Explained: How can Bengaluru’s migrant workers travel back home

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Migrant Workers of Bangalore queuing up to travel home from Malur Station on Shramik Trains
Workers queuing up at Malur Station Pic: Abdul Wahid

On May 18, Minister of Railways, Piyush Goyal appealed to migrant workers to stay where they were, as the railways planned to double the number of Shramik Trains to 400 per day in two days. He also said that an additional 200 non-AC trains would be operational by June 1. While this increased capacity is a welcome sign, will it be enough to service Bengaluru’s stranded workers?

A large number of Bengaluru’s workers are walking thousands of kilometres to their home states, as the efforts of the governments to arrange transportation has fallen short of the exploding demand. “The Labour Department is reporting one lakh online registrations of inter-state travellers from Karnataka on the Seva Sindhu website every day,” says Priyanka Panigrahi, who volunteers with ‘WithBengaluru’, an initiative to support the city’s vulnerable groups.

As on May 20, over five lakh workers had registered on the Labour Department’s Seva Sindhu website desiring to return to their home states, according to AICCTU (All India Central Council of Trade Unions) Karnataka.

In addition, a separate survey conducted by Bengaluru City Police found 1,86,000 workers, of whom 50% wanted to go back. Despite efforts by civil society groups, NGOs and local governments, relief efforts have been inadequate. Moreover, with bleak employment opportunities and withering social support systems in the city for workers, rations and shelter are not enough.

Transport options for stranded workers

With lakhs waiting to go home, what are the different transportation options available to stranded workers in the city?

Shramik trains

According to South Western Railways, 82 Shramik trains have carried 1,12,254 stranded persons from Karnataka, primarily from four stations – one in Hubballi, and three (Chikkabanavara, Malur and Bengaluru Cant.) in Bangalore division.

These special trains were first announced in early May for the express purpose of carrying stranded/walking persons to their native districts. However, the schedules, capacities, pricing and eligibility for these trains have been riddled with confusion.

Non-Shramik trains

Indian Railways started special inter-state trains on May 12. There are 15 routes (30 including return routes) which are currently operational. However, these aren’t really an option for Bengaluru’s stranded workers, as there is only one special train departing from Bengaluru (which goes to Delhi) and costs a minimum of Rs 6,255 per passenger.

Buses 

In early may, the state government had arranged for ‘Karnataka Sarige’ buses to transport intra-state workers home for free. This service lasted only a few days and didn’t offer services to inter-state migrants.

On Monday, KSRTC announced it would run buses at regular fares once again, but said that inter-state bus travel would still be prohibited. For inter-state migrants, city buses have been a means to get to designated railway stations for Shramik trains – a service which has to be paid for by the workers.

Buses provide an alternative at a time when Shramik trains are inadequate. However, they have been used to carry workers home in a few cases only, when workers’ groups, NGOs or politicians arranged buses privately.

Tushar Girinath, state Nodal Officer for UP, told a volunteer that if workers can arrange for buses, the state can provide permissions. However given the high cost (upwards of Rs 10,000), this has not happened yet. 

For the lack of feasible transportation options, workers have started walking.

Mohit Rao, an independent journalist who has been tracking the workers walking out of Bengaluru, shares his observation: “A few have bought bicycles. Others are relying on trucks for lifts. The assumption is that if they make it to Hyderabad, they’ll get trucks from there. From the Karnataka border, they get trucks that take them to Hyderabad and then look for trucks with the registration plates of their own states.”

Laid-Off construction workers in Bangalore cycling all the way to Motihar, Bihar. Migrant Workers and Shramik Trains Bangalore
Laid-off construction workers in Bengaluru cycling all the way to Motihari, Bihar.
Pic: Vinay Kumar

How many Shramik trains are available?

“We must first recognise that the trains were earlier cancelled by the state government. It is through the protest of workers that these were resumed. Now, trains are there but no one knows the schedule,” said Avani Choksi, a member of AICCTU Karnataka at a webinar ‘Walking with workers’.

Even after services were resumed, the process of arranging trains has been difficult for the state government, which has been coordinating with destination states to increase capacity.

The Process

  • Workers are now expected to register on the Seva Sindhu website and at police stations. At the police station, workers have to fill a hard copy of the form from the Seva Sindhu site, for which they usually have to go to a nearby internet centre.
    They also have to take a copy of a form from their respective home states so as to provide details of health conditions and of their Aadhaar card. There seems to be no provision for those without Aadhaar.
  • State government sends a proposal to recipient states, seeking acceptance of trains into their states.
  • Acceptance depends on quarantining and testing capacity of recipient states, among other guidelines in travel advisories.
  • Railways arranges a train based on acceptance by recipient state and the database of stranded persons collected by Seva Sindhu, police officials and local governments.
  • Workers get an SMS if their application is accepted on Seva Sindhu or are contacted by police officials if they are picked in their surveys – a process which is not very transparent.
  • If a worker’s turn comes, they are transported to a designated railway station by bus, and BMTC collects both the bus fare and train ticket fare.

According to South Western Railways, six special Shramik trains left from Karnataka (one from Hubbali and five from Bengaluru) on Monday, carrying 1000-1500 stranded passengers each. Given AICCTU’s estimate of over five lakh stranded workers in the city, that’s just not sufficient. The low number of trains is one of the main reasons why thousands of workers are still choosing to walk, as their chances of getting a seat are minuscule.

