In Covid epicentre Ganjam, fear and worries over return of migrants
Despite its overflowing sewers and cramped rooms, Surat has been a huge draw for many young men of Odisha, especially Ganjam district, where dreams of a well-paid job die as fast as they begin.Updated: May 18, 2020 19:28 IST
For thousands of men from Ganjam district, such as Sadashiva Dakua, desperate to make a living, Surat in Gujarat has been nothing short of El Dorado.
Despite its overflowing sewers and cramped rooms, Surat has been a huge draw for many young men of Odisha, especially Ganjam district, where dreams of a well-paid job die as fast as they begin.
Now quarantined with 70 others at a school in Ganjam’s Polasara block, after a train journey back to his home 10 days ago, the 36-year-old is hoping he doesn’t test positive. Ganjam has 307 Covid-19 cases, accounting for more than a third of Odisha’s total of 876 cases, and the administration’s focus is on migrant workers such as Dakua, whose influx has pushed up Covid-19 cases in Odisha. Of the 876 cases, migrant workers accounted for almost 750 cases.
“Till May 2, when the first case was detected in Ganjam, we managed to keep things under control. But as more and more migrant workers arrived from Surat, the positive cases zoomed,” said Ganjam’s chief district medical officer (CDMO) Umashankar Mishra.
Once hailed in Ganjam for the money that they remitted back home, the tag of ‘Surat returnee’ has become a cross too heavy to bear for the migrants.
His words are echoed by several people. “Why did they have to come at all? They will now ruin us,” said Meghnad Pradhan of Polasara, where the first death due to Covid-19 was recorded last week.
CURSED BY LOCALS, BUT LEFT WITH NO CHOICES
Though cursed by the people of Ganjam for bringing them “misery”, migrant workers such as Dakua had no option but to leave Surat. Having studied up to Class 10, and with few financial resources, Dakua migrated to Gujarat’s textile hub 20 years ago. In between, he married and now has a 10-member family in Jilundi village of Bhanjanagar block. Even before the lockdown, he never had a steady job as he moved from one company to another with little job security.
“Tell me, what should I have done instead of fleeing? I not only lost my job in the textile factory, I had to share the 10x10-foot room at Surat with five others as they had lost their jobs. In normal times, only half of us would be in the room at any given point of time as our work hours alternated. It was too difficult and scary to live in the cramped room with no money. Several migrant workers in Surat were testing positive and I was scared whether I would be alive,” said Dakua.
Several miles away, in a quarantine centre of Khallikote block, Kalu Charan Panigrahi can’t forget how he escaped, though he was better off with regular payments and an ESI subscription that allowed him to get treated at hospital without spending anything from his own pocket.
“I had food for just a fortnight, but was unsure about the lockdown ending. I was scared of queuing up for food as I thought I may end up infecting my 2.5-month-old daughter and my wife,” said Panigrahi, who bought two train tickets for Rs 750 each with much difficulty.
Babuli Behera and two of his friends from Polasara block were less fortunate. They used their decrepit bicycles to leave Surat. Behera, 40, has been a regular at Surat’s textile mills for the past 15 years. On April 16, he took his Hercules bicycle, charged his feature phone and switched it off as he and his friends rode their bicycles from Surat, through Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh, to Odisha over 10 days. He survived on biscuits and odd handouts on the way, and feels happy that he is out of the “Corona narak (hell)”.
“I had no job and no money left. I would have died of the disease had I stayed a little longer,” said Behera.
Such stories get repeated across the quarantine centres of Ganjam, home to 55,000 migrant workers who have returned from Gujarat, Maharashtra and other states.
Having travelled from the Covid-19 hot spots, these workers have swelled the Covid-19 cases of Ganjam in 16 days. From the first case on May 2, when an 18-year-old tested positive, the numbers have gone up to 307 on May 18, clocking around 20 cases a day on an average.
Ganjam’s district collector Vijay Amrita Kulange said despite the increase in cases, there is little to be worry about as the infections are all from quarantine centres. “There is no reason to panic as no community transmission has happened so far,” he said.
But Ganjam may have seen only the tip of the iceberg as only 5,000 samples from the 55,000 migrant workers have been tested so far. Till Sunday evening, 1,800 samples were pending with labs. In several quarantine centres, only a handful who showed symptoms of Covid-19 have been tested. In the quarantine centre at Mathura village of Khallikote block, none of the 37 who arrived from Surat have been tested.
“We are ramping up testing facilities. We are testing 500 samples now and would soon test 1,000 a day. Then we can test almost everyone,” said Ganjam CDMO’s Mishra.
But with another 50,000 migrants expected to arrive at the quarantine centres, there is no certainty when a significant number of people at the centres can be tested.
At the centres, arrangements are hardly as perfect as the administration makes them out to be in social media posts. More than 150 people left a centre in Beguniapada block and people milled around in some other centres, handing over tobacco and other items, and there are also complaints of poor hygiene and food quality.
In Dhunkapada quarantine centre, four buckets have been given for 10 inmates while the single bottle of hand-wash for 73 people is almost exhausted. “The toilets are stinking. With the gates shut, it feels as if we are serving a sentence in jail,” said Nakula Patra.
“We have not been tested for Covid-19 so far. Officials toss the medicines to us from a distance,” said another inmate who didn’t want to be named. Adding to the distrust is villagers guarding the local pond over suspicion that some workers may scale the wall of the quarantine centre and bathe there.
Outside, people discuss openly how the migrants are ‘polluting’ the villages resentful of administration’s decision of quarantining the migrant workers right inside village schools and colleges.
NO SOCIAL DISTANCING
Even as Covid-19 cases increase in Ganjam, there seems to be little social distancing. In Madhupali village, home to Ganjam’s first Covid-19 victim, a 40-year-old man who returned from Surat, his kin milled together while conducting his last rites.
Prafulla Behera died in a quarantine centre 10 days ago, just a few days after he arrived there. He left behind a wife and four daughters, the youngest one only give months old. None of the people who attended an event held 10 days after his death wore a mask or maintained social distancing.
In other villages of Ganjam, the concept of social distancing isn’t being observed. Very few wear masks or seem to appreciate the importance of such protection while going on with their daily lives.
“The real test will be ensuring social distancing in daily lives. In Odisha’s villages, people believe in social mixing and not distancing. Once a Covid-19 positive case in a quarantine centre infects someone outside, community transmission will only be a matter of time,” said Binod Patra, head of the community medicine department of AIIMS Bhubaneswar.” “People are now not worried as Odisha has not seen higher death tolls like Gujarat and Maharashtra. Once that happens, it may be catastrophic.”
While the increasing infections are worrying the government, reverse migration is keeping state officials equally worried. Ganjam is chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s home district and any potential social unrest here due to reverse migration may be politically uncomfortable for him. A significant rise in the number of migrant workers is expected to strain resources at a time when there is little scope of raising revenue. A rapid assessment of people returning to Odisha, done by the NGO Gram Vikas and Kerala’s Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development this month, found the migrant workers who have returned will need a monthly income of Rs 5,001 to Rs 10,000 at their native places to go on with their lives.
Biswajit Bhoi, who teaches economics at the Central University of Koraput, said this is easier said than done. “The unemployment rate in 2017-18 stood at 7.1% in Odisha, against the all India average of 6.1%. To give more money into the hands of these migrant workers, the government needs to ramp up MGNREGA workers. But how will the government do NREGA work in the next four months of the monsoon?” he asked.