Friday, May 22, 2020

COVID-19 Diaries - Day 59 of Lockdown

CONTINUED FROM - COVID-19 Diaries - Day 57 of Lockdown

Returning home!

22 May 2020

I am extremely happy to inform you that, as I write this post, Sugreev and his friends are on a train to their hometown. If you have been following their journey so far, I am sure you would understand how important this moment is. This is how it happened.

Yesterday, Government opened Sleeper class and 2S Second sitting booking on the 15 trains that previously only had AC compartments open for booking. Trains with these coach would run from the 2nd of June. Sugreev told me that some of his friends had already booked their tickets. So, without delay, I booked their tickets on IRCTC website (Train booking site) for the 2nd of June. 2S second sitting cost them Rs 510 to reach Jhansi from Bangalore. Jhansi is 500 kms away from their hometown Gorakhpur. 

However, in the evening, Sugreev got a call from the police who informed him that he could board the Shramik special train to UP the very next day. Their names were confirmed again and they were asked to report at the station at around 7 am next morning. We decided not to cancel the train tickets until they boarded the Shramik. 

Next, Sugreev informed his Owner about his leaving. The owner wanted Sugreev to accompany him to the police station. Sugreev was worried that he would speak to the police in Kannada and prevent them from boarding that train. I told him to stay confident and stick to his truth about wanting to return home. Luckily, the owner did not have the guts to speak to the police beyond confirming the travel.

Sugreev was happy that he was finally going back home. He thanked me for all the help and told me that when he would reach home, through a video call, he would show me his village, fields and farm. We all eagerly waited for the morning to come. 

At 6:00 AM this morning, when I stepped out to go for my daily jog, I met Sugreev outside the construction site. The other three had already left to the police station. He was waiting for the owner’s son to pay him the balance amount. I wished him a happy journey and continued my jog. When I returned 30 minutes later, I saw that Sugreev was still in the house but was about to leave. When he called me later, he told me that the owner had not paid him the full amount. However, he has promised to transfer the balance shortly. I refrained from asking him the details. That could be done later. I checked if he had sufficient money for the journey, to which he said, he did. 

They were asked to assemble at a traffic signal next to the police station. Around 100 migrant workers had gathered there. Thanks to Sugreev’s regular update through calls, WhatsApp pictures and videos, I was able to follow the process as it happened. They were first taken to a playground next to the signal. There, their medical checkup was done.

They then had to pay Rs 1010 for the ticket. As per the Government, railways is supposed to pay 85% of the ticket fare and rest 15% is to be paid by the State Government. But, in reality that isn't true in most of the states. Only some states are sending the workers back, free of cost. I know that the state of Kerala hasn't charged the migrant workers for this journey.

Some of the workers had not registered on Seva Sindhu website, so they had to be taken care of. While that process happened, the others were made to wait. Overall, the local police had handled the situation really well. Social distancing was maintained through out. Workers were provided breakfast and lunch while they waited for the process to be complete. They were then handed a token to board a bus.

By the time Sugreev boarded the bus that would take them to the railway station it was already 5:00 PM. A packed dinner was also provided to them.

Sugreev and his friends finally began their journey back home on that train at around 7:30 PM. After all that we have been through together in these 2 months, this was a moment of joy and satisfaction. I am glad that despite all the obstacles that came our way, we never gave up. This story deserved a proper conclusion! Sugreev and his friends deserve to return to their families. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

COVID-19 Diaries - Day 57 of Lockdown

CONTINUED FROM - COVID-19 Diaries - Day 48 of Lockdown

Lockdown 4.0

20 May 2020

We havent got any update from the police after we registered the names of Sugreev and his friends at the police station. On the 12th of May, the Government began train services to 15 destinations, with limited seating. On these trains, only AC compartments are functional. For Sugreev and his friends, there was only one option - to take the Bengaluru-New Delhi train and alight at Jhansi, which is about 500 km from their hometown. But the tickets to Jhansi were priced thus - Rs 2500 for AC 3tier, Rs3600 for AC 2tier and Rs 6250 for AC First class. It was clearly not a train for the poor. However, Sugreev, who desperately wanted to go back, told me that, in the worst case, he could arrange for that money. Since the tickets were being sold out in minutes of opening, it was impossible to get a berth on that train. Shramik special trains therefore remained the only hope for migrant workers. 

