With no savings, selling his belongings was the only option left for Kutubuddin Khan, a painter from West Bengal. He took stock of what he had to sell – one gas stove, some utensils and two plastic chairs. With the Rs 2,000 he made from the sale, he made his way to a transit centre on Bengaluru's Tumkur Road, on 19 May.
His decision to sell everything and go to the transit centre was the result of a WhatsApp message he got from a friend. The message said the police were giving shelter and food to migrant workers in Bengaluru International Exhibition Centre (BIEC).
The message also had a video of a group of migrant workers watching a Bollywood movie on the big screen inside one of the shelters in BIEC. Unable to afford rent or buy food, Khan was convinced that the transit centre, 33 km away, was his last resort.
Paying Rs 1,200 to an autorickshaw driver, he reached the centre in the morning. Just as he saw the entrance of the BIEC, a policeman asked him to follow him. Hopeful that it was the end of his worries, he followed the cop; but, instead of BIEC, he was taken to the open ground on the opposite side, which already had thousands of (1,230 according to police records) migrants workers like him.
Khan sat down with them thinking it was a medical test before taking them inside the campus. After a while, a policeman asked him where he was coming from: "West Bengal," he said. The policeman, shaking his head in disapproval, asked again: "Where in Bangalore?"
When he said he had come from Dabaspete, he was asked to shift to a different line. The line had more people from Dabaspete. Soon Khan was asked to board a bus, which instead of going inside the BIEC, drove towards the city.
Unable to handle the number of migrant workers coming to BIEC, on 19 May, the police had closed down the transit centre. Migrant workers like Khan, who had left their homes to get there, were sent back to their localities.
No Co-ordination, Confused & Insensitive
Thousands of migrant workers like Khan have been left in the lurch, without a place to stay or food, let down by an administration that is confused, lacks coordination, and has been touted to be insensitive as well.
The police department, which had no prior experience of running a bureaucratic task, was given the responsibility of registering migrant workers. While the police prepared the list, the responsibility of arranging trains was with the revenue department. While Bengaluru city administration had to organise food for the migrant workers, the responsibility of providing shelter was given to the labour department.
And ALL these departments lacked coordination, leaving the migrant workers without any information or guidance.
Costly Communication Gaps
With hundreds of migrant workers lining up outside the police station and only a handful of trains leaving the city, the police are unable to answer the questions of the workers.
"They ask me when they will get a train. The fact is that I don't know that since the revenue department doesn't share this information with us. We are told to collect state-wise information and make a list. When we get a call from the revenue department, we will issue some tickets based on the seniority list," said a police inspector in Whitefield division.
While there are close to 3 lakh people who have registered for a train ticket, on an average around 3,000 migrant workers get on a train from Bengaluru.
Revenue department officials said that arranging a train is a complicated process.
"Earlier, the problem was with getting permissions from respective states. Some refused to take back migrant workers. In some cases, the nodal officers were not taking our calls. Now, the responsibility of arranging trains is with the Railways, but the number of trains remains the same.
When we are not sure when the permissions will come, how can we tell the police when the backlog of registered migrants at their respective police stations will be cleared?" said a senior IAS officer.
People Pay The Price for A Swamped Administration
According to the police department, the decision to open transit centres was out of compassion for migrant workers. It was not part of their mandate. "We see thousands of workers in front of our police station and many spending the night there. So, we decided to open the transit centre for migrant workers with a train ticket. In coordination with the city administration, we were keeping more than 2,000 people at the facility," said an Inspector General rank officer.
However, the situation went out of control when the word spread, and more migrants started pouring in. Initially, police allowed some people who walked to BIEC to enter and put them on trains as well. This decision only made things worse. The crowd outside the gates of BIEC began swelling further by the day, Finally, unable to control the crowd, the police shut down the facility.
Sadly, by the time police took this call, many migrant workers had left their homes and work, in the hope of finding a place in BIEC. Manoj Kumar was one of them. Carrying his aunt, who had recently had a surgery, he had come to BIEC.
"My aunt has had surgeries on her leg. She has rods put there in August and has not been able to walk since. We came at 6.45 am itself. We wanted to take her back in March only, but the lockdown happened. Now, we are running out of money," he said. He is now figuring how to return to Bagalkunte, the Bengaluru suburb where they had been putting up.
Jitendra Thakur, a barber, had come with his wife, who is six months pregnant. "I've not earned a single rupee since March. My wife is carrying twins, and it is getting difficult to manage. At least if we can go home (Samastipur Bihar), then our families can take care of her. We're in debt and running out of money to buy things. Someone told us that we could get trains if we come here. So, we took an auto for Rs 500 and came here. Now they are telling us to go back," he said.
He and his wife had to return to Bengaluru city, even though they had vacated their rented home.
Ineffective Temporary Centres
After the government’s decision to close down the BIEC transit centre drew criticism and the police received several reports of people having to sleep on the road, the government announced it would set up shelter homes across the city for migrant workers.
However, according to social workers, despite the government setting up shelter homes, no efforts are being made to take migrant workers there. People are still reaching Bengaluru in large numbers, many of them living on the streets as they are unaware of these shelters.
In some cases, even though the police have identified several marriage halls to accommodate migrant workers, the owners of these facilities are not allowing migrant workers in.
As the government system is proving incapable of handling the migrant crisis in Bengaluru, the migrants, even after two months of hardship, remain in the dark.