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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.