Bengaluru: A group of four men was sitting outside the KSR railway station in Bengaluru, the main train station in the IT capital, at around 10 am Thursday, when one of them took out a plastic wrap and two rotis — the four split the food among themselves.
In scenes reminiscent of last year’s migrant exodus during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, these men were headed back home to Bihar’s Danapur after the lockdown in Karnataka left them jobless, and penniless.
Their stories reflect the frustration with the situation and with officials in the state amid a lockdown in Karnataka, which is in place until 24 May but is expected to be further extended.
“Agar khana milta toh jaate kyun? Kaam bhi nahi hai. Ye log bolte hai mat jao, agar jayenge nahi toh yahi mar jayenge (If we would have got food, why would we leave? These people say don’t go, if we don’t, then we will die here),” said Shailendra, waiting for the train to Bihar.
It’s a three-day journey home for him.
“Last time, some food packets were distributed but this time there has been nothing. This time is just terrible,” Shailendra, who worked as a painter, told ThePrint. “They say work will start but it doesn’t seem like it. At least I will get food and shelter in my village. We don’t have money to pay the rent now.”
Bengaluru has over the years transformed into a magnet for migrant labourers from far-off states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Bengal, Assam, and others in the Northeast.
The growth has been propelled by the city’s booming tech economy, with the migrant labourers finding work in the manufacturing and construction industry, in small restaurants and automotive industry, while many work as contractual labourers.
These sectors have taken the worst hit due to the lockdown, resulting in the reverse migration of migrants from various parts of the city.
While there is no clear data on the number of migrant workers in the state, in 2020, 9.1 lakh such workers were stranded in the state, of whom, 6.8 lakh registered with the Seva Sindhu portal, through which the state government provides a number of online services to its citizens, to go home during the first lockdown.
On 4 May this year, fearing another such exodus of labour, Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa appealed to the migrant labourers and workers to not leave in panic and assured that economic activities would resume in the state.
“I ask that you do not hurry back to your villages. Stay back and get back to work as you did before,” Yediyurappa said in Bengaluru Tuesday. He even asked his cabinet colleagues to convince migrant workers not to return to their home states.
Appeal makes little impact
The chief minister’s appeal doesn’t seem to have had much of an effect.
The KSR railway station was crowded Thursday, with scores gathered from early morning even though many had trains as late as 8 pm.
A large number of families congregated in small groups and sat huddled close to each other on the footpaths and parking areas awaiting the arrival of their trains.
“We came early because after 10 am, they don’t allow people on the road. Even the auto wallah charges more, and we didn’t want to miss our train, so came 10 hours before,” said Govinda who is also going to Bihar.
A number of people that ThePrint spoke to at the railway station were leaving because they either didn’t have money to pay their rent or the employer they worked for had told them to return to their homes for at least two months.
“I worked in a hotel that is shut now. So the owner told all of us to go home for two months,” said Rupan Ghosh, who was headed to Odisha. “I reached the station at 8 am and my train is at 1.30 pm. I have been working here for the past few years and I hope the lockdown will be lifted soon.”
Owners of small businesses say it is difficult for them to stop the labourers from leaving. “Most of the hotels are closed because of the lockdown and there is very less demand. I used to have 10 people working for me but now that people are only collecting parcels that too before 10 am; I have reduced the strength to two. I told the rest to take leave and come back after two months,” said a hotel owner, who is also mulling shutting it entirely.
Sunil Rajbhar, who was headed to Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh along with his wife, had managed to get most of his luggage with him and the rest he had left at a friend’s house.
“I was working in a garment factory that is now shut; so there is no work and no money to pay rent. I have not been working for the past 10 days,” he said while waiting with his wife at the station. “I kept my stove, cylinder and other stuff at my friend’s place and decided to head home before the situation became bad. My rent is around Rs 4,000. When I am not earning any money, how will I pay? The train is up to Jhansi and then we will take a bus to reach home.”
Gulshan Kumar and a group of 10 men, who worked as construction labourers, were headed to Begusarai in Bihar. “The company has not paid us our salary for three months,” he said. “We kept working in the hope that we would finally be paid but we were not paid. We had no money left and whatever little we had we used it to buy tickets. If we get Covid here, we will die on the road. No one helps the poor. If I have to die, it’s better to die at my home.”
Satish Magar, chairman of the Confederation of Real Estate Developers’ Associations of India (CREDAI), however, said it isn’t a phenomenon restricted to just Bengaluru.
“This is happening across the board in major states. Migrants are leaving the cities and it is going to impact the activities, timelines will exceed and there will be cost overruns,” he said. “But it is definitely not to the extent it was last time.”
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)