Special trains from Karnataka taking home thousands of migrants stranded by the coronavirus lockdown have been cancelled by the BS Yediyurappa government, which says workers are needed for construction activities that have resumed in the state. The BJP government is forcing the migrants to stay, said the Congress, using the term "bonded labour" in its condemnation.
Ten special trains were to run from Bengaluru to different northern states this week. But the state on Tuesday requested the railways to cancel them, virtually locking in lakhs of labourers from faraway Bihar, Bengal or Uttar Pradesh, desperate to go home. When the lockdown was announced on March 25, leaving migrant workers suddenly without jobs or shelter, many had tried to walk all the way. Not everyone reached.
The government said many migrant labourers had already left and those still in the state were now needed, since construction activities are resuming.
"We have sent around one lakh people in 3,500 buses and trains back to their home towns. I have also appealed to migrant workers to stay as the construction work has resumed now," Chief Minister Yediyurappa told reporters today, while announcing a Rs 1,600 crore relief package for those in distress because of the lockdown, including construction workers.
"Registered" construction workers – many of them are migrants -- will get Rs 3,000 in addition to the Rs 2,000 they received earlier.
Congress leaders said it is not enough and that the state government is virtually holding migrants captive.
Pointing out that the government's move will force the migrants to stay in the state, when others across the country were going home, Congress's Siddaramaiah tweeted::
The decision to go back or to stay back should be with the labourers & not with the government. Labourers are free to choose health or work. Who will take responsibility if something goes wrong?— Siddaramaiah (@siddaramaiah) May 6, 2020
Are we still practicing bonded labour?
For me #MigrantLivesMatter!!
Had the interests of labourers been taken care by the concerned stakeholders, migrants may have stayed back.— Siddaramaiah (@siddaramaiah) May 6, 2020
Even govt did little to address their concerns.
I strongly urge @CMofKarnataka to arrange trains for those migrants who wish to go back.#MigrantLivesMatter
"We can't keep them (the migrant labourers) captive. We have to take them into confidence. The government and builders must give them incentives," senior Congress chief DK Shivakumar told NDTV.
As income dried up overnight due to the lockdown, thousands of migrant labourers across the country set off for their home states on foot, arguing that hunger would kill them before coronavirus did. Last week, the government, criticized over the state of the migrants, allowed special trains to take them home.
Responding to Congress attacks, the Karnataka BJP said the workers could be sent back if they wished. "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," said former Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar.
The party's Bengaluru MP Tejasvi Surya hailed the move of Mr Yeddyurappa, claiming 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 tweet read.