Accusing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in Karnataka of indulging in "medieval barbarism" and treating migrants like "bonded labourers", the opposition hit out at the state's decision to stop workers from returning to their homes in different parts of the country citing requirements of the construction sector.
Earlier in the day, the Karnataka government withdrew its request to the Railways to run special trains to ferry migrant labourers to their home states, hours after builders met Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa to apprise him of the problems the construction sector will face in case they left.
"I appeal to labourers with folded hands.. don't pay heed to any rumours. It is the responsibility of the government to see to it that you get work at the place you were working... Don't take the hasty decision of going to your native places. Stay here and work, as in the past," he had said on Tuesday in his second such appeal made within a week.
However, most labourers are not in a mood to stay back as the lockdown has left them virtually high and dry besides posing other issues, and they want to leave for their home states.
Condemning the government's move, the Congress said the decision to go back or stay in the state should be with the labourers and not the government and the former are free to choose health or work.
Senior party leader and former chief minister Siddaramaiah said had the interests of labourers been taken care of by stakeholders, they may have stayed back, but the government did little to address their concerns.
Using the hashtag that migrant lives matter, the former CM put out a series of tweets wondering if the government is still practising bonded labour.
He said, “The argument of the CM that construction will not happen if migrants go back just exposes the BJPs mindset. He is willing to sacrifice the lives of helpless labourers for the sake of invisible hands.”
“The decision to cancel trains for migrants is not just inhuman but also violation of fundamental rights,” he added.
Senior Congress leader DK Shivakumar said that the migrant labourers cannot be held captive. “We have to take them into confidence. The government and builders must give them incentives," he was quoted as saying by NDTV.
CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury said this is worse than treating them as bonded labour.
“Does the Indian constitution exist? Are there any laws in the country? This BJP state government is throwing us back to medieval barbarism. This will be stoutly resisted,” Yechury said in a tweet.
The Railways is running Shramik Special trains to ferry to their hometowns migrants who were stranded at their places of work during the lockdown. So far, it has run more than 115 such trains.
The Principal Secretary in the Revenue Department N Manjunatha Prasad, who is the nodal officer for migrants in the state, had requested the South Western Railways on Tuesday to run two train services a day for five days except Wednesday, while the state government wanted services thrice a day to Danapur in Bihar.
However, later, Prasad wrote another letter within a few hours that the special trains were not required. Several migrants in the city were desperate to return home as they were out of jobs and money.
However, the Karnataka BJP unit said the workers could go home if they wished to. "Whoever is interested is staying here. If they are not interested, they will be sent back. If there is a demand, definitely we will request the chief minister," party leader Jagadish Shettar said.
Hailing the party’s move, Bengaluru MP Tejasvi Surya said it would help the state emerge stronger.
"Stoppage of inter-state trains by Sri @BSYBJP is a bold and necessary move. It will help migrant labourers who came here with hopes of a better life to restart their dreams. Also, it will kickstart economic activities full throttle. Karnataka will emerge out of this stronger!" his wrote on Twitter.
On Tuesday, Karnataka Revenue Minister R Ashoka met the migrant labourers at the Bangalore International Exhibition Centre where they have been accommodated.
Most of the labourers were afraid of staying here for fear of contracting COVID-19. They are also expressed concern about the well-being of their families back home and are apprehensive that they may not be able to return quickly if their kin faced some problems. Shailesh, a painter from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, said he had exhausted all the money that he had.
"My elder brother is stuck in Hyderabad whereas I am held up in Bengaluru. Both of us are jobless for the past one-and-half months," he said.
He also said the money lender who had lent Rs 40,000 to his parents has been pestering them for the past one week to return it. He apparently wants to be with them during such a situation.
A few migrant labourers stuck in the slums near Subramanyapura in the state capital said they are out of cash to purchase grocery items.
Crammed in four small rooms, the 14 labourers said arranging food was a big challenge. "We are getting Khichri, but how long can one eat this alone," they said and made it clear they wanted to go back to their native state.
The chief minister had on Friday urged the workers to stay back in the state and co-operate with the government in resuming economic activities.
On Tuesday construction industry representatives had informed him they have started providing employment to migrant workers in the past few days after relaxation in some of the lockdown norms, Yeddiyurappa said.
Besides, the builders also said they paid salary and provided food to the workers during the past one-and-half months despite no work, he had said.
(With inputs from PTI)