States prepare to bring migrant workers home
A day after the ministry of home affairs (MHA) announced guidelines for states to bring back their residents — students, tourists, and migrant labourers; mostly the last — many states started work on Thursday on what promises to be perhaps the biggest such exercise seen in India, the return of over 10 million people to at least 25 states and Union Territories.
There are multiple challenges involved.
One, to do so without trains, which aren’t running now; states have demanded that special trains be permitted to transport migrants back, but the home ministry guidelines have, so far, only permitted movement by buses, on road. There is also no clarity on whether trains will resume after May 3, when the current phase of the nationwide lockdown ends.
Two, to do so in the least possible time and maintaining social distancing norms — a travelling salesman problem raised to the nth degree of complexity.
And three, to have adequate screening, quarantine, and hospital facilities for those who return, usually to the rural hinterland.
Bihar building construction minister Ashok Chaudhary acknowledged some of this. In an interview to ANI, he said: “We have information about 2.5 million migrant labourers (from the state). If we follow social distancing norms, one bus can carry 15-20 people…” According to this calculation, Chaudhary said, up to about 170,000 buses will be needed to bring the workers back at the same time. Then, there are the unregistered labourers and students stranded across the country, he added.
Chaudhary’s observations highlight the challenges every state is expected to face, albeit to varying degrees.
The Centre, however, has indicated that a careful reading of the home ministry guidelines will reveal that there is an operative word which describes its scope -- stranded. A top government official, who is a part of the decision-making process, said that the order had made it clear that it applied to those workers, pilgrims, students and others who were stranded -- and it was not a “free for all”. “If a worker is at home, in say Delhi or Gurugram, where he works, it should not be counted as stranded.”
This reading of the order means that arrangements should be primarily made for around 1.5 million people, who are currently housed in thousands of camps. The official quoted above said that this was conveyed to chief secretaries by cabinet secretary Rajiv Gauba in a meeting last Sunday. “If the situation appears to be getting out of hand, the Centre can change the rules again,” he warned.
But this may be a distinction hard to implement on the ground, for both categories of migrants, those who are in camps and those who are in rented accommodations but want to return, have registered with state governments. Any state will find it difficult to leave its own languishing in other states — especially not when they are restive and want to return.
Hence, the planning is being done with an eye on all migrants who want to return, and clamour has grown for special trains with states such as Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Bihar, Punjab and Kerala joining the chorus.
“In the prevailing situation, bus journey is not safe. And there is a limit to maintain social distancing in buses. So we want the railways to run non-stop trains for them (workers and others),” Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan said. Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot said special trains will facilitate faster return of the workers and backed the demand. So did Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh and Bihar deputy chief minister Sushil Modi.
The railways ministry so far maintains that it has made no decision on running special trains, but an official said it is considering the proposals and awaiting a final word from the home ministry. “The home ministry will take the call soon. Phase-wise plans will be drafted by each zone based on the expected crowd,” the senior official said on the condition of anonymity.
By the end of Thursday, several states, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh, announced that they have already appointed nodal authorities, as instructed by the Centre, to coordinate with others and finalise the protocols. They have also issued directions to district authorities to set up facilities for medical check-up of returnees at the border and housing them at quarantine centres.
According to state estimates, about 10 million migrant labourers are stranded across the country, especially in states such as Punjab, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The transport of migrant workers alone is estimated to require 500,000 buses if the Centre’s social distancing norms are enforced and they are transported around the same time.
Uttar Pradesh announced its own plans to transport a million workers on Tuesday itself, a day before the guidelines were issued. And on Thursday, state officials said they will try to bring back most of the workers within a week. UP, India’s most populous state, has already brought back 270,000 workers from Delhi and Haryana. Its next challenge is transporting 1.5 million workers.
Maharashtra, a favourite destination of migrant labourers — especially from eastern India — is housing close to a million workers from other states. The state government issued a notification on Thursday allowing the transportation of stranded workers, pilgrims and students. Other states will have to send buses to take back their residents.
While Rajasthan, which has appointed 19 nodal officers to bring back an estimated 700,000 workers, sent a fleet of buses to other states, Madhya Pradesh additional chief secretary ICP Keshri said district authorities have been asked to gear up for the arrival of a large number of workers over the next few days.
The mammoth logistical exercise is the result of the lockdown India enforced, with a few hours’ notice, starting March 25. It was originally expected to end on April 14 but was extended to May 3. The lockdown was aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) and giving India time to upgrade its health infrastructure. But it left an approximately 10 million workers adrift, and with no way to return home in the absence of public transport. Many lost their jobs. Some decided to walk back home. State governments set up relief camps to house the migrant workers but many remain restive. On April 13, a day before the first phase of the lockdown ended, following rumours about special trains for migrant workers, thousands descended on Mumbai’s Bandra station. Besides the migrant workers in relief camps, a large number of migrants are stuck in their rented accommodations, and may remain undocumented in the central list.
With no sign of a premature end to the lockdown, some states such as UP decided to use buses to transport their workers from neighbouring states. Others, including Punjab and Bihar, sought guidelines from the Union government on this. The issue was also raised in the fourth meeting on the pandemic, in just over a month, between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chief ministers of states on Monday. The guidelines were finally issued on Wednesday.
The MHA order said migrant workers, students, tourists, pilgrims and other persons stranded in other states should be allowed to move. All states, the order said, should appoint nodal authorities who should register these individuals. The sending and receiving states should then consult and agree with each other about “movement by road”. Those who wished to travel have to undergo screening, and only those who are asymptomatic could proceed. The order said buses shall be used for enabling movement — and these should be sanitised and social distancing maintained in their seating arrangements. The states and Union Territories on the way shall allow the movement of such buses.
It is clear that the process could take weeks. A bus can accommodate some 60 people; with social distancing, that comes down to around 20. And a Mumbai-Lucknow journey or a Delhi-Patna one (most migrant workers are from UP and Bihar) will need to cover 1,376 km and 1,085 km respectively.
The states will also need to ensure the workers aren’t carrying the virus. And they have started the preparations to this effect. Every worker returning to Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan will be scanned at the borders and quarantined. After 14 days, buses will take them to their home districts only if they don’t have any symptoms of Covid-19. Those having symptoms will be admitted in hospitals. In Odisha and Chhattisgarh, quarantine centres have been set up in government buildings, such as schools and community health centres, in rural areas. “All district collectors have been directed to ensure that no returnee enters a village without being in a quarantine,” said Chhattisgarh chief secretary RP Mandal.
Sanjay Jha, Bihar’s minister for water resources and the national general secretary of the Janata Dal (United), said: “The process of registration has begun. And once we bring them into the state, we will provide food, shelter and even utensils and other basic necessities to those in quarantine shelters or in isolation centres if they are found positive.”
State officials also said the number of calls to their help lines has significantly increased since the Centre’s decision allowing migrant workers and others to return home.
Abdul Rahim, 34, a construction worker stuck in Ranchi’s Lowadih area, called the West Bengal government helpline on Thursday morning. “They assured us that they would take us back very soon,” he said, visibly happy.
An official of the Uttarakhand government, who did not want to be named, said: “The MHA guidelines will be followed. We have already started receiving calls from people on the help line that was launched just after the lockdown began.”
(With state inputs)