaluru, located as it is in an area with no perennial rivers, depends for much of its water on the Cauvery river, which flows some 86 kilometres away. The city’s water utility, Bengaluru Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB), pumps water upstream to service 570 sq. km. of the city, leaving out about 225 sq. km. of villages that were formally added to the city only in 2007.

That is where private suppliers come in. There are an estimated 400,000 borewells in Bengaluru, supplying about 600 million litres of water everyday, according to S. Vishwanath, an adviser with water and sanitation non-profit Arghyam. These borewells supplement the city water utility’s piped connections of 8.6 lakh connections.

BWSSB covers only about 60-70% of Bengaluru’s population, Vishwanath estimates.

Thubarahalli settlement

In the village of Thubarahalli, a low wall separates the city’s haves from its have-nots. The only sign of the settlement below, unless you go up to the wall and gaze out over the valley, is the slight smell of human feces.

In the Thubarahalli settlement, which adjoins the one Shaik died in, what used to be coconut plantations and vegetable farms are now corrugated tin sheds and yards with plastic litter: the nonbiodegradable detritus of a fast-growing city.

This litter—everything from plastic bottles to plastic sheets and covers—is collected by people like Shaik, the ragpickers of east Bengaluru. The trash is collected there before being sifted and sorted, sometimes by entire families, and then sold to established recyclers in the city.

The policeman, like the men in the village, refers to the presence of thekedars, men at the apex of recycling operations, in the camps. The camp is divided among the thekedars, who each collect and sell the recyclables picked by the ragpickers. These thekedars rent out places for the ragpickers to stay, the police officer said.

The thekedars rent the land from local landlords and then sublet it to men and women who work as ragpickers for them.

“If you consider, in general, migration in India, (it could be) Mumbai or Delhi, or whichever metro you take, these people live in the affordable (areas), whatever is available," says Peter. “Other, bigger cities in India have had to deal with migration too. Under most of Delhi’s flyovers, you may find Biharis. In Mumbai, apart from Dharavi, there are several, small slums such as the one in Mankhurd near the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre."

“You get two brinjals and a piece of coconut to buy (with the money they earn). This is the kind of affordability of such people. They live on government land, which cannot have a permanent structure," he adds.

The ongoing floods in India’s northeast, including in West Bengal, will further add to the ongoing exodus. Peter recounts visiting a couple of flood-ravaged villages in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district, where young people either were working in Kerala, had just come back, or were in the process of migrating to Kerala.

Short-lived dreams

Five- and six-year-olds Suraj Shaik and Nofir Shaik are playing some undefinable game at the back of the Thubarahalli settlement. The dust they kick up washes over some ducks standing nearby.

But there is no direct road to their settlement. The Thubarahalli main road ends at a low wall. On the other side of the wall, a couple of hundred metres down a small dirt track picking its way through, is Suraj and Nofir Shaik’s settlement.

There are more than 10,000 people here, a resident guesses, all of them living in tin houses with plastic sheets over the roofs to provide safety from the rain. Some of the men here work as drivers and others do blue-collar work around town.

Suraj, the more boisterous of the two, comes up to this reporter to ask questions, the impertinence of the queries being blunted by his beguiling manner. Where are you from, he asks. Then, “Kya aap ameer ho?" (Are you rich?)

The children live in the settlement, but they go to the government school in nearby Munnekolala. They cannot tell exactly what their parents do for a living. They don’t yet speak the local language, Kannada.

There is no work at all in some areas of West Bengal, Peter says, leaving people with no option but to migrate in search of livelihood. That is why thousands of men like Shaik migrate so far down south to work.

But, a few months after her only son had moved, Tohenoor Shaik, 52 and already a grandmother, was going back the other way, in an ambulance hired for Rs60,000, which was raised by her community. In the back was her son Bashir-ul-Shaik, in a box.

Note: An earlier version of this story misspelt the name of Munnekolala.

This story is the first of a two-part series on migration and the way our cities are developing.

Part Two: Just who is a migrant? Who are these migrants?

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Updated: 24 Sep 2017, 09:10 PM IST
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