Quick Take

Of human bondage

| Updated on May 07, 2020

Karnataka’s decision to stop ‘shramik’ trains for migrants is an affront to human dignity as well as freedom of choice. Industry can instead bid for workers by raising their wage

Can migrant workers be treated like bonded labourers, harnessed to their employers for the rest of their mortal lives? It isn’t tough to understand that Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa wishes to put the interests of his State above all other considerations. However, that doesn’t justify his decision to peremptorily cancel the ‘shramik’ trains that had been slated to leave from Karnataka and head back to Bihar from whence many of the State’s migrant workers hail. Yeddyurappa ordered that the travel plans be scrapped after meeting Bengaluru’s top builders who pointed out they’d be left high and dry without the migrant labourers who erect their lofty towers.

Bengaluru’s builders were honest about their motives and admitted they’re dependent on the migrant labourers to work on their construction sites and so wanted the State to allow them to restart building activity. “The delay in starting the work will drive a large number of migrant workers to return to their homes,” said Credai Bangalore chairman Suresh Hari.

BJP MP Tejasvi Surya defended cancelling the trains, saying it was a “bold and necessary move” and opined it even would be good for the workers in the long run. “It will help migrant workers who came here with hopes of a better life to restart their dreams. Also, it will kickstart economic activities to full throttle,” he said. His final sentence revealed his real thoughts and how little he actually cared for the labourers: “Karnataka will emerge out of this stronger.” Rather than stop trains and curtail workers’ choice, if the industry is so keen to restart they should bid for labour by offering higher wages.

Similar sentiments were expressed more crudely on Twitter by Manoj Caculo, president of the Goa Chamber of Commerce and Industries.

Karnataka is calculated to have around two lakh migrant workers who make their living as everything from plumbers and carpenters to construction site labourers, brick kiln workers and waiters in restaurants. Others work in the coastal region in fisheries and some in plantations in Kodagu district. It’s estimated some 1.5 lakh come from Bihar and Odisha and the rest from places like Nepal and Uttar Pradesh.

Appeal by trade unions

The All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) has filed an application before the Karnataka High Court demanding that the ‘shramik’ trains must start running again. The AICCTU has also pointed out that many workers had to walk or find other modes of transport to get to Bengaluru from far-flung corners of the State.

The last 50 days have revealed how little India cares for the lower-rung workers who bravely moved from their villages and who keep the wheels of industry and trade moving in India’s cities and industrial zones. The Central government declared a 40-day lockdown that left many without jobs and salaries.

It didn’t flinch even when we were presented with dismaying sights of an endless stream of workers attempting to walk thousands of miles back to their villages. Then, it did an abrupt U-turn, possibly because it was faced with the potential of civil unrest by workers who had no jobs and also weren’t allowed to return to their villages. Oddly, this sudden volte-face came just as State governments around the country prepared to ease the lockdown and attempt to get back to work.

In our treatment of migrant workers, we have not covered ourselves in glory.

Published on May 07, 2020

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