Garbage segregators in India often have to migrate in search of work. Many in Bangalore, India, also face constant harassment from the police and local residents, often facing eviction from informal settlements if they can’t afford to pay bribes.
On a Sunday morning, a dozen young children gathered in a small, tin shed with plastic sheets for a roof and no flooring.
This is an informal school for children of all ages near the Hebbal locality in north Bangalore, India, taught by college-aged volunteers. But not much studying happens amid laughter, giggles and chaos.
Children who live here also attend formal government-run schools — but not regularly — because they move frequently to new places when their parents, who collect and segregate trash, have to migrate in constant search of work.
Most of the children came from villages in the eastern state of West Bengal, where their parents say they can not find decent-paying work. Although migrant waste pickers earn more in larger cities, they also face constant harassment from the police and local residents.
College students volunteer to teach children at an informal school in Bangalore, India. Photo Credit: Raksha Kumar for The World.
Agents who arrange migrants’ work set up small tin sheds on a large, open field for the families. Police say the flimsy homes were constructed illegally and on government land, so they periodically evict the tenants. The residents say the police will sometimes take bribes to let them stay, which many can not afford.
Waste pickers in north Bangalore separate trash to make a living. Photo Credit: Raksha Kumar for The World.
“With the minimum income they are earning from this, they are having to again pay the police to stay here in these tin sheds,” said Saniya Nourin, who volunteers at the school.
“But, those who are targeted are the ones who speak Bengali, and those who are Muslim,” said Maggie Paul, a scholar from the University of Adelaide who has been documenting Bengali migrants in India.
Bengali migrant Salmina Sheikh came from a village near the city of Kolkata a year ago to rejoin her husband, who makes about $120 a month by selling segregated waste to nearby recycling plants.
“We need this money for our children, we can barely give them nutritious food in our village.”Salmina Sheikh, mother and resident of informal settlement in Bangalore
Salmina Sheikh, who is six months pregnant and has a 2-year-old daughter, said they need the money for their children. “We can barely give them nutritious food in our village,” she said while cooking on an open fire outside her mud hut.
She added that staying in their village means there would be no money left for her children’s education. She said the police sometimes take away their money or phones — the police have denied this.
Salmina Sheikh sits with her toddler inside her home in an informal settlement in Bangalore, India. Photo Credit: Raksha Kumar for The World.
The Indian state of West Bengal shares a history, culture and language with neighboring Bangladesh. It’s difficult to differentiate Muslims from West Bengal and those from Bangladesh since they all speak Bengali. And many Indian migrants say they are being harassed merely for being Muslim.
“We all have documents to prove that we are Indian citizens,” said Saeeb Sheikh, a local agent who is not related to Salmina Sheikh. He receives a commission for bringing migrant workers from the poorer regions of West Bengal to Bangalore.
Homes in this informal settlement in Bangalore, India, are made of tin and plastic sheets. Photo Credit: Raksha Kumar for The World.
A 27-year-old agent who asked not to be named to avoid trouble with authorities admitted that some workers from Bangladesh are paid less than workers from India.
Since 2019, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected for the second term, his party has spoken out against those they call “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh.
Home Minister Amit Shah has also addressed the media on the issue several times.
“We will not let even one illegal immigrant stay in the country,” Shah said. He has even used derogatory names to describe Bangladeshi immigrants.
Scholar Maggie Paul said that this is an ageold narrative — Muslims from neighboring countries taking away land, jobs and resources —that ultimately galvanizes votes. She traces the issue back to the British division of the subcontinent into Hindu-dominated India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
Karnataka, the capital of Bangalore, will go to the polls in about two weeks to elect a state assembly. Many candidates are seeking votes by claiming they will rid the city of illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
Trash segregators in Bangalore, India, pile up glass bottles to one side as they separate waste. Photo Credit: Raksha Kumar for The World.
“I get WhatsApp messages congratulating me on my work in removing these Muslim migrants,” said a Karnataka politician who asked not to be named because he has not been cleared by his party to speak to the media.
Paul said that harassment by the authorities serves a two-fold purpose: politicians get electoral gains and migrant labor becomes all the more vulnerable and open to exploitation.
And, in a country ruled by a Hindu nationalist party, their Muslim religion pushes them toward maximum vulnerability, said author and researcher Govind Kelkar.
The People’s Union for Civil Liberties filed a case in January 2020 in the Karnataka High Court challenging an eviction of a settlement in Bangalore. The following month, the court asked the government to provide alternate housing arrangements and compensate the migrants monetarily for losses caused by evictions.
High-rises seen from a waste pickers colony in north Bangalore, India. Photo Credit: Raksha Kumar for The World.
Ravi Nair, with the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center, a New Delhi-based nonprofit, explained it this way:
“If the government resorts to large-scale deportation of Bangladeshi climate and economic migrants, the waste collection, sanitation and scavenging sector would collapse in all major Indian cities.”
Published in The World
Published on April 18, 2023
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