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Denied livelihood, workers seek dignity

Last Updated : 04 April 2020, 20:05 IST
Last Updated : 04 April 2020, 20:05 IST
Last Updated : 04 April 2020, 20:05 IST
Last Updated : 04 April 2020, 20:05 IST

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For more than a week now, Veeresh, 40, has been staying at the playground in Malleswaram 18th cross as the owner of the under-construction building where he used to work told him to move out on the day the government announced the shutdown.

Both his legs have developed a skin condition similar to psoriasis but Veeresh manages to hide it well. "I have to hide it all the time. My chances of getting hired by a contractor get thin if they see this," he said with a wry smile and looked towards others sitting next to him. They nodded.

The playground houses about 150 persons, construction workers, cooks, cleaners and others engaged in a string of jobs that play a major part in the smooth functioning of Bengaluru.

Crowded camps

Thousands of labourers are stuck in the city in various conditions while hundreds of them have been forced to live in crowded shelters where 30 to 60 people share one or two toilets, often in poor condition.

As sordid tales of their inhuman condition tumble out everyday, one wonders about the logic behind the Rs 2,000 subsistence to be distributed by the Karnataka Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board.

Advocate Clifton Rosario noted that even that pittance will not reach most of the migrant workers. "Only a fraction of them have registered with the Board. There are at least five to six lakh construction workers in Bengaluru. No help is reaching them," he said.

Yet, the Department of Labour put their number at 85,000 and stated that these were living in 439 places. Activists say the number leaves out lakhs of workers who earned their livelihood in informal sectors. Interestingly, BBMP officials said they could not provide food to even the 85,000 identified and there was need for another survey.

Not only was the lockdown imposed without a plan, Rosario said, the government is still unable to come up with one to avoid a major disaster. "Labourers are pushed to three precarious conditions. First, there are some who walked to their hometowns and secondly, many live in sheds on construction sites. Lastly, those living in rented sheds and rooms. An urgent order from the government is needed taking their comprehensive needs and stopping landowners from evicting them," he said.

Understanding such needs is important. For instance, the migrant workers in Tubarahalli who received 3,000 packets of food from Indira Canteen on Friday begged officials to provide them groceries. "Many of them complained that they were not feeling good after eating the food. They didn't want to comment on its quality but requested officials for rice and other materials so that they can prepare food on their own," said Kaleemullah R of Swaraj Abhiyan.

Sangeeta N Kattimani, an economist from Kalaburagi who has studied migration of agriculture labourers, said those walking back from Pune, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and other cities are facing exclusion in villages.

"They were seen as saviours as they brought money to decrepit families. Now, they carry with them the stigma of Covid-19. Even family members fear them. One can observe this across the rural areas of north Karnataka. Women, who make up a significant part of the migrant workers, are facing the worst conditions," she said.

Humanitarian issue

Sangeeta said the government should have alerted the migrant community a month before the lockdown. "Now, the labourers are forced out of jobs. Some of them may get the Rs 2,000 subsistence, which won't help. It is true that hunger is more likely to kill them than the disease," she noted.

Rosario said the government needs to look at the job security of the workers, including those who have come from within and outside Karnataka. "The government has not even begun to grasp their realities. Failure to protect them now will have major consequences in future," he said.

Maruti Manpade of CPI said the situation should be looked at through a larger humanitarian view. "The cities should have considered the labourers as their guests. After all, these are the people who built the cities. Herding them into shelters or marriage halls with one or two bathrooms is inhuman. If the cases of Covid-19 go up, they will be forced to live in such conditions for a longer duration. The government should at least protect their dignity," he said.

"The arrangements are temporary in nature. We have roped in NGOs to ensure none of the labourers go hungry. We will look into the possibility of providing portable toilets at shelters," Karnataka Labour Minister Shivaram Hebbar told DH.

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Published 04 April 2020, 19:15 IST

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