“We were taken to the Quarantine centre. There the doctor and other officials were present. They asked for my name, address and all but when I got my papers, it had my temperature, but in fact, no one had taken my temperature.
I asked them how they had written my temperature when they had not taken it. But they said it’s done, you go. I started making a video about how they were writing temperature without recording,” says Ajay Paswan a migrant worker from Warisaliganj, Bihar who had been working in Delhi for the last two years.
The State of Bihar was at the epicentre of reverse migration, which began in March 2020, due to the Lockdown imposed to curtail the spread of the novel coronavirus. Almost a year later now, stories emerge which tell us that the situation was not better at home.
Through a survey (by the author) conducted in several districts of Bihar (Nawada, Patna, Begusaria, and Khagaria) it was found out that the longest a migrant worker had been living away from home was 18 years, and on the other hand, one worker had finished just 4 days of work before the lockdown was announced.
Despite government schemes that ensured additional rations to the poor during the lockdown, distribution systems failed to do the job as ration cards are area-specific and fair price shops were inaccessible. Most of them said they received no help from the government in terms of food and shelter. They were surviving on their savings and some help from local NGOs.
A survey conducted by Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) of 11,159 migrant workers stranded in various States found that between April 8 and April 13, shows that more than 96% did not receive rations from the government and around 90% of those surveyed did not get paid by their employers (Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) 2020). Bereft of all resources needed to survive in a city far from home, migrant workers started travelling back home.
Information from the Ministry of Labour and Employment show that of the 10.5 million migrant workers who returned to their home states, Bihar accounted for 14.3% of the number – 1.5 million (MN and Ray 2020). Hundreds of migrant workers carrying heavy bags were seen walking on national highways, or boarding buses and tractors, in what seemed like their last attempt to return to their home states.
“As the lockdown was being extended, again and again, we thought of returning, as there was no point staying there. We walked to Nashik (160-170 Km). From Nashik Railway station we took a truck. We had reserved a truck from there till our village for 150,000. We were 25 people” says Sita Ram who had been working in Mumbai.
For a lot of migrant workers, this journey back home proved to be harder than anticipated. An analysis by SaveLife Foundation, an independent, non-profit NGO advocating road safety and emergency medical care across India, estimated that 630 migrants were injured in road mishaps between March 24 and May 18 (Khan 2020). A database created by a group of independent researchers shows that between March 14 and July, 207 migrant workers died in accidents due to walking or during migration (GN, et al. 2020).
It was under the hope of a secure home did most of the migrant workers take this arduous journey, not knowing that things were only going to get worse. “Because I was questioning a lot. They (referring to the testing official) called the police station and I was taken to the police station. Later my family members and friends came and sat outside the police station.
After this, I was finally released in the evening. From the police station I was sent to Institutional Quarantine, near my village for 14 days” says Ajay Paswan who had just returned home. All that he was asking from the administration was to test him. His question was not answered then, but why testing was not done is a question which the Bihar Government would have to tell the entire country now. The Government of India has already asked for a detailed report.
Most of the respondents in our interview denied being tested, those who said they were tested, assumed that thermal scanning was the test. Most of the respondents were given home quarantine, and those who opted for institutional quarantine, narrate a whole new experience.
A migrant worker from Begusaria, says “I was quarantined along with my wife and two children, the day be returned from Thane, Maharashtra. There was no separate room for women and even the toilets were the same. My wife was not comfortable sharing the washroom with men, she told me, but what could I do”.
Another migrant worker MD. Rahnuman Ansari says “We stayed in the Institutional Quarantine. Later our Mukhiya came and said that those from Kerala can go home and quarantine themselves.” Rahnuman Ansari went home after staying in the Quarantine centre for 4 days untested.
Bihar was one of the first states to shut down the Institutional Quarantine Centres, the reason: the administration knows best, why they were shut down when the cases being reported were rising. The centre’s which were being run was not testing people, this is one thing that has emerged now, and is also the reason why the investigation has been initiated by the government. Incidences like a dancer being called from outside, the presence of liquor raise a potential question on what was the administration doing, particularly when Liquor is banned in Bihar.
The State Disaster Management Department, which Chief Minister Nitish Kumar set up for overseeing operations of relief camps and quarantine centres for migrants returning home, stated that only migrants coming from Surat and Ahmedabad in Gujarat; Mumbai and Pune in Maharashtra; Delhi, Gurugram, Ghaziabad, Faridabad and Noida in the NCR; Kolkata in West Bengal; and Bengaluru in Karnataka will be housed at the quarantine centres. The others would be asked to home quarantine themselves.
7 of the 20 interviewees in this study were asked to quarantine at institutional quarantine centres; 2 of them who were sent to S.N. Sinha College, Warisaliganj said that they didn’t spend any time at the centre and were asked to quarantine at home after brief paperwork at the centre. 1 interviewee complained about not getting food at the quarantine centre.
Sushil Kumar Modi said that the state of Bihar did everything for the smooth functioning of quarantine facilities.
His family used to send him food from home. Another interviewee complained about the lack of separate rooms for men and women. Of the ones who weren’t housed at quarantine centres, 2 interviewees said they weren’t tested at all, and another said that there was only thermal screening at the railway station and no other measures were taken.
It was reported in May 2020 that migrant workers returning to Bihar were jumping off the Shramik Special trains, ahead of their destination, to escape isolation orders. Several other reports claimed that migrants protested, and fled quarantine centres because of lack of basic amenities – lack of food, and poor quality of whatever little amount was provided.
A quarantine centre in Gaya reportedly had only 2 toilets for 240 migrants residing at the centre; another centre in Samastipur district saw a scuffle amongst inmates over just one tube-well available for water supply (Mishra 2020). Some migrants said that they were also opposed to spending any more time apart from their families than they already had, in difficult times like these.
When the ruling government of the state was questioned by opposition and critics for the poor functioning of the quarantine centres, the then Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi said, “State government is doing everything to facilitate the smooth functioning of these quarantine centres. The easy way out for the government would have been to send the returning migrant labourers home. But that would have led to the further spread of Covid-19.
Temporary difficulties should be ignored for the greater benefit of society in the long-term.” According to United News of India, the Bihar cabinet sanctioned Rs. 809 crore to the disaster management department to run quarantine centres, an extension of facilities at these centres, and for other such requirements. If Budget was not the problem for the state of Bihar, the potential question is why the Quarantine centres were in such a condition.