Thousands of migrant workers waiting to go back to their home states were forced to stay back in Bengaluru by the police and other authorities on Wednesday, as the Karnataka government gears up to resume real estate and other economic activities.
A day earlier, chief minister B.S.Yediyurappa had appealed that these migrants return to work and help economic activities resume in the cash-starved state. The state government also asked the centre to cancel train services for migrants, giving them no choice but to stay back.
The decision has led to tension within labour camp settlements in various locations across Bengaluru as workers are unwilling to continue work.
“We want to return to our home in Jharkhand and are ready to walk back home," said one worker from a campsite in Mahadevapura, in east Bengaluru, requesting not to be named.
The commotion across Bengaluru has workers, labour rights activists and the political opposition up in arms against the B.S.Yediyurappa-led state government that is alleged to have colluded with the real estate lobby to keep the workers back against their will.
Around 200,000 people have registered with the Karnataka government to leave, according to officials.
Yediyurappa denied the claim stating that he had made an appeal to migrant workers to stay back and that they were “happy" to return to work.
There are hundreds of construction projects in the state and especially in Bengaluru where thousands of migrant workers from other states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha among others places are employed. Many of them are housed in campsites that are often made of thin metal sheets and lack even basic facilities like proper toilets, close to the site.
A Twitter post by Bengaluru South member of Parliament Tejaswi Surya in support of suspending train services faced severe backlash with most of them sharing videos of the poor conditions that these workers live in.
A government official said that there is a chance that this situation across labour sites could “spill on to the streets" if the state cannot find a way to contain the problem. Yediyurappa announced an additional ₹3000 to 15.8 construction workers, taking the total to ₹5000 per person. However, most migrant workers are not registered with the labour department and are often exploited by builders and contractors, political leaders and activists allege.
A large number of migrant workers have depended on food and rations provided by private donors during the lockdown.
There remains no clarity on how the government will ensure that the financial assistance announced for labourers will actually reach them.
A trade activist said that most of these campsites are almost like “bonded labour camps" that are heavily guarded with strict vigil on what goes on inside.
Maitreyi Krishnan from the All India Central Council of Trade Unions said that workers were already at the mercy of charity for food during the lockdown.
"Now left with no money or food and desperate to reach their homes, the dramatic scenes of thousands of workers walking long distances and queueing up to get registered to leave Karnataka demonstrate their unwillingness to continue in such a hostile environment," Krishnan said
She added that the cancellation of trains by the Karnataka government is the "worst assault" on workers who have contributed to the development of the state.
Real estate developers however said that the miscommunication by the government that all of them could leave added to the problems.
“What will they do after going back to their hometowns?" Suresh Hari, chairman of Confederation of Real Estate Developers' Associations of India (CREDAI) said.
Hari said that 50-60% of them may not return and will add to problems in rural areas and grass root levels of the country.
Trade union activists have decided to start a campaign in support of these workers on Thursday.