Non Inclusive “Namma” Metro: Conversations with Migrant Workers 

“Namma” metro project on one hand excludes the majority of the people staying in Bengaluru and and on the other hand creates a playground for super-exploitation of the migrant workers

Part 1 of the Namma Metro article can be read here 

A worker from Assam in a labour camp said that he owns around 6 acres of land, of which a large part is used for tea cultivation. But now they don’t earn much from it and also since his family has grown bigger that he has to take care. He said – “My mother used to say that Farming is Supreme, Business is in the Middle, while Slavery (wage slavery) is the Worst work to do. But now conditions are different, Slavery has become Supreme while Farming is being sidelined. Farming is the noblest occupation, farmers feed everyone, but now one can’t buy anything from the earnings through farming.”

We spoke to a migrant security guard from West Bengal who is posted in Dairy Circle and Lakkasandra (Metro line and station construction site). He recently came to Bangalore from Haryana. He said they are given Rs 15,500 salary for 12hrs daily shift for 30 days. There is no weekly off and no OT is paid. They sometimes work for 36 hours long (3 continuous shifts) to earn some extra money to meet their need. He said the farming in his village (Gopiballabpur, Paschim Medinipur district) has become so unprofitable that he has spent 11 months in cities to run his family. He said, “We (security guards) still get ESI and PF but the labours working do not get it.” A huge number of them are not registered under any welfare board like BOCW. He himself said that if he filed a complaint his job will be lost if  they all do it together there can be some effect.

We met a worker Ajay who is from Bihar outside the labor camp. He said that he did not get  salary for the last two months, so did not go for work that day. He demanded his pending salary from the contractor and had declared that he’ll not go to work if not paid. He was working under the contractor for more than 2 years and was working in RV collage metro site for the last 5-6months. Rs 400/day is the wage. No question of ESI or PF. He said that their family owns very small piece of land in the village (he said 1 katha) and also he is not getting farm work in the village so had to migrate to Bangalore. He memorized my number and later gave a call from his phone which was inside the camp.

We met two other workers on a site who were from West Bengal. They came to Bangalore 3 months back and said they have only 1-2 bigha of land. The situation is such that after they send money home from the city, only then seeds can be sown in their fields. Wages were the same. I could not talk further as they were busy in work. They wrote my number on a block of concrete with a broken piece of brick as they did not have a phone.

We noted that most of the workers cannot afford to bring their families in Bangalore. However, in one labor camp some workers from Bengal stayed with their wives, these ladies are employed in low-paid work like cleaning the sites after work. Some workers like security guards and other skilled ones like driver, electrician etc, are enrolled in ESI. However, they said they do not have cards to avail the facilities. Other workers (with Rs 400 – 550 per day wage) are not enrolled in any scheme. They said, if something happens the thekedars take care.

Workers are extremely dependent on these thekedars regarding a lot of matters like payments, getting new jobs when one is over, medical assistance in case of accident and illness, travel etc. Thekedars are most of the time from the same village or from a nearby village of the respective workers. So, in this alien city, without any official agreement of work, without any guarantee of pay, without any safety or security of work, the workers only have their thekedars to depend upon. They cannot, most of time, express their grudges to them in the fear of losing the relationship, and thus, losing the contact to work in the city. They also cannot express their grudges to the company (the contractor under BMRCL) directly, as this would result in further worsening of their relationship with the thekedars, without whose support neither they can get work nor their payments. So, in this precarious and vulnerable situation the workers are forced into a semi-bonded feudalistic relationship with their thekedars. This relationship is used by the big corporates like L&T, Simplex, ITD etc, who a government entity BMRCL has hired. In line with the neoliberal design, this relationship is used specifically to keep their salary lesser than half they deserve by law, keep them in inhumane living conditions and refrain them from bargaining their rights specified in law by getting unionized.

Another aspect of this neoliberal design is to keep the unorganised workers undocumented. By making them anonymous, it becomes easy for the state to dodge their responsibility and not to adhere to the laws and guidelines formulated by them to wear the mask of a “Welfare State”. Under this mask, it keeps on facilitating super profits for the domestic and foreign corporates through super exploitation. There are some social welfare schemes like BOCW and e-Shram which has some benefits like compensation in case of accidental death and injury, ensuring occupational safety and health etc. The onus of registering in these schemes is on workers and no responsibility is imposed upon the employers. Due to lack of information, lack of access to internet and lack of proficiency to use digital means the metro construction workers have to depend on funded NGOs or middlemen for their registration.  As mentioned earlier, most of these workers are not registered and thus, do not even get these meagre benefits. Because the employers reap the superprofits from the labour of these workers, they should thus be held accountable to labour laws. However, these social welfare schemes help the corporates to refrain from such a responsibility and make it an affair solely between the state and workers. Moreover, by only offering social welfare schemes, the state makes the individual’s identity as a worker secondary and that of beneficiary in a social welfare scheme primary. Thus, pushing the question of labour rights into the background.

