“Better ward-level governance could have saved Bengaluru’s migrant workers during lockdown”

As per law, Disaster Management Cells in each ward would have been responsible for providing services to migrant workers during lockdown. But thanks to the apathy of authorities, these Cells weren't even set up initially and still remain ineffective.

“Hum Corona se nahi, bhook se marenge!”  (“I’ll not die of Corona, but will definitely die of hunger!”). This is the poignant cry of many migrant workers left without work, wages and food in labour camps across Bengaluru during the COVID-19 lockdown.

After the endless wait for trains to their hometowns as well as the State’s failed promise to deliver them food/ration kits, migrant labourers preferred to walk more than 1000 km home, carrying their elderly, children and meagre belongings. It shows their desperation, as no one, if they had enough to eat, would have embarked on such journeys.

One important aspect of this governance failure, at least in Karnataka’s big cities, has been the lack of activation of decentralised, institutionalised structures at the grassroots level to identify and meet the needs of all vulnerable people. Officials and elected representatives had lost sight of the fact that Section 6(8) of the Ward Committee Rules of Karnataka mandate the formation of Ward Disaster Management Cells (WDMCs).

The National Disaster Management Act (NDMA) also holds local bodies responsible for delivering services in times of disaster. For example, in Kerala, state government put the onus on panchayats to launch a dedicated phone number and deliver cooked food at the doorstep of anybody who dials the number. The State took extensive measures to ensure that no one would starve during the lockdown.

Experts are attributing Kerala’s success in both controlling the epidemic and in meeting citizens’ needs, to its vibrant local bodies at the grassroots level. In Kerala, all 941 panchayats have 200 volunteers each, 87 municipalities have 500 volunteers and six corporations have 750 volunteers each. There is a sub-ward-level committee for every 200 houses. These committees make personal enquiries to ensure that those quarantined are insulating themselves; they also collect information on elderly persons and those at risk.

No ward-level interventions in Bengaluru

In contrast, here in Bengaluru, the BBMP Council didn’t even meet to discuss its responsibilities under the NDMA either before or after the lockdown announcement. The Council met only 15 days after lockdown. 

Even then, it did not invoke the Ward Committee Rules regarding the setting up of WDMCs. No mandatory responsibilities were given to the councillors (or ward committees) on fighting the pandemic or serving the poor. No responsibilities were fixed for WDMCs, which anyway hadn’t even been constituted at the time.

In the absence of the WDMCs, migrants have been begging for food and rations, which is depriving them of their dignity.  As a study by the social welfare organisation ‘Naavu Bharateeyaru’ documented, one migrant had this to say: “Let us stop asking for food and rations. Once what we have gets over, it is more dignified if we just die. Yes, people come and take our names and numbers and go. But we never hear back from them. We must have just become another number and name to be recorded in their registers.”

The Naavu Bharateeyaru study arrived at the following conclusions:

  • The ration kits disappeared without a trace, thanks to local corporators/MLAs who appropriated them for their own constituencies (vote-banks).
  • The State has not been able to reach food to vast numbers of vulnerable citizens.

There is absolute lack of clarity within the BBMP on procedures for surveying workers, for verification and food distribution. There is total lack of transparency and willingness to work with trade unions and NGOs. Weeks are taken to identify “beneficiaries” even after diverse organisations give detailed lists.

One MLA ensured that his photo was put on ration kits that the Labour Department distributed using funds from the Construction Workers’ Welfare Board – money which was not even the government’s, as it was contributed by employers and belonged to the workers. There’ve also been instances of some corporators refusing to give ration kits to some persons because they were not their voters or were “outsiders”.

Clearly, without transparency and the oversight of WDMCs, the benefits were distributed in a partisan manner based on caste, religion, language, state of origin, etc. This could be the reason for elected representatives’ lack of interest in activating the statutorily-required WDMCs.

WDMCs set up after court orders, but ineffective

In mid-April, we, at the non-profit CIVIC, wrote to the BBMP Commissioner that it was BBMP’s duty to have constituted WDMCs as soon as the lockdown was announced. We pointed this out to the Chief Secretary and the State-level Disaster Management Committee’s sub-committee in charge of Welfare as well. But none of them responded.

Meanwhile, in the PIL WP 6435/2020, the High Court had been questioning BBMP on the measures it took to provide shelter, food, medicines, etc to migrant workers and the homeless during lockdown. The Court expressed its disappointment over the reports submitted by the state government and BBMP, and lamented that no “organised and systematic efforts” were made to identify these groups.

