Bengaluru’s migrant workers fight hunger in lockdown with little govt assistance

Originally appeared in The News Minute.


If hunger is increasingly a worry for migrant workers, the fear of the coronavirus spreading in their settlements is also a reality now.

Long before the pandemic swept into his settlement, Amit Mondal knew the fear of hunger. It was ever-present in the 45-year-old’s life since he left his hometown Chapra in West Bengal to live in the Bengal Basti, a migrant settlement in Hebbal in Bengaluru. For years, he earned around Rs 8000 every month hauling waste in a wheel-barrow and on most days, he earned enough to bring home rice, lentils and vegetables to cook the evening meal for his family. 

But when the second wave of COVID-19 arrived, Amit’s earnings dwindled to less than Rs 2000. “The police stop us when we go out,” he says.  

Today, he treasures the ration kit of rice, dal, oil, and potatoes, given to him by a volunteer organisation during the lockdown. “This is all I have now and I cook some of it every day trying to use up as little of it as I can,” Amit says pointing to the ration kit lying next to his bed on the floor of his tin-and-tarpaulin roofed home. 

Amit and more than 1,000 migrant workers, mostly Bengali speakers, live in the migrant settlement in Hebbal. Many residents in the settlement say they have never bought groceries in bulk or stocked up on essentials at home and during the lockdown, hunger is an everyday reality. “I just have two meals a day now and I know many of the people here are doing the same,” he says.  

Amit does not doubt the disruption caused by the coronavirus but he believes that people in his neighbourhood are more likely to suffer due to hunger, because government aid has been slow to trickle in to migrant settlements in Bengaluru.

The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) is providing cooked meals for the poor through Indira Canteens. On Thursday, the civic body’s records showed 2.45 lakh meal parcels were distributed in the city helping 84,000 people. Officials say that the total number of meal parcels distributed is close to 3 lakh since their software does not record data from all Indira Canteens in the city yet. Most people receive three meal parcels - breakfast, lunch and dinner.

But Amit says that the nearest Indira Canteen is a 15-minute walk for him and he is worried about the limits placed on movement in the city. “I would prefer it if I was given ration so I could cook at home,” he says.

Migrant workers like him do not qualify for many of the benefits given through the Public Distribution System (PDS). The Union government has also announced that 5 kg of rice will be given under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) to PDS card holders but migrant workers are not yet eligible for this.

Though the Union government announced the ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ scheme during the pandemic last year, migrant workers from West Bengal are unable to avail ration through their existing cards since the state has not yet integrated itself in the scheme. 

“The app (Mera Ration) lets you fill in the ration card number and other details and it tells you the nearest ration shop and the entitlement. But when we checked this for migrant workers from West Bengal, we found that the entitlement was not showing up because West Bengal cards have not been integrated,” says Avani Chokshi, a lawyer and CPI(ML) member. 

It is difficult to quantify the hunger of migrant workers but the numbers paint a grim picture. A local PDS card holder receives 2 kg of rice along with 3 kg of ragi given every month in southern Karnataka but this is not available for the migrant workers in Hebbal. 

The Karnataka Labour Department in 2017 listed the cost of food in its calculation of minimum wages as Rs 3058 per month. But many migrant workers are not earning this amount in lockdown. The workers are also not eligible for the Rs 2000 income support announced by the Karnataka government for those in the unorganised sector since they are not locals. The Hunger Helpline (155-214) started a year ago is also not delivering food or ration to migrant workers this year.

Twenty-kilometres away from Hebbal in another migrant settlement in Thubarahalli near Marathahalli in Bengaluru, Sukhchand Sekh faces the same problem as Amit — little income and dwindling ration supplies during the lockdown. 

Sukhchand,27, works as a cleaner with Urban Company, a popular home services aggregator, but since the lockdown was enforced, he has seen his earnings plummet. “There is nothing we can do. We received ration kits once last month from an organisation and we are living on it so far,” says Sukhchand. 

While men in the settlement work as waste-pickers and more recently as gig workers for app-based services, women work as cooks and cleaners in apartments surrounding the settlement. Even they have been asked to stop turning up for work.

Sabina, a 42-year-old resident of the settlement in Thubarahalli, says she has not been called in for work this month. “I have taken ration and other items from the local shop on credit and I hope to pay it back when I go back to work,” Sabina says. Rusniara from the settlement in Hebbal says she earned around Rs 7000 a month by working in four houses near the settlement. “But now I am not paid the full amount and I don’t know when I will be called back for work,” she says. 

Lack of access to healthcare

If hunger is an increasing worry for migrant workers, the fear of the coronavirus spreading in their camps is a reality now. So far, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the migrant settlement in Hebbal is around 20. But it was the death of Ashim Biswas, a 48-year-old resident of the settlement, due to COVID-19 on April 30 that left the residents worried about the disease.

Ashim developed a fever five days before his death and his oxygen saturation level dropped to as low as 48, says Rosey, an activist with the Migrant Workers Solidarity Network, who tried to help the migrant worker. “We were able to arrange an oxygen cylinder for him but we were unable to find an ICU bed despite trying to call many hospitals,” says Rosey. 

Access to healthcare is often unaffordable for the workers without help, usually from charitable organisations.

Life in the settlement makes physical distancing nearly impossible with extended families jammed into cramped rooms with many lacking running water and indoor sanitation. The settlements are so densely packed that one can hear neighbours talk through the tarpaulin sheets and some residents depend on common areas for water and sanitation. 

The lack of information directed at migrant settlements, about COVID-19, the lockdown and the vaccination, has also allowed rumors to flourish. “I look at Facebook for all the news. There are no government officials coming here and explaining about the lockdown or the vaccination to us,” says Jiyarul Mondal, another resident of the settlement in Hebbal. This has led to hesitancy among the residents to take the COVID-19 vaccination, Rosey says. 

In Thubarahalli, however, many residents work with service aggregators like Urban Company and they were given the vaccine recently through the company, Sukhchand says, holding up his phone to show his vaccination certificate. “We are now telling others here to get the vaccination but we don’t know how it can be done,” says Sukhchand.

The lockdown is set to go on at least till June 7 and migrant workers are counting down the days until they can work again and ensure their family does not go hungry. 

Amit says that the first thing he will do is pay his rent for this month. “I am yet to pay the rent of Rs 800 and if the lockdown continues, I don’t know how I will be able to do that. I don’t want the lockdown to continue again,” says Amit. For migrant workers like him, there is little choice since their livelihood remains on the streets.

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