“One second, let me just give them the order number,” Salim said, reading out the Swiggy order number he had to pick up from the restaurant.
Salim is one of the 16 Muslim men who were removed from their jobs at the Bengaluru South Zone Covid war room on May 5, soon after BJP MP Tejasvi Surya had barged in, read out their names, and them of being involved in a bed scam allocation scam. Another Muslim man whose name Surya had not read out was removed as well.
On May 10, exactly one month ago, the Hindutva leader held a to clarify that he didn’t regret his communal allegations.
The same day, the municipal body BBMP, which runs the war room, announced that since the police hadn’t found any evidence against the Muslim men, they would be immediately .
All of this happened when Bengaluru was reeling from the second wave of the pandemic, with the city recording nearly from April 1 to May 31. The South Zone war room was one of , each manned by over 200 people, set up across the city to help those looking for hospital beds for Covid patients.
Yet, over a week days after the BBMP’s announcement, Newslaundry found that the 17 men were still .
A month on, while Bengaluru is slowly recovering from the second wave, not much has changed for most of these men.
Neither the BBMP nor Crystal Infosystem, the private agency hired by the municipal body to staff its Covid war rooms, would disclose the exact number of men who had been reinstated. We found that not more than three have got their jobs back.
Asked why all 17 men haven’t been reinstated, Veerabhadra Swamy, BBMP joint commissioner, said they have downsized the war rooms. “From 224 staffers each, we have cut down to 60 staffers,” he said. “I can’t remember who all have got their jobs back.”
Five people who worked in the same war room as the Muslim men confirmed that on April 27 and 28, as new coronavirus cases came down in Bengaluru, close to 100 staffers were let go. Of these five persons, three were asked to resign and two chose to quit on their own.
The former staffers said how the war room functioned changed after the raid by Surya and his fellow BJP leaders. Records were kept of all activities and the staffers weren’t allowed personal calls, even during break time. The bed allocation system, they added, was taken over entirely by doctors.
On May 22, Shivu Naik, a Crystal infosystem manager who had hired all the 17 men, said they had . This wasn’t true at all.
A month later, he told Newslaundry he had personally called all the men and asked them to return to their jobs. “Some said they have got other jobs, some wanted to go for higher education and some did not want to work in other war rooms,” he claimed.
Why then did he claim on May 22 that all the men were back at work? Naik did not respond.
So, how many of the men had actually got their jobs back? “We have 700 employees,” he replied, “how can I keep track of 17 men?”
Did 700 people lose their jobs? No, 17 men did, and even though Naik said he’d been keeping track of them, he seemed to have no idea if they had their jobs back or not.
Of the 17 men, Newslaundry spoke to six last month. Only Salim has got his job back, but not in the same war room. Instead of the South Zone war room, where he worked for over 10 months before being thrown out, he was posted to the East Zone war room, 12 km from where he lives.
“I have a bike but usually I don’t have enough money for petrol,” he said.
Since he’d no choice but to take up the job at a distant war room, Salim found a solution to afford the travel expenses. “I work two jobs. With the war room and with Swiggy,” he explained.
He works from 10 am to 4 pm at the war room and from 6 pm to 11 pm as a food deliveryman for Swiggy. This means he works 13 hours a day, seven days a week. “If I work five hours for Swiggy, I make Rs 300 with which I can pay for petrol and go to the war room,” he said.
He saves about Rs 100 a day, Salim said. “I have to pay the rent for my parents in Andhra Pradesh. I need to save more for my sister’s education, her marriage and my parent’s healthcare. I’m becoming desperate,” he added.
Meanwhile, the other five men we spoke with are still looking for work.
Contradicting Naik, Zakir told Newslaundry he had been regularly calling the manager to enquire about his job. “Everyday he keeps telling us to wait two days. Don’t we have to eat food and pay rent? They removed us for no fault and now we’re suffering,” he said.
After waiting for over two weeks to get back his job, Nadeem decided to leave Bengaluru and go back to his village in Bihar. “Things have changed in Bengaluru. It does not feel safe for me anymore. I have come home for some time and will work on the field with my father,” he said. “I need some time before I can think of my future again. I don’t feel safe anywhere anymore.”
Sajid is now in Mumbai. “My family wanted me to stay away from Bengaluru for some time. I am now staying with my brother and looking for a job here,” he said.
‘Should I beg for my salary?’
Salim is yet to receive his salary for the month of May. “They keep telling me to wait,” he said, referring to Naik.
The other five men said Crystal Infosystem had paid some of their pending dues, not the full amount.
Zahid, who worked with the BBMP for 11 days, has received Rs 2,000. He was owed nearly Rs 5,000.
Sajid was owed about Rs 4,000 but received only Rs 2,000. Zakir got Rs 4,000 rupees instead of Rs 6,200.
“We speak to each other and try to call Shivu Naik. For us even 500 rupees less makes a huge difference. He keeps avoiding us and acts like he did us a favor by even giving us a little money,” said one of the men.
Ayesha Shaikh, who lost her job in the war room for standing up for the 17 Muslim men, hasn’t been paid her pending dues in full either. In spite of multiple enquiries and complaints, she claimed, the hiring agency, Crystal Infosystem, hasn’t even given her the appointment letter.
“When they pay us, they keep saying they are cutting money for Provident Fund and other things but where is this PF money? And why can’t they give us an appointment letter or the contract?” she asked.
The Whatsapp group of the South Zone war room is full of complaints and requests of multiple staffers to Shivu Naik, demanding payment.
Asked about this, Naik claimed that all the 17 men have been paid their work’s worth.
Apart from the 17 Muslim workers, two other men who worked in the war room were arrested and held in judicial custody for over a month after Surya’s raid – nodal officer Dr Rehan Shahid and data operator Shashi Kumar who were accused of being involved in the bed allocation scam. They both got from a Bengaluru court on June 3.
The court that the Bengaluru police were yet to present any material evidence against the men. The court also noted that the men had been falsely implicated because of “political and extraneous reasons”.
When Newslaundry contacted Rehan Shahid, he said, “I just came out of jail. I need some time before making any decisions about working or speaking to the media. I don’t know if I still have my job or not. Right now, I’m spending time with my family.”
Surya’s team refused to respond to any of our queries.
Ritika Chauhan contributed reporting.
Names of the Muslim men have been changed to ensure confidentiality.