Patna/Bhubaneswar: Millions of migrant workers had earlier this year rushed home to Bihar and Odisha from the metro and mega cities to escape the COVID-19 fury, but hunger and joblessness are now driving them back to their places of work, even as coronavirus cases continue to surge.
It's been five months since the pandemic struck, forcing the government to impose a nationwide lockdown, and triggering a wave of migration from Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad among other cities -- with many labourers hoping to start their life afresh in their hometowns.
The Centre had launched Rs 50,000-crore Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyaan for migrants in June, and the state governments had also assured them jobs.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had promised the over-20 lakh migrants who returned to the state that his government would create jobs for them so that they are not forced to venture outside out of "majboori" (compulsion).
The wait for employment, however, only got longer.
With flight services having now resumed and special trains made available for interstate travel, the migrant workers in the two Eastern states are making a beeline for leaving their hometowns.
The employers, many of whom had virtually abandoned the migrant labourers, are sending them train and even flight tickets to fetch them back as factories whir back to life, construction activities pick up and the sowing season sets in.
Pappan Singh, a Delhi-based mushroom grower who had sent 10 of his workers back to Bihar in May, has now booked air tickets worth over Rs 1 lakh, for them to return.
Singh said his business was taking a hit in the absence of the labourers.
Bhupesh Negi, Director, Jayprakash Narayan Airport in Patna, told PTI: "Flights to Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad and Bengaluru are running full. Almost 80% of the passengers are migrant labourers. Our staff members are helping them complete the travel formalities."
Mail and express trains to places like Ahmedabad, Amritsar and Bengaluru are also running to capacity. This is in sharp contrast to the scene a few months ago, when desperate migrant workers returned home from these cities -- many of them walking, some cycling and others in trucks.
The average occupancy in Muzaffarpur-Ahmedabad special train is 184%, Jaynagar-Amritsar special 160%, Danapur-Bengaluru city special 176%, Darbhanga-Ahmedabad special 164%, Darbhanga-Lokmanya Tilak Terminus 182% and Rajgir-New Delhi special 175% cent, a chart released by East Central Railway showed.
Binod Paswan of Samastipur's Khanpur block flew back to Indore recently, courtesy his employer at a flour mill. "How long could I have waited for an alternative source of income at home? So when the factory owner telephoned me, I agreed to return to Indore," he said.
According to officials, the flight of migrants from Darbhanga, Araria and Bhagalpur, however, has slowed down due to floods wreaking havoc in these areas over the past month.
Official figures in Bihar suggest that a total of 193.63 lakh job cards have been issued so far. The state has also created 259.6 lakh mandays under the rural job guarantee scheme, MGNREGA.
Bihar Minister of Information and Public Relations Department, Neeraj Kumar, told PTI that the government has been working sincerely to provide employment to the returnees.
"During the Rashtriya Janata Dal rule, when there was no such public health crisis, mass exodus of people from Bihar had happened, and nobody wanted to return. Now people chose to return to their homes as they have full faith in the Nitish Kumar government. Many of them have also got jobs," he said.
Viswanath Shah of Muzaffarpur district, who returned to Gujarat to rejoin work as a mason, has a different story to share. "It was difficult to get a job in my hometown ... My family was finding it difficult to make ends meet. I had no option but to return to work."
In Odisha, where over seven lakh people had returned from different parts of the country due to the coronavirus-triggered lockdown, the situation is no different.
More than four lakh migrant workers returned to Ganjam district alone with the district shortly after turning into a COVID-19 hotspot.
Lack of employment opportunities is now pushing the returnees to embark on a reverse journey to their workplaces in Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
Special buses are being arranged by employers to transport the labourers to their workplaces, one of the returnees said.
According to Harihar Pal, an Odia industrialist based in Surat, the migrant labourers are returning to the cities as they failed to secure jobs in their native places.
Also, factories in Gujarat, where labourers from the eastern coastal state form a major chunk of the workforce, are finding it difficult to run without them, he said.
Odisha Industries and MSME Minister Dibya Shankar Mishra claimed only a few labourers who returned to their native places in the state due to the lockdown have gone back.
"Those who chose to stay back will surely be provided employment," he added.