Over the last few weeks, the sight of garbage pickers and their trucks plying on empty streets in the early mornings has taught us the value of poor migrant labourers who provide essential services in our metros. From the relative comfort of middle-class homes, we have learnt about their lives and have been moved by their plight. But, there is another aspect of their predicament, which became clear to me only when I began supplying essential drugs and food packets to their families.
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For some years, my friends and I, as volunteers of the Aam Aadmi Party, had held health camps and helped poor migrant children to get school admissions in the sprawling Munekolala slum abutting the posh software hub of Whitefield in Bengaluru. When the Covid crisis began, we telephoned our former patients to find those who needed drugs and food packets. And from one of them came a frantic call for help. Veena (named changed), a health camp patient, had moved out since, to an adjoining colony which had now become another forgotten settlement, abandoned without work, food or hope.
Such colonies proliferate on the fringes of the city, within and beyond Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike limits. There are many in the eight wards of Mahadevapura Assembly constituency. This one was in Varthur, within touching distance of Whitefield’s commercial and residential area.
Responding to the desperation in Veena’s appeal, we passed the hat around and raised funds to distribute packets of essential dry rations to the community. Civic authorities were issuing announcements that they were gearing up with milk and cooked food for labourers laid off during the lockdown. They were saying that two months of free rations were being released to card holders. Yet, clearly, none of this was reaching Veena’s colony.
For, after the first food packet distribution, they made a second request and, soon after, a third. Over a month’s time, we distributed three sets of food packets, each with a fortnight’s supply of dry rations. Throughout April and early May, the BBMP and State departments did not catch up with the Varthur colony, even when we expressed worries about such neglected and forgotten pockets. When Veena gave a third SOS, I resolved to collect detailed data about the migrants of her group, to investigate why it had remained invisible, and seek some permanent solutions.
Sallying out with a Covid mask and gloves in a vehicle weighed down with food packets, we turned into a narrow, rutted lane opposite the government school in Varthur. As we moved forward, the road got progressively worse. Stones and pebbles littered the path and we slowed down to a crawl to protect the tyres and suspension. Eventually, after a turn to the right, we came to a patch of uneven land behind some new high-rise flats. There were the migrants, women, men and children, with Veena in their midst.
Like other colonies of the area, which we had visited and surveyed earlier, this one was also predominantly a “garbage workers’ group”. Piles of recyclable rubbish, reclaimed from the city, were arranged in orderly heaps on the roadside. There were lines of temporary, tin-roofed shacks beside the narrow pathways to our left. Some tempos and small vans were parked in open areas. On the right lay a tangle of weeds and unpruned bushes.
We were told that the road went on past several similar settlements in the general direction of Munekolala slum. Previous visits had familiarized us with the migrants, who lived in groups all along the low lying stream-bed between Varthur and Belandur lakes. We were aware that the better-off families were clustered on the front lines facing residential middle-class areas, while the weakest and most poverty-stricken were relegated to the interior.
We distributed food packets to 33 families that Sunday morning while they told us about their histories, jobs and living conditions. About two-thirds of the families we spoke to were from Bengal, but there were also persons from Assam, Bihar and Delhi. Four were from Karnataka (three from North Karnataka and one from Varthur itself). The pattern is not very different from what we had earlier discovered in Munekolala slum, which had clusters of persons from Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Bengal and Delhi.
They are no squatters
Such persons are usually clubbed together as Bangladeshis and the colonies are raided by the police and civic authorities from time to time. Not long back, a raid in Bellandur ward (with the support of a political leader) had embarrassed the govt when subsequent legal action by activists proved that the evicted persons were migrants from North Karnataka.
In this case, as in the case of most of the colonies in Munekolala, the families were not encroachers on public land; they had pitched their shacks on sites rented from a local landlord for a monthly composite rent of Rs. 35,000 (which continued to be collected during the lockdown).
The main occupation of most of the men in the colony was garbage collection and driving collection vehicles. They worked under contractors who had work orders from the BBMP to pick up garbage from houses and smaller apartments. Contractors also worked directly for larger housing complexes that have their own arrangements. Many of the women worked as housemaids and the lockdown had deprived them of work and wages.
Since garbage collection was treated as an essential service, more than half the families still had at least one working member. A fourth of those usually engaged in garbage collection were out of employment since commercial complexes had stopped working and generated no rubbish. But, the livelihoods of even those who continued to work were precarious.
Private residential complexes still employed garbage collectors and paid them. BBMP continued its normal practice of delaying payment to contractors and not ensuring that those who were working hard under difficult conditions were paid on time (even though the civic body’s normal payment commitments had substantially fallen since most activities had ground to a halt). A greater issue, however, was payment by contractors to the actual workers.
Labourers without law’s shelter
The Karnataka Labour Department issues an annual notification laying down the minimum wages for different classes of workers, including civic workers like garbage pickers. They are also entitled to provident fund and health coverage. As BBMP is the principal employer that gives the work order to the contractor, it has a legal obligation to see that labour laws are followed.
In reality, the contractor hands out the task to groups of five migrants each, who sort the garbage collected from independent houses and large complexes and cart the dry waste away to be sold for recycling. This was the rubbish that we had seen arranged so carefully in huge piles throughout the colony. Every such group is paid Rs. 10,000 per month, which works out to Rs. 2,000 per head, or a sixth of the notified wage for a garbage picker.
This amount can hardly keep body and soul together, particularly when vehicle movement for sale of recycled material was not possible during the lockdown. The contractors often delay payments to workers, citing delay on the part of BBMP or other reasons. We were told that payment for work done in March was overdue, but the allegation was fearfully and quickly withdrawn when we pursued our enquiries.
