Life for Bangladeshi waste pickers in Bengaluru appears to have become like the plastic and paper scraps they collect from the city’s dumps: used and thrown. The city they saved from decay is now disposing them.
A fortnight ago, the police, under pressure from the state and central BJP governments, arrested 60 undocumented Bangladeshi waste pickers — including women and children — from shanties across the city and announced that they will be deported without a trial.
Vowing to conduct more such raids, Bhaskar Rao, the police commissioner, also warned of criminal action against anybody found employing or sheltering Bangladeshis.
The police crackdown was celebrated widely in the local and national media as a step toward safeguarding the nation against illegal intruders. The arrests, combined with threats from police and the uncritical media coverage, set off a frenzy with zealous citizens resorting to vigilante-style action to chase Bangladeshis from the city.
Schools started expelling Bengali Muslim students suspected of being Bangladeshi.
Apartment complexes and resident welfare associations started sacking Bengali Muslim housekeeping staff. Control rooms of the civic authority, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), and the police started receiving a flood of calls from citizens claiming to have spotted illegal Bangladeshis.
As more people joined the ‘hunt’, thousands of Bangladeshi labourers started fleeing the city. According to their labour contractors, a few have left for neighbouring non-BJP ruled states such as Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, where they feel they would be relatively safer.
Most, the contractors said, packed into unreserved compartments of trains headed for West Bengal from where they plan to migrate back to Bangladesh.
Foreigners have no human rights
As this humanitarian crisis unfolded, human rights lawyers and activists struggled to explain why the Bangladeshis deserve to be treated better. They couldn’t even question the extrajudicial detention of 60 Bangladeshis because stressing on legal processes would only extend their imprisonment.
Legally, it appears to be a dead end. Unlike in Assam, where millions have challenged the government’s claim that they are Bangladeshis, the people arrested in Bengaluru candidly admitted that they are from across the border. A few Bengali Muslims from West Bengal who were wrongly arrested were, in fact, swiftly released by the police.
As reported by The Federal earlier, Bangladeshis living in the city are open about their nationality. In fact, as reported in these articles, the police have been regularly visiting Bangladeshi settlements to allegedly collect protection money from them.
The only reason the police are not arresting people by thousands, according to senior officials, is because they do not have adequate holding facilities. They are content with conducting regular raids that will ensure that the Bangladeshi exodus from the city continues.
Garbage contractors alleged to this news website that in many areas the police have extorted large sums of money from Bangladeshis who aren’t able to pack-up and flee on a day’s notice. There are also those Bangladeshis who were born in India and have lost contact with their relatives on the other side. They are stateless people, neither Indian nor Bangladeshi, with nowhere to run to.
The contractors say that the police are trying to make as much money as possible before the government tightens the screws even further.
The only thing left, some activists feel, is an appeal to human conscience. But that appears scarce in a city rejoicing the banishment of its most disenfranchised residents. Their only crime is that they are undocumented migrants in a city full of documented migrants from across the world.
We are all complicit
The nexus between human traffickers, the Border Security Force (BSF) and the police is an open secret. And yet, no major investigation has ever been ordered into the role of security agencies at the border or in this city.
It’s some travesty that the Bangladeshis have to suffer the indignity of folding-up and running like criminals while the city that committed injustices against them rejoices.
The Bangladeshis were hired in Bengaluru because they were willing to do the jobs that nobody else would. With their bare hands and at great risk to their health, they sorted through tons of our festering rubbish that we refused to segregate.
They weren’t provided with any of the legally prescribed safety gear for such hazardous work. According to Indian law, this constitutes manual scavenging. If they were Indian, the contractors who employed them could have been booked under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers Act which describes manual scavenging as a “dehumanising practice”.
For millennia, the most marginalised Dalit castes were forced to perform this task which was accorded to them by religious scriptures. In Bengaluru, Telugu speaking Madigas did this dirty work for the BBMP until as recently as a decade ago.
Most of the Madigas who did manual scavenging for the BBMP have moved on to the comparatively better job of sweeping the streets. As Indians, they have been able to organise and agitate for fair and prompt wages. In their stead, the BBMP’s contractors started hiring Bangladeshi Muslims.
Beyond the narrow prism of law, it says something about our society that human beings are still required to collect the decomposing refuse of other human beings. Their very existence makes us all complicit in a crime against humanity whether Indian law recognizes it or not.
Pay them and treat them with dignity
One specious argument forwarded by contractors, companies and NGOs involved in the multi-million dollar garbage segregation industry of the city is that the Indian government should be pressured to grant work visas to the Bangladeshi waste pickers. At present, India grants work visas only to “highly skilled” professionals whose annual salary must be in excess of $25,000 (nearly ₹18 lakh) per year.
The approach of the NGOs, companies and contractors is guided by the perverted logic that that somebody has to do the dirty work.
This city owes the Bangladeshis not just human dignity but also hard cash. As a recent report in The Federal showed, BBMP’s garbage contractors have never paid Bangladeshis for their work. But the contractors have been raising bills in their names with the BBMP running into hundreds of crores.
Given the dubious history of the civic agency, the involvement of government officials in this scam cannot be ruled out.
Surely, the zealots cheering and participating in the witch-hunt against Bangladeshi labourers wouldn’t want India to be known as the country that cheated poor labourers of their wages. After having extracted the worst form of labour from them, without even paying for it, the least India can do is to offer the Bangladeshis a less humiliating exit.
The Bangladeshis we met in the midst of this chaos were understandably panicky. But even in their fear they remained dignified and proud that they had worked hard to earn a living. The one sentiment they all expressed was outrage at being hunted down in this fashion.
Nothing prevents human rights activists from starting a campaign to shame the city corporation into paying the Bangladeshis their dues, shame the police for their corruption, and shame the city’s residents for their casual indifference towards those who clean up after them.
Indeed, every attempt by the city’s administration and its residents to assume the high moral ground on this issue needs to be exposed for its hypocrisy.
The present tactic of surprise raids by the police is scattering families and threatening the safety of women and children. Women have been separated from their partners, children from their parents, and the aged and infirm from their caregivers. These atrocities are going unchecked even as hate-mongering against Bangladeshis reaches a feverish pitch.
These may be dangerous times to come out openly in protest against the anti-immigrant policies of the BJP government. Such attempts can easily be attacked as anti-national activities.
But that shouldn’t stop civil society from exploring the possibility of backchannel negotiations with the administration to ensure safe passage for Bangladeshis who are willing to go back. Are we going to just watch as families are torn up and cast into the wind like scraps of plastic and paper?