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BENGALURU : In the past 25 days, 2.4 lakh migrant workers have left Bengaluru, a city whose restaurants and pubs, IT companies and gated communities depend on a workforce that comes largely from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Odisha.

“Nearly 7 lakh migrants working in various sectors as cooks, house help, security guards and in IT companies as housekeeping staff have registered on the Seva Sindhu facility for return to north India," said a state government official. Workers have to register on the government’s Seva Sindhu app to get e-passes that will enable them to travel to their home states aboard the Shramik Special trains, which began leaving the state from 3 May. “They are unlikely to return for some months. We do face a scary situation when it comes to labour," acknowledged the official. From 3 May till 28 May, a total of 168 Shramik Special trains for stranded workers left Bengaluru for UP, Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal, returning 2.4 lakh migrants to their homes.


“For a very long time, migrant workers have been invisible; they were always there but we didn’t see them. Metropolises like Bengaluru are now feeling the pinch as they need labour," said Yogendra Yadav, noted social scientist and Swaraj India president. Work on the city’s metro rail has come to a halt and 2,000 workers mostly from Odisha and Bengal left the city. Security agencies say their employees have taken buses, vans and even walked to get to their home towns. The tech hubs of Whitefield, Sarjapur and Koramangala are feeling the absence. “My security guard, cook and househelp have all left. It’s hard to manage work and all the chores," says Arnab Ray, who lives in Sarjapur.

Karnataka chief minister B S Yedyurappa appealed to migrant workers not to leave Karnataka but it has not had an effect. “The magnitude of their demand to go home during the pandemic points not just to the fact that there are millions of them, but also to the reality that they do not see the cities, where they have spent many years, to be their homes. The village provides a safety net to which they return whenever the urban turns uncertain," said Dr Narendar Pani, an economist at National Institute of Advanced Studies.

For the workers, the pandemic and the lockdown have proved that the city that ran on their labour has no space for them in a crisis. Govind Mondal from Bengal’s Nadia district works at a large construction site in the city. More than 100 of his fellow workers have already left. “I stayed back because I thought work would restart. My family is worried, and I’ve decided to leave in the first week of June. Those who have left will not return for six months," he said.

Tushar Kumar Mohanty from Odisha’s Balasore district cooks at eight gated communities on Bannerghatta Road, his day starting at 5am and stretching till 9pm. He and other cooks from his village earned 35,000 per month, saving enough for themselves despite sending a considerable amount back home. He has not earned a rupee for two months, he says. “A bus with 31 of my friends and relatives left for Balasore and Bhadrak in Odisha last week. They worked here as plumbers, cooks, security guards and sales assistants in malls. How long could they stay without earning? I too will leave if my employers do not call me back next week," he said.

Vishwadeep Das came to Bengaluru from Odisha five years ago and has been working as a plumber. His roommates have returned home. “The lockdown has been difficult. My contractor did not pay me, and I could not pay my room rent. Luckily, I got a job at an apartment complex recently," said Das.

The lockdown has exposed the class divides that define urban India. “The government didn’t mention them after the lockdown was imposed. Everybody woke up when they hit the streets and started walking home," said Yadav.

Yusuf Ahmed from Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh, who works at a mall construction site, said most of the labourers were from UP and Bihar. As construction work stopped during the lockdown, most left the city. Construction has resumed, “but there barely anybody to work," he said.

Prabhat P Ghosh, Director, Asian Development Research Institute, Patna, believes the workers will have to return eventually as there are no jobs or opportunities in the villages. “UP, Bihar and Bengal are the most densely populated states with a limited carrying capacity of land to support their population. These states have minimum industrialization. So, people are forced to go out to earn," he said. “Unless the huge regional disparity in India ends, this will continue."

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