Patna: Two days after he welcomed the Central government’s decision to allow states to bring back stranded people, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is now in a dilemma over how to make arrangements for the return of over 28 lakh stranded migrant workers. The matter came to light when Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi demanded that the Centre should run special trains to bring back stranded migrant workers, citing lack of resources with the state government.
Nitish Kumar on Friday held a series of meetings with top officials to work out the modalities to bring back stranded migrant workers. "The CM has asked officials to make arrangements of screening of stranded migrant workers before and after the journey. He also directed to set up quarantine facilities and more isolation beds in hospitals in view of the likely arrival of more migrants in the coming days" an official at Chief Minister Office said.
A day after Sushil Modi, who is senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and a Bihar Minister Ashok Choudhary, a Janata Dal-United
leader close to Nitish Kumar, demanded special trains to bring back stranded migrants, there was big relief when the Union Ministry of Home Affairs announced that trains would now ferry stranded migrantz workers back home.
What has raised eyebrows is that the neighbouring Jharkhand government did not demand that the Centre run a special train to bring back its stranded migrant workers, yet a special left Hyderabad early Friday morning with migrant workers and was likely to reach Ranchi on Saturday.
This is even as Modi and Choudhary expressed the state government's inability to bring back stranded migrant workers by buses. They said long journeys by buses would be neither safe nor comfortable and trains were the best option.
According to state government sources, there are only 600 buses of government-run road transport department and 250 buses were running on public-private partnership mode. There are 15,000 private buses in the state. The government is not in a position to make arrangements for thousands of buses from private operators and others by paying a hefty amount.
"It will take months to bring back more than 28 lakh stranded migrant workers. However, trains will take only a few days to bring them ," a senior officer said.
Migrant workers from Bihar are stranded in different states due to the sudden lockdown announced on March 24 to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Additional Chief Secretary Amir Subhani said most of these migrant workers were stranded in Delhi, Surat, Mumbai, Kolkata,Tamil Nadu,Punjab,Visakhapatnam,Bengaluru and other places.
According to Subhnai, several stranded migrant workers had applied for the Rs 1,000 assistance announced by the state government.
Contesting official claims of over 28 lakh stranded migrant workers, some experts say the number would be between 35 lakh to 40 lakh.
"There are thousands of stranded migrant workers who have failed to apply for assistance and could not approach the helpline numbers of the state government due to lack of proper documents. But when buses or trains run, all of them will board to return home" Mahendar Yadav, convenor of Koshi Nav Nirman Manch. Flood prone Koshi region along with Seemanchal region, with high rate of poverty and backwardness, are a hub of migrant workers.
Pressure has been mounting on Nitish Kumar to bring back stranded migrant workers.
Last Monday, during a video conference, Kumar made it clear to Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the Bihar government would strictly adhere to the Centre's lockdown guidelines, hence, it was not possible to bring back stranded migrant workers and students till fresh directives were issued.
Reports here suggest that stranded migrant workers as well as students are unhappy over the state government’s delay in bringing them back.
Meanwhile, Bihar leader of opposition Tejashwi Yadav even offered 2,000 buses to the Nitish Kumar-led government.
On Friday, thousands of opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal workers and supporters also staged a symbolic fast to protest against the “inhuman policies” of the Nitish Kumar government against workers on May 1 to mark the International Workers Day.
Left parties also demanded that the government bring back migrant workers and also alleged irregularities in distribution of rations to the poor by ration dealers.
According to government data, over 1.8 lakh migrant workers returned to Bihar after the lockdown began. Unofficial figures doing the rounds say more than three lakh migrant workers have already returned to Bihar after March 22.
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 Friday, there were 450 COVID-19 positive cases in Bihar, with two people dead. So far, the state has tested nearly 20,000 samples, a number far less when compared with its huge population. There are six COVID-19 test facilities in Bihar till date.