Tonight I scribble from my angry city:
Less than 7 km from where I live in Bangalore, at the bustling Jalahalli Cross off National Highway 4, a Karnataka state transport bus burned this afternoon - sending up toxic black embers, almost engulfing the Tumkur Road flyover right above it.
Chances are, like me, you too watched this image on loop on your tv set, live, nonstop on Kannada channels and every few minutes on some national ones. This a day after the same city of ours had a 10-hour block on the Bangalore-Mysore highway yesterday on the other extreme side called Hosur Road (the one that leads to the Electronic City, which houses Infosys, Wipro and other global IT majors et al).
This is the first time in all my years in Bangalore, as aam junta and later as journalist, that I have seen something that has even remotely united 'hitech' Ecity with 'poor cousin' Peenya on the polar opposite direction. And the uniter is a sad one: Garment workers protesting against the new PF rules that were brought in by Jaitley/Modi Government that prevents people from withdrawing their EPF share, until they turn 58.
To put things in perspective - and to answer a few friends who Whatsapped me this evening, "Why only Bangalore? Why only garment workers?" - the city has an estimated 12 lakh workers (some papers say 5lakh) in some 800 garment units.
Garment workers' protest turns violent in Bengaluru for the second consecutive day. Photo Courtesy: Rajshekar, Deccan Herald
The workers are mostly women - migrants pouring into Bangalore to escape a bleak future in their villages, working conditions are near-slavish; sexual exploitation and physical abuse by their managers is almost a given. Leaving behind children either in their homes or back in their villages, the women often stay a dozen to something in a house - more a room with a shared toilet - as cheaply possible, and as closely to their factory.
Years back, I did a ground-report series for the national channel I used to report news for, both on Peenya, that houses by some account one of Asia's largest hub for small medium scale industries and yet has pathetic infrastructure. And a special focus on women in Bangalore's garment factories. Any attempt to talk to owners of these units to get their take, was futile.
My activist-friend Anita Cheria connected me to a few women leaders,who somehow sneaked in my camera-colleague and me to talk to some of the workers (we shot them in silhouette, of course to protect their identities.).
These warehouses for global big brands, and designer wears are just a name for shoddy sweatshops, dingy, crammed, dirty. The garment workers, who work often 14-hour workdays, are not allowed to go to the loo easily, and not certainly without the supervisor (most often, male) yes.
Payment is peanuts. Dignity drops to the absolute minus.
Unions were almost nil - we spoke to labour-law specialists about how even the right to protest is a joke, there are fewer cases in courts, and certainly not because they had nothing to complain about. Maybe that's why when yesterday and today I read, and watched how 'garment workers have brought Bangalore on its knees' my sympathy was still for the inconvenience-causing party.
If I have rambled, let me sum up for you therefore my thoughts on 'why-Bangalore erupted' in a riot, when revised EPF rules should impact the whole country:
- Huge presence of garment-cluster and therefore concentrated impact on a whole big chunk of workforce.
- The PF issue is only the tipping point for anger being built up over years now. And possible greater awareness and who knows, even the courage to mobilise themselves (curious to know if Whatsapp etc played a part, no mean it), and this - despite the risk of losing jobs and livelihood.
- Here is my last point, grouse is real, but the noise - well that's politically-sponsored. Sponsored by whom, to embarrass whom, to pull down who - leave that to be explained by my political journalist friends and analysts!
The sad thing though is that this protest - burning of public property - is futile and with the government now putting the new plans on hold, the workers will have no excuse but to go right back to their pitiable pigeonholes, this time with even fewer chances of escape.
Beware, there is a tear in that designer garment you wearing.
Vasanthi Hariprakash is a radio and television personality and was special correspondent for NDTV 24x7. Connect with Vasanthi at www.vasanthihariprakash.com