Patna: It is official now. As many as 17 lakh migrant workers from Bihar, including thousands of students in Kota, are stranded across the country due to the sudden lockdown announced on March 24 to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and there was no plan to bring them back yet.
The Nitish Kumar government, in its response to a letter from the Patna high court registrar on the representation from advocate Ajay Thakur, officially admitted that there were 17 lakh migrant callers, who said they were stranded outside the state due to the lockdown.
“Most of the nearly 17 lakh callers (migrant workers) at the Bihar government helplines have been requesting the state government to bring them back. However, the state government has always maintained its stand that the existing guidelines to enforce lockdown do not permit any such travel”, the government said.
The state government has identified 3,217 clusters in 160 districts across the country where most of the migrant workers are stranded.
Interestingly, the state government has no official data of how many workers from Bihar are employed outside the state.
Till date, according to the government’s own admission, 1.8 lakh migrant workers have arrived in Bihar after the lockdown. In addition, there are thousands who work as seasonal migrants. While the majority of migrants from Bihar work in farms, factories, construction and infrastructure sites and do other such unskilled work, many are also skilled professionals.
Similarly, the state government said it had no plans to bring back 6,500 students stuck in coaching hub, Kota, in Rajasthan, due to the lockdown. This is despite parents and students repeatedly appealing to the chief minister. States, such as Haryana, Assam and Uttar Pradesh have already arranged private buses to bring back students.
The Ordeal of Migrants
Suresh Yadav and his wife Lakhminya Devi are worried and upset, as their married son,a a migrant worker, is stranded in Maharashtra. He repeatedly calls them, saying he is running short of money and fears a starvation-like situation during the ongoing lockdown after his factory shut. The couple, residents of a village under Paliganj block in Patna district, say they feel helpless as they are unable to help their son.
“Our son, Rajesh Yadav, is keen to come here. He has repeatedly called the helpline number, requesting help from the state government. But government has done nothing so far,” Suresh a marginal farmer said, adding that he heard that the government is not planning to bring back stranded migrant workers.
Suresh is right. The Bihar government, in its response filed in the Patna High Court (On Thursday/April 23), has made it clear that it is not possible to bring back migrant workers.
Azeem Alam, a resident of Kishanganj district, is also disappointed with the state government’s decision to not bring back stranded migrant workers.
“My two sons are in Gujarat and want to come home. They, along with hundreds of others, have also appealed to the state government to bring them back. Our holy month of fasting –Ramzan -- is set to begin from Saturday, but my sons are fighting for survival” Alam said.
Rakesh Singh and his wife Rohini are equally as their teenaged daughter is stuck in Kota.
“What can we do except feel powerless”, the Singh couple, who run a business, here said.
Singh’s hopes dashed when the Bihar government informed the court that it was sensitive to the plight of students stuck outside the state, including Kota, but bringing them back during the lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic was not desirable, as it would tantamount to violation of the guidelines.
What has angered parents here is that some powerful people, including a ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) MLA, Anil Singh, were given permission to bring back his daughter from Kota on legitimate passes issued by the Nawada district administration.
However, Bihar Disaster Management Department principal secretary Pratyaya Amrit said the government, in coordination with other state governments, was trying to render all possible help to stranded migrants workers and students.
”The state government is in constant touch with the Kota administration to provide all possible help to students. The government has opened 50 telephone lines at the state emergency operation centre to extend prompt help to students”, he said.
Amrit said the Chief Minister had already announced deposit of Rs 1,000 in the bank accounts of each migrant worker stranded outside.
Meanwhile, Bihar opposition leader, Tejashwi Yadav, has been repeatedly demanding that the state government provide him permission to bring students back from Kota. ”If the Bihar government, which favoured special people, is helpless and not capable of bringing back students from Kota, give me special permission to bring back them,” he said last week.
Last week, poll strategist and former Janata Dal (United) leader, Prashant Kishor, also targeted Nitish Kumar for not “doing anything for all those people from Bihar stranded across the country due to lockdown”.
Most Opposition parties, including the Left parties, have urged the state government not to ignore the repeated requests made by migrant workers.
The Communist party of India (Marxist-Leninist) has demanded that the state government bring back stranded migrants. Party leaders also staged a fast for two days -- Saturday and Sunday -- across the state with maintaining social distancing, and demanding that the government bring back migrant workers.
Most of the migrant workers stranded outside the state belong to the marginalised communities, including dalits, Other Backward Classes and Extremely Backward Classes, considered the social support base of both Opposition RJD and ruling JD-U.
Till Friday, there were 197 COVID-19 positive cases in Bihar, with two people dead. So far, the state has tested more than 11,000 samples, a number far less when compared to its huge population. There are six COVID-19 test facilities in Bihar till date.