Meanwhile, on the 17th of May, we stepped into the fourth phase of lockdown. A lot has been relaxed in the state of Karnataka. Limited public transport is allowed. A few days ago, our Prime minister, as always, gave a speech that was high on rhetoric. He talked about making India Atmanirbhar (Self reliant) and informed us that the Finance Minister will soon announce an Economic Stimulus Package of 20 Lakh crore, which, like always, he chose to rhyme with 2020. In the week that followed, our Finance Minister gave the details of this Economic Recovery Package

Many declared that the cost to the Government is not 10% of the GDP as claimed but only about 1% of the GDP. Most of the relief came as loans. Schemes with direct money transfer were less. One may argue that with no or meagre demand, MSMEs (Micro, Small, Medium Enterprises) may hesitate to take that loan, which they must someday repay. The package also included free ration for migrant workers and TDS (Tax deducted at source) rates are cut by 25%. PF (Provident fund) was cut from 12% to 10%, which means one could now have more money to spend, rather than save. Additionally, many public sector undertakings (PSUs) will now be privatised

Anyways, in this so called Atmanirbhar Bharath (self-reliant India), many labourers like Sugreev and his friends still struggle to get back home. Everyday, Sugreev would tell me stories about his friends who had somehow made their journey back home. While some were lucky to get on the Shramik Special train, others had traveled on trucks filled with more than 60 workers. It was apparent that they were missing their children and family. All they wanted was to go back home and be with their loved ones. Every day when Sugreev would ask me what news I had, I was hesitant to reply that I had no positive news for him. 

During one of my walks, I noticed that a police station near my house had set up a booth to address queries of migrant workers. I advised Sugreev to enquire there. I chose not to accompany them this time as I thought it would be better if they themselves express their frustrations and eagerness to return home. Sugreev went there early that morning and he spoke to a lady constable. She informed him that the cops have taken some Bihar migrants to the railway station and will return by 10 AM. She asked them to come by at 10 AM and get the names registered. 

Sugreev decided to take a day off as the owner of the house where they work isn't very supportive. He does not like it if they take time off. Instead, it was easier for them to take the entire day off. When Sugreev told the owner that he was going to the police station to check on his request, the owner did not seem happy. He wanted them to complete the work and then leave. "If you finish our work, then we will help you return home." he allegedly told them. Sugreev was quick in his response. He asked him - "So will you not help us, if we do not complete the work?" There obviously was no answer to that. 

At 10 AM, when Sugreev went to the police station again, a constable told them that this wasn’t the station they had to report to as their area came under a different police station. I really do not understand how it matters. The migrant workers like Sugreev do not have a permanent house in Bangalore. They live in a construction site and vacate it when the work is complete. Even if they do live in a rented house, does it really matter which police station has to take care of it? No address proof is asked from them anyways. I understand that the police wants to distribute the work but that is valid in normal circumstances, with people permanently living in an area. 

Anyways, we had no other option but to return to the same police station were we had already registered a few days back. This time, Sugreev spoke to the man who was registering workers on a computer. He was again asked for Seva Sindhu registration form and copy of Aadhaar card (ID card). He assured them that they would get a call from him soon. 

We no longer await that magic SMS. Instead, all of us are eagerly waiting for a call from the police station. Somehow, this time, things look positive. 

