As I practice my own ‘privileged’ isolation under the ‘Corona regime’ with much of the time spent in social media, yesterday evening a heart-wrenching video posted by a friend shook me up. A young boy crying and desperate to go back home in Bihar and couldn’t find transport, and was anxious with no place to stay at night in Delhi.
This was on March 24, two days after the Bihar government declared a lockdown in Patna on March 22. The boy looked very young and must be one of those young migrants to Delhi. (according to a study by IIPS, the average age of migrants in Bihar is 32 years).
The Bihar Chief Minister, on March 25, came up with a relief package, a day after the 21-day lockdown announced by the centre. The package has been silent on health system facilities, testing and isolation facilities, and no special mention of migrants coming back.
Bihar, as one of the states with high migration, showed no preparation to welcome the migrants back during the Coronavirus pandemic. With the pandemic rising up globally, people started coming back during early March. Till March 15, Patna airport had no thermogun or any other measures to screen passengers. (My spouse came from Bangalore on March 15, on a late-night flight, and there was no screening facility.) It was understood for migrants travelling from outside the country (mostly middle-east), that their first port of entry will be primarily either Delhi or Kolkata, and they will be checked there. However, there has been a large influx happening from other parts of the country.
The Migration Census 2011 data showed around 71.48 lakh people in Bihar when it came to interstate migration, out of which, a significant portion migrated to Jharkhand (14.04 lakh), West Bengal (11.49 lakh), Delhi (11.48 lakh), UP (11.21. lakh) and Maharastra, a state which reported one of the highest numbers of Corona-positive cases, (6.31. lakh).
Even if 100 % of them are not coming back, it was sure that a significant number will be pouring back to their home state, as many of these destination-states have been impacted and were on the verge of lockdowns. Even more serious was that a significant number of people, mainly from Delhi, UP, and West Bengal, will travel by train and road routes, and enter through multiple borders. I was informed by one of my doctor friends, Dr Ravikant from Doctors for You, that on March 22 alone, 11,000 migrants had reached Bihar.
Migrant labourers on highway this morning going to Gonda, Mainpuri, Sitamarhi (Bihar) and Bharatpur(Rajasthan). Their stories on @CNNnews18. #CoronavirusLockdown #CoronavirusOutbreak https://t.co/mArWExzLsz pic.twitter.com/MDxC1MihdM
— Marya Shakil (@maryashakil) March 27, 2020
Till March 15, there was no facility at the airport. Stations started having the thermogun facility to screen after March 20, and on March 22, Bihar reported the first death even before the positive report came in. As I heard from local NGOs in various districts, there was no preparation till March 22 for the migrants coming in. Stories came in of people coming back, taking paracetamol to suppress temperature, hiding in their places, and being hunted down. There will be more wrenching stories in the coming days.
Even as I write this, the curve of the positive cases will go up. It is at this juncture that we must ponder over a few questions and must give them serious attention.
According to a recent study conducted by the Institute of Population Science (IIPS), more than half of the households in Bihar are exposed to migration to more developed places within or outside the country, and a majority of the households depend on remittances for their livelihood. The report ‘Causes And Consequences Of Out-Migration From The Middle Ganga Plain’ was jointly released by IIPS and State Education Minister Krishnandan Prasad in February 2020, and covered 2,270 households across 36 villages. (accessed on March 25th 2020).
The study shows that the highest migration rate occurs in the traditional migration pockets of Saran, Munger, Darbhanga, Kosi, Tirhut, and Purnia, and that 90 % of the migrants work in private factories or as casual labourers. They were bound to come back once the Coronavirus pandemic broke and the units were shut down.
Was the government not able to understand this influx?
Presently, there is an instruction to the district hospitals to have 10 isolation beds so that anyone with symptoms can be isolated, and samples can be taken and sent to Patna for testing. Right now only Rajendra Memorial Research Institute of Medical Sciences (RMRI) has the testing facility, and on an average, 50 to 60 tests are being conducted per day (through an official source).
Till March 25, 4 positive cases were reported. A Madhubani-based organisation reported on March 25 that in the stations there is now screening of incoming groups, that they are and putting a seal on them if they are ok. For the rest, they are sending them to health facilities which are close to nothing.
Few of the Block Officials have been innovative to initiate some measures. Block Education Office of Madhepur announced a list of schools where they have arranged for food and shelter for migrants coming back. The understanding is that they are denied at their own homes and need a facility for stay and quarantine. Instructions have been given to Anganwadi workers to trace the people in the villages who are coming back and make lists ready. What will happen with that, no one knows. These are sporadic at the moment, and require more than ‘positive draconian’ measures.
The lockdown announcement yesterday has unleashed the police machinery onto the streets of Patna. Where were these ‘draconian‘ measures to anticipate that migrants will start pouring in? Where was the planning to identify the routes through which migrants were coming back? Why were those routes not checked in on time and made ready with screening facilities, isolation and so they could be sent for testing?
There are even more systemic questions for the long run. Is there a migration database that the government should maintain? The website of the Labour Department has no such information. With census data in public and the IIPS report released in presence of a Minister, why this silence in dealing with migrants coming back to Bihar in the time of Coronavirus?