On Tuesday, May 19, the Ministry of Railways announced that the consent of the recipient state will no longer be required for Shramik trains. The announcement followed the Ministry of Home Affairs’ revised SOPs, ordering more Shramik trains. If adopted, these revisions could allow for a much larger number of workers to travel home safely.

Neither workers nor authorities have information

News reports suggest that even the local police are not aware of the train schedule for Shramik trains. Every Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) is given a quota of seats he/she can allot. And every morning, based on the numbers of seats and trains available, workers on the police’s survey list are called for tickets.

Carrying out the role of a data collection body on migrant workers in the city is new for the police. In fact, this is the first official granular database of migrant workers in the city.

For workers, in turn, the process is even more confusing. First, it is unclear where registration needs to be done. In addition to the police surveys, there is also the Seva Sindhu portal which is meant to service all potential travellers, not just stranded workers.

The website offers a form to fill for inter-state travel, within which is an option to pick the category of stranded migrant worker. However, getting to the form requires that the reader knows Kannada or English, meaning that for lakhs of non-Kannada and non-English speaking workers in the city, the website is illegible.

The form, however, also presents text in Hindi and requires only basic information, including AADHAR and ID. But with a lakh applications per day, workers registering in the portal have even worse odds of getting a seat than those who take part in the police survey.

“Workers didn’t understand how to register. They either couldn’t get online or couldn’t read the website,” says Cliffton D’ Rozario of AICCTU Karnataka. AICCTU then made a video explaining the process of Seva Sindhu registration. “For some construction workers’ camps, we even went there and showed the process to one worker, who then did registration for everyone else on one smartphone,” he adds.

It remains unclear how online and offline channels of registration are synchronised with each other. News reports suggest that the police are not accessing the list of people who have registered through the portal. Instead, they rely on their survey list, where the first on the list gets to go first, with rare exceptions for emergencies.

With a lot of uncertainty about Shramik trains for both the police and the workers, it is unsurprising that long queues of workers with bags have been seen outside police stations in the last few days. 

Migrant workers from Bihar waiting at the Bangalore International Exhibition Centre, only to be turned back by the BBMP after three days, in early May. Pic: Senthil S

Pricing – Aren’t Shramik trains free?

It is widely believed that Shramik trains are free for stranded workers, but ground reports suggest otherwise. “The biggest betrayal to workers has been the misinformation – ministers claiming that the trains are free. Workers have been paying Rs 800-1050 for tickets to UP, Bihar and Jharkhand,” says Clifton of AICCTU in ‘Walking with Workers’.

The initial guidelines on Shramik trains had stated the price of a ticket as the price of a usual sleeper class ticket + Rs 50. While central ministers from the BJP had claimed that travel for migrant workers was free throughout the country, no official order was made directing state governments to pay. The decision on whether or not to foot the bill for the tickets has been up to state governments.

Recently, the Karnataka High Court asked the state government to “take immediate decision on the question of paying railway fare”. It also said, “If the migrant workers are unable to pay the train fare, it will be impossible to facilitate their travel at a faster rate.”

Currently, stranded workers leaving from Bengaluru have to pay the train fare as well as the fare of the bus which takes them to the railway station.

Stranded without dignity

Lost in confusing registration processes, lottery-like chances of getting a seat on a train, and high prices, Bengaluru’s workers have resorted to simply walking home or queuing up outside police stations to wait for their turn.

Obviously, a lot more trains are needed to carry them back home. AICCTU Karnataka estimates that there are 68,250 workers (as on May 9) from Bihar alone who want to return home, and it would take 57 trains just to take them home. 

It is still unclear how many of the recently announced 400 Shramik trains/day (nationwide), instead of the existing 200 per day, will service routes from Bengaluru. However, considering that frequency may be doubled in the city, the number may go up to only 4-10 trains per day.

To make matters worse, there are reports of lathi charges and violence in such a situation. In a settlement in Konanakunte Cross, workers reported that they were locked in by police officials and were not allowed to step out. In Varthur, workers were dispersed from the police station by lathi charge. 

Meanwhile, local residents in areas like Bellandur and Whitefield are helping workers waiting near police stations, with water and food packets. They are also helping workers register on the website. Zibi Jamal of Whitefield Rising says, “The system was designed by someone who assumed all workers can use a website – it doesn’t work.” Volunteers from Whitefield have helped hundreds of workers fill forms and have paid for the train tickets of over 600 workers.

About Siddhant Kalra 24 Articles
Siddhant Kalra is a writer and researcher from Delhi.

4 Comments

  1. Selfie world
    In this world nobody thinks about others person all people want to fill-up their pocket however wrong or right no humanity in the world

  2. Conditions of these migrant workers look pathetic. Goverment should catch the contractors who brought these workers and involve them in the process of sending them home. Arranging transport and long distance trains is not easy. A lot of planning and logistics required for railways.
    On the part of workers they should understand State Government supported by volunteer groups is making arrangements for their stay and food here till are sent back to their home states.
    Let no one play polics at this hour of suffering and help the Goverment agencies to solve the problem.

  3. Sad to see the plight of the migrant workers. Those who have built the houses that we stay, and the roads that we use daily and have worked as domestic help in many of the apartments they built are being neglected by the government and the builders’ lobby does not want them to go back….

  4. Why register with authorities ?.Let them travel back with proper safeguards…and make the schedule of trains public.

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