CONTINUED HERE - COVID-19 Diaries - Day 59 of Lockdown

Monday, May 11, 2020

COVID-19 Diaries - Day 48 of Lockdown

CONTINUED FROM - COVID-19 Diaries - Day 44 of Lockdown

Magic SMS

11 May 2020

A few days ago, 16 migrant workers who were walking on a railway track to their village in Madhya Pradesh, felt so tired that they slept on the tracks near Jalna, Aurangabad district. Since the trains were cancelled, they assumed that no trains would ply on those tracks. Little did they know that they would be soon run over by a goods train. Perched atop a heap of mangoes on the Agra-bound truck coming from Hyderabad, 15 migrant workers were headed towards Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh. The truck overturned killing 5 workers and leaving 13 others injured. In another incident, a boy cycling back to Bihar from Delhi, was run over by a car while he was taking a meal break. These are only a few of the terrible incidents that are happening due to this ill-conceived lockdown. The pro-Government news channels do not find it important enough to highlight the plight of these poor migrant workers. Thankfully, there are some who are still doing their jobs as journalists. 

On the 6th of May, when Karnataka Government announced a stop on special trains, many labourers set off on foot towards their homes in the North of India. In two days, due to strong criticism by the opposition and worker’s union, the Government had to take a U-turn on its decision. Unfortunately there is still no clear communication on how this whole thing works. How can a migrant worker board these special trains?

Like Sugreev, many migrant workers who have registered on Seva Sindhu website or at a police station near them are still waiting for that SMS to show up, which would inform them of their itinerary. Many have given up hope. Sugreev told me that he had met a man from UP (Uttar Pradesh) who, with 17 others, is about to begin his walk on the 11th. Others before them, had done the same and found trucks to reach various destinations on this 2300 KM long journey. "If you are walking in bigger groups, the police won’t stop you", he had told Sugreev. Somehow, Sugreev and his friends could not make up their mind to take up this precarious journey. If they are to hitch-hike, they would have to travel from Bangalore to Hyderabad, then to Nagpur, Jabalpur, Prayagraj and finally Gorakpur. This journey isn’t safe by any means. Apart from that, the truck drivers charge anywhere from Rs 500 to Rs 2000 per head.

This morning, Sugreev called me at around 7:30 AM. He told me that he had spoken to a man from his village who had recently left Bangalore on a Shramik train. According to him, the migrant workers gathered near Nice road junction on Kanakpura road would be handed over a token by the police and would then be transported to the railway stations in buses. By the way, to avoid crowd, the trains are not leaving from city center. They will only ply from Malur (50km) and Chikkabannur (20km). 

Looking at his eagerness, I decided to take Sugreev to Nice road junction and verify the news. On our way, I noticed that Bangalore has sprung back to life. Private vehicles are plying as usual and there are enough traffic jams at the traffic signals. Along the way, we stopped at two places to speak to different groups of migrant workers sitting by the main road. Everyone had the same story to tell. The police at the Nice road junction had asked them to go to their nearest police station for the tokens. 

At the junction, there were at least a 100 migrant workers waiting patiently with their luggage. To avoid the scorching sun, they had found some trees to sit under. We met a group of men from UP who had also registered on Seva Sindhu website but never received a SMS. They have been coming to this location every single day. They were discussing on spending the night at the tents setup outside a near-by police station. There, they would be served free food. 

The police had setup temporary camps next to the toll booths. There were around 10 policemen in the one we visited. I enquired about the situation with a constable. He politely gave us the necessary information. He told us that they were, in fact, handing out tokens to workers a few days ago and transporting them to the railway stations. But as it got crowded, they are now requesting people to go to the police stations near their house and make an entry, and wait for their turn. He told me that there was one train leaving to Bihar the next day and that they can get a token that same evening. When asked about a train to UP, he said that he did not have much information, as he himself was from Mysore. We thanked him and left.

We decided to inform Upendar about the Bihar train. Upendar has left the construction site near my house and has moved to his room on Bannerghatta road. His contractor has promised him to get a ticket back home. 

