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 Bengaluru’s Hebbal. For years, he earned around Rs 8,000 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 2,000. “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.
But 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 in 2020, 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.”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 3,058 per month. But many migrant workers are not earning this amount during the lockdown. The workers are also not eligible for the Rs 2,000 income support announced by the Karnataka government for those in the unorganised sector since they are not locals. The Hunger Helpline (155-214), which was 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 ever 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 7,000 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 30 April 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 rumours 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 7 June and migrant workers are counting down the days until they can work again and ensure their families don’t 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.
(This story was first published on The News Minute and has been republished here with permission.)