Patna: Nearly 2.5 million migrant workers from Bihar, who have been stranded across the country after the sudden lockdown on March 24 midnight, have been struggling to survive without ration and source of livelihood and are eager to return to their home state. But, the Bihar government has so far targeted to bring back only 2.22 lakh migrants by 169 special trains.
Ten days after the first batch of stranded migrant workers arrived in Bihar by special train, the state government officials claimed that till May 11 about 1.43 lakh workers had arrived by 116 special trains. About 25,000 migrant workers are expected to reach Bihar on Tuesday by 21 trains.
State Information & Public Relation Department secretary Anupam Kumar said: “We have managed 169 special trains to bring back migrant workers. We expect 2.22 lakh migrant workers to reach the state by special trains”.
This statement is bound to raise many eyebrows, as Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's directive to top officials on Monday was to make arrangements to bring back all migrant workers who are eager to return home, within a week.
However, in the same breath, Nitish Kumar also exposed his government inability to bring back more migrant workers on its own and requested Prime Minister Natendra Modi to increase the number of special trains.
”Nitish Kumar has made this statement only for public consumption to send the message that his government is trying to bring back all stranded migrant workers. The reality is something else,” a senior state government official told Newsclick requesting anonymity.
The official said: “The government is not just slow, reluctant and hesitant to bring back migrant workers since the lockdown began, it is also against any move to bring them back,” adding that it was because Opposition hue and cry that built a pressure on the National Democratic Alliance government led by Nitish Kumar, which has forced it to bring back migrant workers. “It has carefully chosen to delay it and bring back only a few of total numbers”, the official alleged.
Mahendra Yadav, an activist working among migrant workers in flood-prone Koshi region of North Bihar from where a large number of poverty-stricken workers migrate to earn livelihood, said initially Nitish Kumar was not in favour of bringing back migrant workers on one pretext or the other.
It was only after Opposition pressure and reports of stranded migrant workers from the state staging protests in Gujarat, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Delhi and other places that the state government finally woke up early this month to make half-hearted efforts to bring the back, he told NewsClick.
Yadav said it was the sheer failure of the state and Central governments that had forced thousands of stranded migrants, along with women and children, to walk hundreds of kilometres, ride cycles, or board trucks and other heavy vehicles in desperation in the past over one-and-half months.
”There is no exact record with the government as to how many migrant workers have reached Bihar walking, cycling and by other means. Going by reports, hundreds are reaching the state on a daily basis”, Yadav said.
In fact, state government officials fear that the influx of migrant workers would spread the coronavirus or COVID-19 infection because it had created a new chain. Taking this view seriously, Nitish Kumar has ordered that all migrants should be subjected to COVID 19 test instead of the random test.
The Chief Minister has also advocated extension of lockdown till May-end. ”In view of the arrival of migrants from outside and more arrivals in coming days, we request to extend the lockdown”, he said.
Meanwhile, health and administrative officials are full of fear and anxiety over a possible spike in the number of coronavirus cases, as thousands of migrant workers returning by special ‘shramik’ trains to Bihar. Their apprehension is based on reports that 195 migrant workers had tested positive. Of these, 161 workers had arrived from May 4 to May 11. Dozens of workers identified as suspected have been sent to isolation wards in hospitals, even as their sample tests are awaited.
According to the official break-up,40 migrant workers returing from Maharashtra tested positive, followed by 35 from Gujarat, 41 from Delhi-NCR, 10 from Telangana, three from Haryana and over half a dozen from West Bengal.
Health secretary Lokesh Kumar Singh said there was no doubt that this was a matter of concern. The government has already increased surveillance and screening of them, he said.
Earlier, principal secretary, health department, Sanjay Kumar, said: ”There is no separate data on migrant workers. But in the last 10 days, nearly 60-70% samples tested positive were of those who returned from outside”.
The health department has also admitted that 81% of those tested positive for coronavirus were asymptomatic.
Disaster Management Department principal secretary Pratay Amrit admitted that huge influx of migrant workers was a big challenge for the administration.
He said that there were 3,474 block-level quarantine centres in which over one lakh migrant workers had been quarantined. There are 172 relief camps, too.
The Bihar government officially said last week (on the basis of calls received on the helpline) that there were over 28 lakh stranded migrant workers from the state across the country. But some experts estimate that the number would be between 35-40 lakh.
Interestingly, the state government has no official data of how many workers from Bihar are employed outside the state.
The state government has paid Rs 1000 assistance to more than 19 lakh migrant workers who registered their calls for help .The amount has been deposited in their bank account after validating through the CM special assistance fund.
Sanjay Agrawal, secretary, Road Transport Department, said all the migrant workers who were sent to their respective districts were kept in quarantine centres situated not far away from their native villages, for 21 days. There are reports that workers are not happy with mandatory 21 day quarantine due to lack of basic amenities and supply of poor quality of food.
Agrawal said minors coming from outside along with their parents were allowed for home quarantine after proper screening by the medical team.
Migrant workers, mostly poor, and working in cement, garment, plastic pipe factories, private firms, construction sector, security guards and others suddenly became jobless after the lockdown began on March 24 midnight to combat the spread of coronavirus.
Till Tuesday noon , Bihar had 761 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with six deaths reported. So far, the state has tested more than 35,000 samples and there are seven COVID-19 testing facilities in the state