Sugreev and I rode to the police station near my house. Two constables were sitting in the main hall - A middle-aged man and a young man in his late 20’s. The older one asked me to wait as he had a man already sitting in front of him, waiting to file a complaint. He kept him waiting while he cracked some jokes with his friends. Meanwhile, we stood at a distance, waiting. 

A visit to a police station in India can be an emotionally draining experience. There was an enquiry going on in a room next to where we stood. Two boys were being questioned. We could clearly hear the constables hit the two as they pleaded for mercy. As people walked in and out of that room, we saw the police ruthlessly hitting the two boys with a hockey stick while the boys cried in pain. When the two boys saw me, their eyes displayed a mixed emotion of pain and embarrassment. And then, the door closed again. 

When it was our turn to speak to the constables sitting in the main hall, I narrated the situation to them. The old man told me that registering on Seva Sindhu website was sufficient. "A SMS would arrive soon",  he assured me. When I told him that it has been more than week and there has been no sms till date, he was dumbfounded. By then the young man, who I presume is new to this job, said that one has to also register at the police station. He asked me to bring all four workers to the police station. 

We went back home and asked the others to join us at the police station with their Aadhaar cards (National ID Card). By now the two boys who were badly beaten up by the police were sitting on a bench at one end of the main hall. Next to them, sat two more well-dressed, middle-aged men. A boy walked in straight up to one of them and handed over a cellphone. The police quickly stopped him. Apparently, it was the son of one of the men. The police confiscated the phone, scolded the boy, and asked him to go away. The two policemen were trying very hard to sound aggressive, but were failing miserably. 

One by one, the names of the workers were entered in a sheet of paper by the boy constable. He questioned each one of them on what was already on their Aadhaar card. When I tried to clarify something, he said to me in Kannada - " Wait! let them answer, I am verifying." 

What was he actually checking? Are they criminals? They want to go back to their homes and they are showing their Aadhaar card as ID proof. What is there to verify by asking them to repeat what is already in the card? I failed to understand, but he had to do his job. 

Meanwhile, one of the workers, Sudama had an issue. His Aadhaar card had his father’s name instead of his. So, his name was not Sudama, as mentioned in the card, but Neeraj. In India this is possible. Neeraj is the shy one and he barely answers a question. He wasn’t able to answer the constable well. The boy constable kept asking him all sorts of questions - What is the name of your village? Where are you going? What is the full form of UP (Uttar Pradesh)? Seriously, the cops were questioning them as though, they would lie and take a jolly ride in a train around India during this pandemic. 

And then, there was another major issue; this time with Neeraj’s age. As per the Aadhaar card, he is only 14 years of age. It is illegal for kids under the age of 14 to work. I had noticed this when I had registered them on the website. When I had asked about it, they told me that it was again an error in the card. I am not sure if that is true. What I know for sure is that we need to analyse this in detail before jumping into any conclusions. Why do people choose to work at young age instead of going to school? Is there a flaw in the system itself? We cannot sit in the comforts of our city homes and dictate law to the poor. A detailed analysis would be required.

Anyways, the constables were surprised. They laughed and told me that I could be jailed for hiring him. I explained to them again that I wasn’t their owner and was living next to the construction site where they work. Then the boy constable asked - 

"So, why is it that you are bringing them here?" 

"Because they have been struggling since the lockdown was announced and there is no one to help them." I replied without a delay. 

That seemed to silence him. He quickly went into a room and checked with another man who was working on a computer. That man suggested that age 15 can be written on the entry form. While the boy constable was away, the old man looked at me and told - 

"They will get a SMS soon. You should be doing all this work, but we are doing it on your behalf anyways." In India, that statement means  - "I shall be doing my duty, like it is a favour and would expect a bribe for it." 

Having dealt enough with the police before, I smiled and remained silent. The boy constable returned and quickly completed the details for the last worker.

"A SMS would arrive soon!" they sang in unison. 

