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Covid curbs spur another exodus of migrants amid fears of 2020 replay

Manoj Kumar Kushwa and three of his friends took close to 16 hours to reach Hyderabad from here in an autorickshaw
By Sharan Poovanna, Bengaluru
PUBLISHED ON APR 29, 2021 12:59 AM IST

Manoj Kumar Kushwa and three of his friends took close to 16 hours to reach Hyderabad from here in an autorickshaw. It may take a minimum of another three days before they are able to reach their village in Motihari in Bihar, about 2,158 kms from Bengaluru. The auto they are travelling in cannot run beyond 50-60 kms per hour.

All four of them left Bengaluru at about 5 pm on Tuesday, hours before the coronavirus-induced lockdown came into force across the state for two weeks, to escape any further uncertainty amid the raging pandemic. Only essential services are allowed to operate for four hours during this period.

“Last lockdown, we atleast got food, but this time, we are not sure if even that will be provided. We cannot earn our livelihood due to the lockdown. We are still paying back a debt of 30,000 we borrowed last year. We hadn’t recovered from the impact of the last lockdown and now there is another. We thought it best to leave for our village,” Kushwa said.

The 36-year-old has been driving his autorickshaw and also done some menial jobs like working at construction sites in Bengaluru since 2007 but has managed to collect enough to sustain the fortnight-long lockdown, which he fears may be extended.

Similarly, thousands were seen leaving in trains and buses from Bengaluru on Tuesday night. Migrant workers, who make up for the bulk of blue-collar jobs in the IT capital and usually work as delivery personnel, auto drivers, constructions, civic workers among others, are escaping a city which fueled their dreams of providing a better life for themselves and their families.

Scenes of several like them, walking for hundreds of thousands of kilometers from across urban centres in the country during the lockdown last year, remain fresh in the minds of these migrants amid fears of lack of support from the administration and chances of being stranded.

Nanu Bhuiyan, a 35-year-old from Jharkhand, left Bengaluru last September and was planning to return to the city untilthe lockdown was announced.

“I think I will wait for another two months before I return. There is not much we can do in my village but all of us are better off here than in Bengaluru,” Bhuyian, who worked at a catering firm before the 2020 lockdown, told HT over phone. He was among the several migrants whom HT had spoken with during the pandemic last year.

As one of India’s largest and most prosperous cities, Bengaluru attracts migrants from all corners of the country. The city’s population grew from around 6.5 million in 2001 to over 12 million currently, most of which have been fueled by its prowess in Information Technology (IT), startups, aerospace, biotechnology among several other public sector enterprises.

According to the 2011 census, migrants make up for over 4.4 million of the total 9.6 million population of Bengaluru. This includes both white and blue-collar workers.

Bengaluru is one of the worst Covid-19 impacted regions in the country and has over 200,000 active cases with single-day infections around the 20,000 mark.

On Wednesday, the city recorded 22,596 cases and 137 fatalities.

The spike in infections since March this year has led to a higher number of people requiring hospitalisation. Most of the hospital beds here are full, with barely any spare ones to admit critical cases.

According to the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), the city’s civic body and the central bed management system, there are around 3,257 hospital beds left availablefor Covid-19 patients. Of this, there are less than 60 vacant intensive care units (ICU) beds and those with ventilators in private hospitals and medical colleges, data showed, thereby putting immense pressure on the resources across government medical establishments which is the only source of hope for the poor.

Lalrinawmi Ralte, president of Northeast Solidarity, an association of people from North East states residing in Bengaluru, said several blue-collar workers in the city felt stuck due to the lockdown announcement on a short notice.

“There are many blue-collar workers who work in the outskirts of Bengaluru. Now, they cannot travel to work and are asking for relief,” she said.

While Bengaluru has allowed construction work to continue, one of the largest employers of migrant workers, the general mistrust in the administration and its constant change in lockdown-related policies have forced several to return to their villages, people aware of the developments said.

However, Kishore Jain, President of Confederation of Real Estate Developers’ Associations of India or CREDAI (Bengaluru chapter) said though they have faced shortage of labour since September, most people have returned to construction activities.

“We haven’t heard from any developer of any shortage of labour. The government was very cognizant of this factor that there should be no exodus of workers. So they have allowed all in-situ construction activity,” Jain said.

The situation doesn’t appear to be the same with small construction associations.

“We are facing a shortage of around 50-60% as workers have started leaving for their home-towns from about three days ago. Large developers can set up camp in their sites to keep workers but not the smaller ones. Also, there is a fear that even if workers show up to work, none of the establishments like small hotels and others will open, which will cause them trouble,” S Shivakumar, member of Builders Association of India, said.

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