Back in home state, but still a long wait for homeUpdated: May 30, 2020 23:19 IST
On a scorching hot May day, four-year-old Bittu is sitting on his mother’s lap while his siblings – seven-year-old Anchal and 10-year-old Uday, play some distance away, unperturbed about where they are or what circumstances landed them there.
On the other side of the room, the children’s father, Santosh Kumar Prasad, joins two other friends from his village, Karan Kumar and Santosh Kumar Ram, to plead with a group of government officials to let them leave the building and go home to their village, 15km away. But their request is turned down.
They are all part of a group of 10 people from Agrawho arrivedin Patnaon May 13 by a Shramik special train and were quarantined at the Radiant School on Danapur-Khagaul road in Patna. Their two-week Covid quarantine finished on May 27, and they are eager to get back to their village of Patlapur.
They worked in carpet factories in Agra but say they hope to never go back. “Life was a struggle during lockdown when everything closed down. After the special trains started, we managed to reach here, but only to land up at the quarantine centre,” said Prasad.
Located on the outskirts of Patna, the quarantine centre is in much better shape than those in rural areas because the possibility of inspections or sudden visits by top officials or politicians is higher. Residents of the centre say the proximity to the seat of power helps in getting their demands of food and basic amenities heard.
.But the confinement is getting to them. “Corona will not kill us. We have seen enough of struggle all our life. Our sweat will drain it out, but there was so much talk about it that we also got concerned about our family,” said Ram.
The centre is housed in a two-storey building inside a sprawling school campus. Nine big rooms on both floors are used for the migrant workers with makeshift partitions for separate families. There are cots available, as are mosquito nets. Open areas such as verandahs contain fans, chairs and benches.
A government official, who did want to be identified, said the quarantine centre was one of the best -managed ones. “Being a private school building cut off from the main road, it has enough space. We had around 150 persons, but now 90 remain. Others were allowed to go after completing their 14-day quarantine. More will be let go,” he said.
There have been some complaints of poor-quality food and lack of supplies, but the official dismisses them. “With everyone having a mobile phone, even one burnt chapatti out of 500 can get us in trouble if it goes viral,” said another official on condition of anonymity.
No outsider is allowed to enter the premises. Security personnel man the front gate in shifts, and have separate places to stay and eat inside the building. There is an earmarked corridor for migrants to talk to the authorities about any health concerns, from a distance.
Three meals are arranged every day, and though the government has fixed a menu, supply constraints force officials to make changes. The workers are given chapati, puri, rice, pulse, tea and biscuits. Officials said they also provided milk to the children.
Usually, every block has two or three quarantine centres. When workers come, their names are registered with their identity documents and mobile phone number. At better-equipped quarantine centres, there is a general health checkup. Elsewhere in rural areas, doctors visit if those having health issues, while serious cases are referred to hospitals. The government has announced health screening of all those staying at quarantine centres.
When they leave after the mandatory quarantine period, they have to sign out to receive ₹1,500 per person as travel assistance in their bank accounts, by the Bihar government to accounts linked with Aadhaar numbers.
On average, the government spends Rs 2,400 per worker to provide a lungi, dhoti, saree, mat, sheets, mosquito net, bucket, jug, sanitary napkins, soap, toothbrush, comb, shampoo, hair oil, a small mirror and food at the centre, said the first official.
Since the lockdown began on March 25, Bihar has received 2.5 million migrant workers – 1.5 million by trains and one million by road -- and built 13,000 quarantine centres to house them. Unlike the Radiant School centre, many of these facilities face flak for allegedly poor arrangements made for the workers.
On May 27, violent protests broke out in Nalanda after poor-quality food was allegedly served to the migrants. On May 14, 88 workers at a quarantine centre in Banka district protested against the food provided to them.
On May 21, workers blocked the road in Khagaria over a lack of basic toilet facilities at the local quarantine centre.
Bihar disaster management principal secretary Pratyaya Amrit said that the massive migrant evacuation exercise was the biggest Bihar had ever witnessed.
“At present around 13,600 block quarantine centres are running. Of nearly 14 lakh people staying there, more than half have completed their quarantine period and returned. Things have been constantly improved, as chief minister Nitish Kumar has clearly said that after all the ordeal the migrants faced, they needed to be taken care of in all possible ways to keep them as well as others safe,” he added.
Back at the Patna centre, the workers say their primary worry is not the quality of facilities but the date on which they would be allowed to go home. Some say they will welcome a temperature screening or Covid swab test if it means going home quicker.
“We have got a lot, but the biggest thing is that we have returned to our state. The government has provided us things we need. Yet, it cannot be home. There has been no medical screening or test. We don’t have any problem. Had tests been done, we would have been able to reach home,” said Sanchit Kumar, who came from Punjab.
The 33-year-old worker spent Rs 4,000 – out of his monthly salary of Rs 18,000 -- to hire a private vehicle with seven other men. He says he is worried about his wife and six children who are in the village, and, for their sake, wouldn’t go backto Punjab.
He is not alone. Jaiveer Kumar and Pankaj Kumar, who both worked in Punjab, say they are determined to stay in their village even if the pay is lower than jobs in other states would pay.
“There is no point going outside. We have seen it all. We will do something - big or small – here only. If we can work outside, why cannot we work here? We hope the government does something concrete for us,” said Pankaj.