Noting these, we, at the non-profit CIVIC, wrote to the Chief Justice that if only the institutionalised WDMCs had been set up, they could have identified the needy in every ward and provided credible data to the Court. CIVIC prayed that the Court order BBMP to set up WDMCs immediately. 

The court sought the government’s response to our email on April 24.  As a result, BBMP Zonal Commissioners set up WDMCs in every ward through a circular on April 26, spelling out their roles and responsibilities, and asking them to meet every Monday.  

As per these circulars, WDMCs would comprise the councillor (chairperson), all members as well as the Member-Secretary of ward committees, representatives of the concerned AROs, AEEs, Medical Officer, AEE (SWM), Station House Officer at the local police station, doctor at the local PHC, BESCOM engineer, BWSSB engineer and a local RWA representative.

And WDMCs’ responsibilities include:

  • ensuring that those quarantined remain isolated, and that buffer zones and containment zones are enforced
  • ensuring social distancing is maintained in front of all markets, shops and Indira Canteens
  • making arrangements for delivery of food, ration kits, masks, fruits and vegetables to the needy
  • arranging shelters for the needy in nearby marriage halls/hotels/lodges
  • ensuring that all instructions and orders are followed carefully
  • conducting meetings every Monday
  • Member-Secretary to report resolutions passed by the meeting to BBMP

In another circular on April 29, BBMP Commissioner added that WDMCs should ensure landlords weren’t forcing migrant tenants to pay rent or to vacate premises. If such incidents occurred, WDMCs should take action with the help of the local police, the circular said.

However, neither circulars required WDMCs to conduct surveys to create a database of the vulnerable labourers and the homeless in their wards, or put the data in public domain or furnish it to HC, which is what was intended in the HC’s order

If every ward had a helpline and a database of migrant workers, publicised on BBMP’s website, any citizen could have pointed out cases of the needy or homeless being left out. Those in need could have also called the helpline if they hadn’t received benefits. Even the State Planning Secretary, Dr Shalini Rajneesh, admitted during a webinar on May 21, that citizens were confused by the multiple helplines, and that some helplines set up at state level were often overwhelmed by the demand and broke down.

Activists too have pointed out that the helplines were often unreachable or unresponsive as the demand on them was huge. But if there was a helpline in every ward, the demand would be lesser and the responsiveness better.

In the mean time, MUKTI Alliance to End Bonded Labour & Human Trafficking, of which CIVIC is a core committee member, sent suggestions to the CM, CS, ACS-UD, BBMP Commissioner, etc on the tasks of WDMCs. It was thereafter that Capt. Manivannan, the then-Labour Secretary, issued a circular directing that surveys be conducted to identify and create a database of all construction and migrant workers in each ward.

Are WDMCs helping out migrant workers now?

Despite HC’s order that WDMCs be constituted, they have not been formed in several wards, or have largely remained on paper, as several active citizens point out. In Facebook exchanges, Sunita Kumar complained that she “had not seen or heard of the ward corporator even before the lockdown”.

Prabha Dev pointed out that there was total ignorance of the Rules under which WDMCs have to be constituted. Now would also have been the right moment to give ward committees more force. “If not now, then when?” she questions.

Some wards like Jakkur and New Thippasandra have been conducting the Monday meetings, whereas Nagawara ward conducted the meeting only after being pushed by a ward committee member Mohd. Ibrahim. He questioned why BBMP was distributing only a few hundred ration kits when the ward had more than 6,000 needy persons.

A ward committee meeting in Shanthi Nagar in pre-COVID times. Many wards never even conducted these routine meetings, and now most have not set up WDMCs. File pic: Rekha Chari

Umeshbabu Pillegowda, a resident of Jakkur ward, says a great beginning has been made in his ward by including members of the general public in the WDMC. A meeting attended by all 40 WDMC members analysed the situation and decided to map those awaiting food and rations. Subsequently, ration kits were arranged by the councillor for distribution. “It’s a small beginning but there’s still a long way to go,” he says.

It is only when citizens start questioning the absence of WDMCs that we can expect the vulnerable to be serviced humanely and with dignity during the pandemic. Else, nothing will prevent the mass exodus of lakhs of migrants who feel forsaken and are disenchanted with the inhuman treatment they are receiving in the cities they helped build with their sweat and toil.

Also Read:
How ward committees can help Bengaluru handle COVID-19 better

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