Nobody wanted to fall foul of the contractors who gave them employment, since complainants could be easily replaced. Therefore, those who were working could not count on getting even their normal meagre incomes and the dependable supplementary wages of spouses had melted away. So, these workers clutched at charity from well-wishers like us.
Outside the food safety net
When the Covid problem struck suddenly, the State turned to its network of ration shops for free distribution of two months stock of grains out of the vast amounts that had been procured by the Food Corporation of India in earlier years. None of this found its way to the families in the Varthur colony.
For, the 33 persons we talked to had no ration cards nor knew how to get them, although they had Aadhaar cards as proof of local residence. And, almost every family had been living in the city for eight to ten years. This confirmed what we had heard in other similar colonies. Some migrants speculated that their names might still remain in ration cards issued to their natal families in the faraway locations from which they had come.
Given their occupations and low incomes, every person that we talked to was clearly eligible to get below-poverty-line (BPL) cards from the Food Department of Karnataka govt. The call on charity was necessary only because such entitlements had never been extended to them for many years.
Prior to the Covid lockdown, BPL cardholders would have paid a subsidized low rate for rations; the card is also the basis for many other benefits relating to health, education and housing. Without cards, these families had missed all government assistance for a long period.
Once the lockdown started, the State government released free rations to local card holders. Gradually, taking a page out of the Delhi government’s policies, it extended this benefit to card holders from other parts of the city and State and even from other States, after confirming ID cards and verifying if the recipients figured on a national data base of BPL households prepared some years back. The free ration policy made no difference to the families in the Varthur slum who had no cards and did not know what government was doing.
Govt failure on all fronts
Realising that the lockdown would leave many poor people without employment and wages, the State government distributed cooked meals at least once a day through BBMP officials to those without cards. The Varthur colony which adjoins the richest area in Bengaluru was not provided such meals.
A later plan to replace cooked meals with dry rations has not yet taken off. The only recourse left for families in the colony was to turn to charity. Many organisations and impromptu groups have done heroic work to feed poor families during the lockdown. The Varthur colony had received such charity only once during March-April, which explained their desperation when we reached out to them.
The failure of government to meet its obligations was visible in every area. Occupiers of the Varthur shacks lived in tin-roofed dwellings, poor protection against the sweltering summer heat and lashing monsoon rains. Every national, State and civic budget set aside large amounts for housing the needy, but these poor families were never counted when lists were prepared to build such homes.
Colonies like these could not dream of piped water; the community paid for an occasional tanker and shared the costs (which spiral upwards when water becomes scarce in summer). And bushes around the colony substitute toilets. Under the Slum Development Act, which has been in force for decades, settlements like the Varthur colony, with temporary housing, pitted lanes and no water and toilet arrangements are defined as slums.
The government is expected to notify them, take over the land on payment of compensation and develop livable colonies. Naturally, landlords keep officialdom at bay through dubious methods, even while making a good living from the rent charged to undocumented workers. At Varthur, we saw a perfect example of yet another “unnotified” slum.
Our conversations with poor migrants on that hot Sunday morning shattered many middle-class myths circulating in whatsapp groups, even among those who were pooling funds to assist the poor. Aren’t migrants lazy and dirty, living on doles and draining the exchequer? Shouldn’t they be driven back home? Would they be prepared to resume work, if they got used to charity? What we discovered instead was that Veena’s friends were not wastrels whining for pity; their main grouse was that contractors had not disbursed their poor pittances on the excuse that BBMP had delayed payments. Housemaids were resigned to going without wages as they had not earned them with work. And calls for help ceased as soon as movement restrictions were relaxed and they could return to daily routines. Neither had they any plans to leave Bengaluru; they had not heard of the government’s transport arrangements for migrants and they categorically refused to flee from the place where they had lived for many years.
The issue then is not charity but the legal entitlements of the poor. Workers who do their job are not paid on time, since BBMP has no system to pay contractors regularly nor enforce their adherence to minimum wage laws of the Labour Department.
Persons who collect and sort garbage throughout the city every morning under the supervision of civic officials are invisible and absent from the records of the Labour Department. The Food Department working directly under the Deputy Commissioner is yet to discover the residents of these settlements, who have lived there for 8 to 10 years, although occasional visitors like us collected all the data needed to process their ration cards in a couple of hours.
The Slum Development Board and BBMP have no idea that such communities exist in “kachcha” houses, without potable water or toilets, even though it is their “obligatory function” to provide them with proper housing. Above all, election laws stipulate that adults residing in a constituency from a specified cut-off date must be enumerated as local voters, but BBMP’s election staff and their supervisors think otherwise. Absence of political power might explain why such families are overlooked by the State.
If the administration had performed its duties, we could have had a different scenario. One in which the State fulfills its functions and meets its obligations to the poor. A world in which BBMP pays garbage contractors on the dot and enforces the minimum wage and related laws; the Food Department gives ration cards to migrant families who are told where to get rations (on payment or free); the Slum Board develops slums and builds decent houses with water and toilets for workers who live for years in the city; and election staff enter the names of all eligible voters on voting lists.
This is not a mirage; it is the world that should have existed much before Covid entered the city. In such a world, the upheaval created by the pandemic could have been tackled. Essential workers would have received full wages, rations would have reached every poor family and politicians and officials would have obtained reports from every locality.
And charity could have topped up the essential necessities of the poor with a few comforts. Surely, this is the world that we must create as the lockdown is lifted; to safeguard our country, city and all our communities.