By the time this story appears, the 60 Bangladeshi labourers, who were arrested in city-wide raids on Saturday (October 26) morning, would have spent more than 48 hours in police custody. Among them are 22 women and nine children.
Police commissioner Bhaskar Rao has made it clear in his statements to the media that they will not be produced before a magistrate as per standard Indian law.
It is not clear if Article 22 of the Constitution — which says that every arrested person has the right to choose his or her lawyer and to be produced before a magistrate — applies to the foreigners who are now in police custody.
Human rights lawyers who tried to meet the Bangladeshis on Sunday (October 28) with the hope of representing them were prevented by the police. Activists were also in a quandary as filing cases of illegal detention against the police would only start a long court process. Going by the law would extend the incarceration of the arrested women, men and children.
A senior police source told The Federal that the plan is for the Border Security Force (BSF) to hand them over to Bangladeshi authorities without mentioning that they were arrested in Bengaluru. “They will make the paperwork look like they were caught crossing the border illegally and were being handed back,” the source said, “It is just a manipulation of the arrest dates, pretty routine.”
The officer also argued that it would be a just and humane thing to do. “If we file a case and produce them before a magistrate, they might be in detention for months or years,” he said.
The relatives of those arrested also refused to engage a lawyer for the fear of being arrested themselves. “I am willing to sell everything I have and pay the police. My daughter and son-in-law have been arrested along with their toddler,” said a man who spoke to The Federal at one of the shanties where the raids were conducted. He had managed to run away when the police swooped down.
Meanwhile, the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) is in the process of interrogating the detainees to ascertain their exact address in Bangladesh. According to police sources, they are being asked to call their families in Bangladesh and get them to receive them at the border.
The humanitarian crisis
The Federal accompanied a group of garbage contractors on Sunday as they travelled across the city to reassure undocumented Bangladeshis who run small garbage segregation units from the campsites where they live.
These contractors purchase segregated waste from the Bangladeshis. Some contractors buy shoe soles, some buy plastic bottles and so on which they sell to processing units for upcycling. The contractors say it is a multi-million dollar industry; there are at least 72 items on demand in the recycling market and the list is growing by the day, thanks to what some observers are calling the ‘Greta Thunberg phenomenon’.
The Bangladeshis are the backbone of the industry. If they leave, the contractors’ business will crash along with the entire recycling sector. Large manufacturing units that generate tons of solid waste will be gutted. What’s more, the city will turn into a dumpster within hours.
The Bangladeshis we met were worried, but they were also seething with anger. “Why is the police hunting us like animals? If they want us to leave, we will leave. Just give us some time,” said Md. Ismael, 42 who lives in a camp near the Rachenhalli Lake.
The Bangladeshis said they failed to see the point in the early morning raids. “The police know where we live. They have been collecting daily protection money from us ever since we landed here five years ago. What is this drama of surprise raids?” asked one man who requested anonymity.
“The tiger (motorbike patrol) collects ₹100 to ₹150 daily from each camp and the Hoysala (SUV patrol) collects ₹200 every alternate day from each jhuggi (camp),” the man said. Every one of the Bangladeshis we met across the city confirmed that the local police collect daily protection money from them.
These camps are usually a ring of tarpaulin, tin and cardboard tents that are built around a central square where the garbage is piled up for segregation. Some camps have only around five tents with entire families living inside. Some camps have as many as a hundred tents.
They said such surprise raids lead to families getting torn apart and threaten the safety of the women and the children. “Many of those in police custody have relatives outside who have gone into hiding,” said Md. Rafiul Islam. “Husbands have been separated from their wives, children from their parents. This is no way to treat us after all the work we have done for the city,” he rued.
One Bangladeshi man, who has been living in the city for 15 years, was also unhappy with the comments made by the police commissioner in the media about them. “The commissioner said that we have air-conditioners, washing machines, fridges, and TVs. Of course, we do have many things. But they are all picked off the garbage and not bought from showrooms,” he said, “It doesn’t mean we are rich and prosperous.”
While they didn’t want to antagonize the police, the people in the camps spoke boldly about their human rights. “My son is studying in Class 10. Just give us a few months till he finishes his exams. We will leave,” says said Md. Farouk, 47.
A disturbing trend during the visits was how many people complained of health issues ranging from cancers to respiratory diseases and communicable diseases such as typhoid, dengue, and malaria.
No proper medical survey has ever been conducted in these camps but it would not be far-fetched to say that the hazardous working conditions could be a factor. After all, they collect recyclable materials from heaps of festering garbage without any protective equipment.
The contractors said that whenever there is a health problem with any of the Bangladeshis, they take them to charitable hospitals run by Christian missionaries. “We can’t take them to private hospitals because they are too expensive. We can’t take them to government hospitals because they have no documentation,” said one of the contractors.
An embarrassment for both India and Bangladesh
One thing that became clear during the visits was that the presence of Bangladeshis in the city is no secret. The police know about them down to the last campsite and so do officials of the city’s civic authority, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP).
Their vulnerability is exploited not just by the police, who extort protection money, but also by the BBMP as well as the dozens of solid waste management companies and NGOs who live off Bangladeshi labourers.
As subsequent stories in The Federal will show, the Bangladeshi rag-pickers do not get paid for their labour. The BBMP hires contractors who in-turn hire Bangladeshis to do the final leg of the work in the solid waste management industry. They pick up the rubbish, load them into their trucks and take it to their camps. Things of value are then sorted and the rest is then taken to landfills.
The BBMP pays the contractors for the labour but the contractors don’t pay the laborers anything. The Bangladeshi laborers are contracted to go around the city in mini-trucks collecting garbage for the BBMP from dumpsters. They are expected to own the trucks and pay for the fuel even though the BBMP pays the contractors ₹50,000 per month, per truck which includes wages, fuel, and maintenance of the vehicles.
The political climate, which has led to the recent police raids, was laden with talk of national security and Bangladeshis being potential terrorists. For years, BJP leaders such as PC Mohan, Aravinda Limbavali and Tejaswi Surya as well as Congress leaders such as G Parameshwara and Ramalinga Reddy have been raising the issue of illegal Bangladeshis in the state.
The issue is now heating up as there is tremendous pressure from the BJP government at the Centre to oust undocumented Bangladeshis, said a senior police officer attached to the state intelligence.
Importantly, this is the first time in decades that the same party which is in power in Karnataka is also in power at the Centre, the officer said and added, “There will be dozens of raids across the state now as Union Home Minister (Amit Shah) and the state home minister (Basavaraj Bommai) are both very serious about this issue.”
The fact that seems to have been overlooked in the melee is that the city administration and vicariously India owes these Bangladeshis their salaries. “They haven’t been paid in years and are owed several hundred crores of rupees even as they are being called infiltrators,” said one of the contractors who purchases plastic bottles from the Bangladeshis. “At least because of us they make some money. The BBMP contractors don’t pay them anything. They are actually doing government work,” he added.
The unfolding crisis is an embarrassment not just for India — in whose economy and fragile ecology these Bangladeshis play a crucial role — but also for Bangladesh itself.
Many of the Bangladeshi workers who spoke to The Federal complained that there were no jobs back home. Salma Begum, one of the arrested women who spoke to The Federal at the Banaswadi police station said, “Let the Bangladesh government see what is happening to us and feel ashamed. In Bangladesh, the government only works for the rich. There is no money to be made for poor people like us.”