However, Sugreev and his friends did not seem hopeful about this additional step in the process. Two of Sugreev’s friends for whom I had registered on Seva Sindhu website earlier were also asked to go to their nearest police station. They were turned back by the police without an entry. The policemen had told them - 

"All this is not required. Only Seva Sindhu registration is enough. We take entries just to give some hope to workers."

Poor communication and misinformation has been causing terrible confusion for the migrant workers. They are running from pillar to post just to get on that special train that the Government boasts about on newspapers and twitter accounts. The migrant workers are so scared of the police that they hesitate to speak to them directly. Some of them at the Nice road junction told us that they got caned. I felt that it was necessary to fill these men with some confidence. I told Sugreev - 

"There is no reason for you to be afraid of these policemen. You are not committing a crime. All you want is to go back home." 

It is ridiculous how all this is unfolding. We are treating these people like criminals. All they want is to return to their homes, that too, with their own money. The Government is charging Rs 1020 for a ticket. They are prepared to overcome any hurdle that may come their way to get on that train. But, the question is - 

When will that magic SMS arrive?

Thursday, May 07, 2020

COVID-19 Diaries - Day 44 of Lockdown

CONTINUED FROM - COVID-19 Diaries - Day 34 of Lockdown

Migrant Workers

7 May 2020

On Labour day (1st May), another extension to the lockdown was announced; for another two weeks (Upto May17th). However, Government has decided to arrange transport for migrant workers. Many labourers from Odisha, Bihar, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh work in the South of India and other major cities in the country. They have been pleading the Government to let them return back to their families. 

Free buses are arranged for those who want to travel within the state. Shramik Special trains are also being arranged for migrant workers who want to travel to other states. The newspaper carried articles about these special trains but had no information on how migrant workers can avail this facility. Such is the state of journalism these days. I made sure to write a letter to the newspaper editor complaining about poor quality of reporting. If an article is only intended to inform us what happened and does not help us take action, it is useless. 

I informed Sugreev about the trains and asked him to try calling some helplines. He was directed to couple of numbers and finally was recommended to register for a travel on Seva Sindhu app or website. How can Government expect migrant workers to have smart phones or laptops to make such entries? This seemed utterly foolish. 

I then made their respective entries and submitted their travel request. Each one had to give their current address and destination, upload their Aadhar card and passport size photo before submitting the form. Sugreev wanted me to submit forms for two of his friends as well, therefore, in total, 7 forms were submitted, requesting for travel to UP and Bihar. I watched this on report by Ravish Kumar (The only sensible journalist we have today) that those workers who did not have access to Internet had to go to police stations where they were mistreated.

Thankfully, this extension has allowed all independent shops to open. I took advantage of the lockdown and went for a jog on the main road. Flyovers have been turned into jogging tracks. 

Indian Government has allowed operation of liquor shops for generating revenue. There were long queues in front of liquor shops around the country. And obviously there was chaos. All the Government needs now, is revenue!  

For Sugreev and his friends, the work at the construction site has resumed. Therefore they are able to focus on their work. They have to wake up early, cook their lunch before 8 AM and then work until 6 PM. Then, they cook their dinner. Remember, they have no refrigerator to store food during this summer. I prayed that the application would be accepted and that they can travel home soon. 

On the 6th of March Karnataka Government decided to stop all Shramik special trains to other states. Post a discussion with builders, it was decided that migrant workers would stay back to revive economy. Many who traveled to the railway station on the 6th of May, hoping to travel to their villages in the north of India, were turned back. Such a pathetic situation it is here. It is disgusting to say the least! 

For the Government of Karnataka, migrant workers are not humans, they are machines that run the economy. Those who build thousands of houses for us are denied permission to return back to their own homes. On the other hand, labourers from the state of Karnataka can return back to their villages on free KSRTC buses. Because, they are not machines, they are vote bank!

CONTINUED HERE - COVID-19 Diaries - Day 48 of Lockdown