Stranded migrants asked to work at construction sites

An Indian state on Wednesday halted trains taking stranded migrant labourers home so that work on construction sites could restart, a move widely condemned as amounting to forced labour.

Authorities in Karnataka cancelled 10 trains for migrant workers as the chief minister appealed to them to stay, saying construction projects halted due to a coronavirus lockdown would resume.

The trains were to run from Bengaluru to different northern states this week. But the state government requested the railways to cancel them, virtually locking in thousands of labourers from Bihar, Bengal and Uttar Pradesh desperate to go home.

"We have sent around 100,000 people in 3,500 buses and trains back to their home towns. I have also appealed to migrant workers to stay as the construction work has resumed now," Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa said.

He also announced a Rs1,600 crore relief package for those in distress because of the lockdown, including construction workers.

Registered construction workers - many of whom are migrants - will get Rs3,000 each in addition to the Rs 2,000 they received earlier.

Many of India's estimated 100 million migrant workers were left stranded with no food, shelter or income when the Central government imposed the world's biggest lockdown to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus in the country of 1.3 billion people.

Some walked long distances home after the lockdown was imposed in late March, but others were hoping to get back to their villages on special buses and trains arranged since last week.

"We registered at the local police station, were promised a train ticket and now suddenly everything has been cancelled," said electrician Rakesh Kumar Yadav, 22, in Karnataka's capital Bengaluru. "I have told my contractor that I will not return to work because I am scared of contracting the disease. Right now, I just want to go home (to Bihar)."

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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