The Non-Inclusive “Namma”

It should be clear by now that Namma Metro’s “namma” is not inclusive of the workers who are building it. However, will the great majority of the people of Bengaluru be benefited by this project built upon illegal theft of labour of these migrant workers? Will this project bring the BMRCL’s vision of “Garden City’s travel partner to all sections of commuters in Bengaluru” into reality? The answer is a clear NO. Research by Gitam Tiwari of IIT Delhi, published in EPW, shows with overwhelming evidence that capital-intensive metro rail systems serve only a small proportion of the total trips in cities in developing countries such as India. Other forms of public transport (like buses and suburban railways) are fairly inexpensive and thus covers most of the trips. The increasing amount of private and foreign capital being invested in these projects have made these metro services unaffordable for the majority. Further, metro generally enjoys numerous tax benefits in India which are not offered to the bus system, which carries at least five times more trips. Thus, BMRCL’s “Namma” is not even inclusive of the majority of Begulurians. Working class and lower middle class section of the city will not be able to afford this service, rather, a section of middle class and upper middle class would be its market. To capture this market, Namma Metro, which is built upon the sweat and blood of migrant workers, is a venture to make massive profits for the foreign investments.

Moreover, according to the EIA Report (August 2017), a total of 838 households will be affected by Namma Metro project. Based on the average household size of city it is estimated that about 3890 persons will be affected by the Project. The loss of livelihood estimated under the project is 1045. A study published in EPW shows that out of 223 households of Basaveshwara Nagar and Jai Bheema Nagar slums, who were displaced by this project in 2007-08, 151 households got the “rehabilitation package”. For the displaced households, the access to multiple employment opportunities they had in the city were lost due to forced relocation. The paper states that: “access to facilities such as education, healthcare, and markets became difficult due to relocation, forcing women to spend more to avail these, thereby impoverishing them further. Hence, one can state that spatial relocation only reinforces the economic and social marginalisation of poor urban women by curtailing their economic mobility. Moreover, any changes in the location caused by developmental activities, such as the metro project (infrastructure), perpetuates spatial inequality.”

To sum-up, this non-inclusive “Namma” metro project on one hand excludes the majority of the people staying in Bengaluru and on the other hand creates a playground for super-exploitation of the migrant workers constructing it. Because of a conscious effort by the neoliberal regime to break the backbone of agriculture, farmers are forced to migrate to cities in order to sustain themselves. Rural unemployed farmers are transformed into “reserve army” of cheap labour in the cities to be conveniently super-exploited by the foreign and domestic capital. Hopping from cities to cities in search of work, they are left with a precarious and unstable environment which restricts them from getting organized under trade unions. Being strongly attached with farming and their villages possibly gives them some sense of security in their majorly uncertain occupation of construction work.

However, they spend most of their time in cities getting exploited by the corporates and thekedars. Therefore, there is a good possibility of organizing them in the cities. The demands of better living conditions, minimum wage, benefits like PF and ESI, safety measures from work related hazards, would constitute the core issues. In a long term, demand of providing the social welfare benefits under BOCW as a right and putting its onus on the employer should also be taken up. Movement has to be directed against the companies (contractor) and BMRCL. Thekedars are another entity who act as the agents of exploitation for the corporates. These middle men eat up a section of earnings of the workers without putting in any labour.  Movements in the demand of reducing their commission should also be thought of in long term. However, with all of this said, we will face two main challenges while organizing this section of construction workers, especially, workers working in such megaprojects. Firstly, the duration of stay in one location of these workers are extremely low. They tend to stay for 6-8 months in one labour camp and then mostly go back to their villages. While they come back to the cities, there is a high possibility of the change in the location of work and stay. The project he’s working on might change, or the site of work might change, or, a lot of time they shift to a different city altogether. Thus, coordination with organizations in different cities and villages, to keep in touch with the workers might be helpful. Secondly, the workers are so much bonded with the thekedars, as described previously, that even though they are discontent, it becomes difficult for them to act on it at this stage. However, we have to think of ways to overcome these challenges and devise tactics to organize them. Also, with the impact of working class movements intensifying in other sectors, objective conditions of this section getting organized will become more favourable.

Author is a based in Bangalore and works with migrant workers. The article was first published in Workers Resistance. 

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