Does the Karnataka Govt think migrant workers are bonded labourers?

Property developers’ lobby allegedly convinces state gov't to cancel special trains meant to take labourers safely home

Migrants WorkerImage

That builders and property developers of Karnataka are a strong and influential lobby in the political circles is a known fact. That they have been able to now influence the state government decision on sending thousands of labourers back to their home states only drives home the point.

The builders are probably afraid of suffering further losses as their money-minting housing projects will not restart once the national covid lockdown ends if the labourers go back home. So they did what builders do, they went and met Karnataka chief minister B S Yediyurappa. 

The meeting must have gone well for both, because the CM did what the builders wanted and ordered the cancelation of all trains that were set to take the migrant workers to their native home towns. According to a report in The Quint, the trains were set to run from today, May 6. The order was issued and the state government also wrote to the Indian Railways to cancel all scheduled trains. 

Of course, no one asked any representatives of the migrant workers if they even wanted to stay in the state where they had felt stranded without jobs, without adequate food, or shelter, ever since the Covid-19 lockdown was imposed in March. Migrant workers across the nation have been making attempts to return to their native towns and villages, mostly in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, as the cities they have worked in no longer seem livable.

In a recent, exclusive chat with eminent activist and journalist Teesta Setalvad, leading economist and social worker Jean Drèze had raised this issue. His words now seem prophetic as he had said, “While it is possible that the government lets them go back in a staggered and organised manner, there is a possibility of influential people stonewalling this move, fearing loss of readily available labour once the lockdown is lifted.”

This has come true sooner than later, and Karnataka may just be the first of many states to be exposed, even as the national lockdown continues in its second extension. 

As the conditions for the migrant workers did not improve, the Union government had announced special trains to take them back home. This too was controversial as the workers were expected to pay for their own travel. It took one statement from Congress President Sonia Gandhi that her party would foot the bill to send the government into a tizzy and issue one clarification after another. The trains, of course, were to continue.  Though over a thousand workers who left from Bengaluru to return to Uttar Pradesh told The Quint that they “were charged anywhere between Rs 800 to Rs 1,000 for their travel.” 

A day before, the Union Government had claimed on record that this cost will be split between the Central Government (85%) and the state Governments (15%), and the migrant workers would not be charged at all to travel in the special trains started for this purpose. However, many migrant workers claimed that they were asked to pay up when the train tickets were delivered to them.

Even then many migrant workers fear that they may not be able to board a train if they are long term residents of the city they work in. It defies logic how any labourer, long term resident, or temporary worker, can even survive in a city without a job, and without any support from the state they work in.

According to The Quint they have “accessed a letter written by N Manjunath Prasad, nodal officer for inter-state travel from the state, claiming that no more trains are required. Referring to an earlier letter requesting three trains on 6 May, the officer said that the service is no longer necessary.”

The report cites a senior government official confirming that the decision to cancel trains to take migrant workers home was taken after the meeting with the representatives of Confederation of Real Estate Developers Associations of India (CREDAI). “The official said in the meeting that it was decided migrant workers were needed to revive the state’s economy,” reported the Quint.

In effect, tha Karnataka government is treating the migrant workers as slaves who can be forced to stay and work against their will. To make it sound like a worker-friendly policy the government, perhaps for the first time since the national Covid19 lockdown has “assured” the migrant workers of jobs, and wages. Labour shortage is a bigger concern than labour welfare.

According to a report by Express News Service, the government wants to stop the exodus of migrant labourers because it will “upturn plans to kickstart the economy.”

Karnata government also suspended the Seva Sindhu app, in a bid to retain its workforce, said the report. The app, launched before Lockdown 3.0 has over 5000 registrations, mostly by construction workers. According to the Expres report “associations agreed to pay wages to workers for the entire period of lockdown, and ensure all essential facilities, including safety gear, at workplaces.” It is not clear if the wages were paid on time since March anyway.

Karnataka ministers will also be asked to talk to migrant workers and “convince them to stay back.” CM Yediyurappa was quoted in the report as saying that “Builders have also assured that all facilities, including lodging, food and wages will be given to them.” He asked the workers not to rush back but to stay and resume work. According to TNIE,  9,000 passengers have already been transported via special trains till Tuesday. 

Meanwhile in Goa a twitter user flagged a statement by Manoj Caculo, president of Goa Chamber of Commerce and Industries who has allegedly written to the Goa CM expressing his concern at the shortage of labour that may emerge. 

Meanwhile, the Government of Maharashtra has said that it will arrange around 10,000 buses for migrant workers to go back home. They will not be charged for the journey.


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