Coronavirus update: States create quarantine, relief centres for returnees
Covid-19 update: Tens of thousands of migrants, mainly daily wagers, from Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab, Maharashtra and Rajasthan are returning to their villages in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh after losing their work in the wake of the 21-day national lockdown that started on March 25.Updated: Mar 30, 2020 05:55 IST
As heartrending stories emerged of migrant workers trekking home long distances to the hinterland in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak and the ensuing lockdown, triggering concern they could spread the infection, state governments moved on the weekend to arrange food and transport for the returnees and to ensure they live in isolation for the mandatory 14 days.
States in the Hindi-speaking heartland, such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, created quarantine centres or shelters in inter-state border areas. In Odisha and West Bengal, the authorities converted schools and cyclone relief shelters to keep returning migrant workers in quarantine to guard against the spread of the disease.
Local panchayat offices in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha were directed to quarantine the returnees outside the villages, preferably in government schools. Police and revenue departments were asked to assist panchayat offices, state government officials said. State governments also deployed Accredited Social Health Actvists to conduct surveys in villages to prepare a log of migrants who have returned, and make a note of their health on a daily basis.
Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have announced they would provide free food to the returning migrants. Maharashtra has halved the price of a Shiv Bhojan meal, consisting of two chapatis, rice, a vegetable and dal, to Rs 5 per plate. Many voluntary organisations are also distributing food to returnees with the help of the police.
Tens of thousands of migrants, mainly daily wagers, from Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab, Maharashtra and Rajasthan are returning to their villages in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh after losing their work in the wake of the 21-day national lockdown that started on March 25.
According to 2011 census, around 54 million Indians migrate in search of work every year. Most of them return home for the harvest season, which has already started and would continue till May-end, when they start returning again in search of work.
To help the distressed workers, the governments of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha have arranged special buses at their borders with other states. The Haryana government has provided 1,000 buses to transport migrants from Delhi and Haryana borders to Uttar Pradesh. The measures were put in place after the Union home ministry issued an advisory to all state governments to arrange transport and food for migrant workers, who have been shown on television trekking home in the absence of public transport.
Trouble was reported on Sunday from some isolation centres set up on the Bihar-Uttar Pradesh border where people turned violent when the police barred them from heading home to their villages. A large number of workers also escaped from these centres by scaling the boundary walls and the limited police force failed to control them, said district magistrate, Babua, Nawal Kishor Chaudhary.
On Sunday afternoon, the Bihar government ordered the release of about 800 migrant labourers from isolation centres, saying arrangements will be made to quarantine them in their villages. “We are arranging buses so that they reach district headquarters,” the DM said. On Friday, the Bihar government ordered that migrant workers be quarantined in border areas for mandatory 14-day duration.
Stories have emerged of workers travelling day and night with little food and water. Workers, accompanied by women and children, have also walked long distances and hitched rides to reach their villages. Tens of thousands are still on the roads.
In Bihar’s East Champaran district, from where Mahatma Gandhi started his non-violent movement against the British in 1917, the police caught 14 migrant workers on their way back from West Bengal, locked in the goods compartment of a pickup van.
“When our factory got shut on Wednesday, our factory owner arranged a pick-up van for us to return home,” said Sanauddin Khan, one of the rescued workers. Abhay Kumar, station house officer of Motihari police station, said the workers had managed to get there by “hiding themselves in the van and dodging the police at check posts” on the way. They had set off on Thursday.
Premnarayan Ahirwar, 32, a resident Madhhya Pradesh’s Tikamgarh district, returned from Gurugram, 550 km away, with his wife and 30 other workers on Saturday evening. They started eight days ago.
“We would walk four to five hours at a time to cover 15 to 20 kilometers before taking a break on the roadside or at any dhaba. Many of us carried kids in our arms. In between, we took rides in trucks, taxis and tractor trolleys. All of them charged a lot of money from us. All out money is gone,” Ahirwar said.
Vishal Sahani, 24, of Piprabasant village in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur district, travelled with two colleagues for nine days from Hyderabad to reach Prayagraj, a distance of 1,400 kms. The Telangana state lockdown started on March 22.
“The sudden lockdown saw our factory getting closed and our landlord asking us to vacate the room we shared. We started on March 21 and are yet to reach home,” said an exhausted and teary-eyed Sahani.
Sibhas Das, 22, travelled 400 kms from Madhubani in Bihar, where he worked in a bakery, to reach West Bengal’s Murshidabad district along with eight others.
“We started on Saturday morning and luckily, found a truck driver from Bengal, who was returning after unloading vegetables in Bihar. The driver was not ready to carry us, saying the police would harass him. After a lot negotiation, he agreed for a fare of Rs 2,500 from each of us,” Das said.
Isolated at home
Ram Pravesh Sahni, 45, of Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district, is feeling like an alien in his own village, like several migrant workers, who are being isolated by fellow residents.
“They (village elders) are not even allowing me to meet my family,” said Sahni, who travelled for five days from Ludhiana in Punjab after the closure of the textile factory where he worked. “They have told me to stay in a government school till doctors declare me Covid-19 free.”
Das has been put under mandatory quarantine by local doctors for 14 days even though he had no Covid-19 symptoms. “There are nine members in my family and we don’t have separate rooms. I am confined to one corner of my house. Even the hospital that I went to doesn’t have an isolation ward.”
Home quarantine is essential to ensure that the coronavirus doesn’t spread, village heads say.
Arpita Singh, head of a local panchayat in Muzaffarpur district, said the village council had no option but to quarantine migrant workers, adding that its primary responsibility was to ensure the safety of the villagers. “One person can spread Covid-19 to all of us,” she added.
Many families are still waiting anxiously for the return of people who work elsewhere.
“We have not heard from my 21-year-old son Anil Kumar Bhartiya, who works in a jeans making factory in Mumbai, since he started for home from Mumbai on March 23. Since his mobile has gone dead, we have not been able to talk to him for the past five days now,” said Bhim Singh, a marginal farmer in Uttar Pradesh’s Prayagraj district.
His other son, Sunil, 24, came back from Delhi on the day the national lockdown was announced on March 24.
Kaushalya Devi of Bihar’s Purnia district is worried about two sons, who have reached Noida from Panipat. “I have advised them to stay in Noida but they are insisting on coming back as they don’t have money. I don’t know how they will come,” she said.