Let’s act to regain their trust

Let’s act to regain their trust

“Vishwas toot gaya hai”

About Rs 8,000 crore sits with our state government as cess monies collected from developers/ contractors over the years for the purpose of their labourers’ welfare. Can it be used for the relief of people who gather at Palace Grounds and at every police station, despite the heat, desperate to go home?

More than 1.6 lakh labourers have left for their hometowns, thousands more are rearing to go. At this time, when the economy is about to open up again, it may seem counter-intuitive to those of us sitting comfortably in our homes, but the reality of those willing to undergo the long, harsh wait for hours, without certainty of the train ticket, yet willing to come back day after day to wait again, is very different. We have spoken to thousands of them, and it’s the exact same narrative from every one of them.

For the last two months, I have not had any income because of the lockdown.

Somehow, I subsist, waiting on handouts and not knowing what I will do after my money and food run out.

The Corona infection has killed so many people even in other countries. Daily, I see on TV, more and more are falling sick. My family is desperate for me to come home. They are willing to forgo the income and live in poverty.

Not having any income, I have not paid my rent, so the owner is harassing me. I am so fearful that I might be evicted anytime.

Enough is enough. I don’t want to live like this any longer.

I came here originally thinking that I could work hard and earn money to send back home, so that their life could be better. At this point, I am neither earning, nor sending  money home. Instead, there is a real threat that I will die here alone, without the comfort of my family. I just want to be with my family at home. I would rather risk my life and reach home.

The desperation is exemplified by a group who, having been unable to get train tickets on successive days, paid Rs 1.36 lakh to a truck driver to take them from Bengaluru to Bihar. These unfortunate people got cheated and came back all the way from the Karnataka-Andhra border to Whitefield. Our volunteers found them at the Hope Farm Junction, utterly exhausted and dejected. We helped them with food, the police helped with shelter and the train tickets to Bihar the next day. But for each such group, who knows how many more groups continue to be in desperation?

It need not have been this way. No doubt, the coronavirus is everything it is said to be – highly infectious, and there is no vaccine or assured treatment for it. And therefore, the lockdown. But the lockdown meant the immediate loss of livelihood to lakhs of people. The government was clearly aware that lakhs of people would want to go back (else, why was the Seva Sindhu system built?), but it did not provide cash, generous rations and an assurance that they would be taken care of. However, enough has been said about what should have been done. That ship has sailed, what can we do now?

This is the time to use the cess money – Rs 8,000 crore -- collected for the welfare of the labourers. But as you read this, this money sits idle, unused, even as lakhs struggle as they slip from self-respecting, hard-working enterprising workers doing work we cannot or will not do, to poverty-stricken, handout-dependent “migrant worker” lot.

The ‘migrant’ term is revealing. Us and them. We belong here. They are migrants, not people of Karnataka. They belong elsewhere. They do not vote here. They should not be given a share of scarce resources.

What else could explain the lack of action on their plight on our part? If they were born of this soil, what might we have done?

We have made them feel that India is not one nation and a person from Bihar, UP, Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal, Manipur or anywhere else is not welcome here. Our inaction on the ground has spoken louder than any pronouncements on paper.

Let us not forget that these same workers who are running away desperately are the ones that we need to build our metro system, roads, schools and multi-storeyed buildings. It behoves us to treat them as people with families, feelings, anxieties and the same human needs as all of us. Even from a self-interest perspective, if their human needs are not attended to on a war-footing, it will come back to bite every one of us in this city.

Can we do anything to change the reality of the milling crowds at Palace Grounds and police stations? Here are our suggestions:

 Speed up the cash transfers, and publish the amounts disbursed in an open and transparent manner to generate confidence.

Increase the rations to temporarily include items of grocery other than just rice and wheat.

Have health personnel go to every camp daily to take temperature and pulse-oxygen saturation, to identify early on any Covid-19 infection.

Make the institutional quarantine facilities comfortable and clean. Have a check of those facilities daily and publicise it. This will give comfort that even if you do fall sick, you will be kept comfortable, and in two weeks you are likely to get ok and be home.

Run a campaign that doesn’t create panic, but instead encourages healthy habits of hand-washing and wearing masks. Emphasise that the mortality rate in India is half of the world-wide mortality rate. Emphasise that daily health checks will ensure early detection, and high recovery rates.  

Give an assurance that if work does not resume after a month, they will get another tranche of rations and money.

If they want to go home, ensure adequate trains are arranged and the reservation system works as well as the IRCTC process.

This is not rocket science. All of this is easily doable. The question is, do we want to do this? The actions and inactions of the government in the forthcoming days will determine whether Karnataka will be able to gain back the “vishwas” that has been squandered.

(Whitefield Rising is a platform for residents of the area to engage and contribute for its betterment)

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