“Why do Shramik trains seem like planned nightmares?”

plight of migrant workers

Migrant workers leaving from Malur Railway Station in Bengaluru. Pic: Abdul Wahid

Why do Shramik trains arranged after a 60-day long wait by workers have to be so carefully mismanaged? How do they end up taking extra-long routes? And why are passengers given such meagre amounts of water and food?

Is this what ‘shramiks’ should get after spending days trying to satisfy all procedures, whims and fancies of the concerned departments and officials?  Why does everything to do with workers have to be a planned nightmare? 

Let me share snippets from the journey of a worker from Bengaluru to Jampani village in Jharkhand, which led me to ask these questions. 

The journey started from his shelter at 5.30 on the morning of May 14, and ended in his village in the afternoon of May 21. He says: “Both in the train and the shelter, there was not enough water, or food to eat. We feared falling sick and being kept back again.”

I’m not going into his week-long struggle filling up his details on Seva Sindhu.

Here are the day wise details, from Day 1 to Day 8, of his journey of some 1,800 km:

May 14: On the day of travel he reached the police station at 6 am, with a copy of the form filled on Seva Sindhu portal as well as a copy of his Aadhar card. He was told to fill another form in the police station, and his medical checks conducted. He then paid Rs 960 and got a receipt.

“At noon we were given lunch; only then were we served water,” he said “That was the first and last thing we got.  We were about 500 people. After 3 pm, we were taken by the police by bus to the Malur railway station (25 workers per bus). We reached Malur around 7 pm, we had another check-up, and were marked like voters. We were then seated in a line, and given dinner around 10.15 pm. Then we were put in the train – one person per seat. There were families too. No water in the toilet on the train. Children were crying but there was nothing to feed them.”

May 15: “We got our next meal the next day, at 2pm, in Visakhapatnam station. You can call it lunch, but we got nothing before or after.”

May 16: “At 11 am, we reached Jasidih Junction. The train was delayed by six hours. After we alighted, we got another meal and were put in buses. It was late night by the time we boarded the bus from Jasidih to Simdega district, which took over 12 hours.”

May 17: “No food or water was provided. Those who had some money bought some biscuits. At 2 pm, we reached the shelter (a women’s college hostel) in Simdega and got lunch.”

May 18-20: “At the shelter there was another medical check- up — this time a swab test and temperature check. The reports took three days. The shelter was dirty, not enough water to keep the toilets clean, no cleaning tools or sanitisers. We feared we’d fall sick there.”

“We got two tiny purees around 10 in the morning, and rice and dal at 3 pm and 10 pm. Food was bad and too little; we were hungry till we reached home. Finally, COVID test results came, and most of us were relieved it was negative.”

May 21: “We were dropped home at Jaldega block, Patiamba panchayat of Jharkhand’s Jampani village.”

Since then I have heard of other Shramik trains taking double the time, ending up at  random destinations, people falling sick, struggling with hunger and thirst, and some dying while journeying.

Assumptions fail

While trying to get help for a few workers, I initially wondered if the Labour Department helpline can respond to their needs. But I then realised that it does not add up to food in the stomach or safety. Especially if the workers have been thrown out of their workplaces and are sleeping under flyovers and hiding from the police.

So, I try to get them to a shelter, one that works, thanks to hundreds of selfless volunteers working round the clock. There is a sense of relief for some time. But the workers are restless and desperately wanting to get home. That’s when Shramik trains got announced and cancelled, and the workers struggled to register.

It is after several rounds to the police station that a worker gets a call and thinks they are now safely on their way home on a train that won’t stop for food or water. You think they will at least get home really soon, and then this journey happens.

My assumption at every stage – from the first time I helped the workers call the Labour Department helpline – was that their problems would be solved. They would now be heard, documented and addressed by the system that had been mobilised by government agencies like the BBMP, the Labour Department, Railways, Health Department, PDS, and the Women and Child Welfare Department, to name a few.

That’s when you realise there is no one listening, and that these workers have no say in the decision-making process on what happens to them, or the when and how of it. NGOs and others try to support wherever they find access. But the bottom line is that the planned relief is not ready to recognise the worker as human.

The blame game

Workers are being blamed and demonised for their numbers and poverty. They are branded as COVID carriers and our systems find it easier to criminalise them rather than address their needs. But informalising worker contracts, low wages, poor working conditions have been systematically promoted by the government and corporate bodies. Even as workers are now left with nothing, the government is going ahead with more such policies to “combat COVID”.

As workers are identified for any relief, the bias is clear. Throughout this exercise of documenting, they are ‘criminal COVID-carrying unhygienic homeless workers’, whose destination needs to be fixed as they pose a risk to the decent ‘working-at-home and washing-at-home section of the population’. So, check their Aadhar and make them fill forms, while the real criminals behind this situation go scot-free.

There is no column or box that asks the worker the name of the contractor who got them to this city, the establishment that employed them, the nature of the contract or appointment, years of service, the wages paid or due at lockdown. The one bureaucrat who actively reached out to labourers and labour unions in Karnataka was transferred overnight after his actions were criticised by corporates and politicians alike.

Relief Vs Rights

So, despite the goodwill of several citizens, most efforts are about relief, that too immediate relief – the next meal, the next train, making medicines available, a hospital emergency. And there is no denying there are a million such real needs now. But civil society efforts cannot deal with the actions of a criminal state or employer.

The unfortunate part is that all this suffering is not due to the lack of resources, but due to decision-making being centralised and controlled by people with limited concerns. The state machinery is efficiently silencing all dissent. The absence of news reports on the nationwide labour strike on May 22 is unbelievable. Petitions and PILs too have had limited impact in preventing large-scale suffering and death of workers.

[Disclaimer: This article is a citizen contribution. The views expressed here are those of the individual writer(s) and do not reflect the position of Citizen Matters.]

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About Anita Cheria 1 Article
Anita Cheria is the Director of OpenSpace, an organisation that supports campaigns and community-led organisations with information, strategic planning, networking and documentation. She has had diverse experiences over the past 30 years, having worked with displaced communities, issues of business and human rights, sexual harassment of women in workplaces, gender and caste discrimination. The common thread through these has been a gender perspective along with concerns of inclusion and governance.

1 Comment

  1. I applaud you for this graphic report on the experiences of out-of-state workers! You are absolutely right in laying the blame for the plight of these workers on the state machinery and the employers. Civil society organisations can hardly set right the omissions and commissions of the state. There is need for civil society to put pressure on the state to change their treatment of out-of-state workers.

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