COVID-19: Social tension in Bihar over returning migrants

Villagers fear contagion, want to keep out workers heading back

By C K Manoj
Published: Tuesday 31 March 2020
Villagers in Bihar stand near the entrance of a village that bars migrants from returning to their homes Photo: CK Manoj __

Migrant workers from Bihar trying to return home amid the 21-day nationwide lockdown invoked by the Union government to combat the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) are being barred from entering their villages.
Villagers — with fears that migrant workers were bringing the virus infection with them — have put up barricades at entry points in villages, hung posters and deployed men to patrol these entry points in shifts.

They also insist migrant workers undergo tests to confirm they do not carry the virus (SARS-CoV-2) and remain in quarantine for at least 14 days before entering villages.

This has resulted in violent clashes between villagers and migrant workers.

A youth was beaten to death in Madhaul village in Sitamarhi district on March 29, 2020, after he alleged two migrant workers returned to the village from Mumbai without taking any tests.

Police arrested two people in connection with the murder, adding that they were investigating the case.

Angry villagers in Jehanabad district assaulted a team of officials who had gone to a village to detain migrant workers and put them in a quarantine centre.

The migrants had reportedly returned to the village without a health check-up.

Migrant workers, in many instances, were forced to undergo a 14-day quarantine in schools and government buildings located outside the village before reaching their homes.

Around 50 villages across the state have banned their entry, according to local media reports.

One such village that has banned entry of migrant workers is Baniya-Yadupur located in Madanpur block of Bihar’s Aurangabad district.

The villagers threatened legal action against any migrant workers entering the village without undergoing tests.

“Who will protect us if we get infected with the virus? You know the condition of our health centres,” said Pramod Kumar Singh, a resident of the village.

A message threatening legal action was written on a poster hung at the entrance of the village.

A sign threatening legal action against migrants entering the village without undergoing tests Photo: CK Manoj

Another such village banning their entry is Pranpur in the same Madanpur block in the Aurangabad district.

“We can’t just allow the migrant workers who may have the virus to enter our village,” said Gorelal, a local councillor in Pranpur village in Aurangabad district, that has also resorted to similar measures.

As many as 45 migrant workers who returned from Kanyakumari, Kolkata, Surat and Delhi were put up at a local school and other government buildings at Soshuna village in the same district.

“We are helpless but very happy that we have reached the village at last. We are waiting for 14 days to finish so we can meet our family,” said Harendra Kumar Ranjan, 51, who travelled approximately 2,713 kilometres between Kanyakumari and his village by train, auto and foot.

Migrant workers were very alert at a personal level as they knew that healthcare in their villages was not up to the mark, said Bhola Paswan, another migrant worker.

The measure of converting schools and government buildings into temporary quarantine centres was endorsed and implemented by the state government as well.

“We have set up enough medical camps at all the bordering districts where the returning migrants are being screened for the virus,” said Pratyaya Amrit, principal secretary in the state’s disaster management department.

More than 13,000 migrant workers were quarantined in local village schools as of March 30, according to a report by the state’s disaster management department.

A database of people who returned from foreign countries or from other parts of the country after March 10 was also being prepared by the department.

There are an estimated 4.4-5 million migrant labourers from Bihar who worked in other parts of the country, according to a study by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and Aajeevika Bureau, a non-profit working for the safety and security of migrants.

At least one migrant worker was found in 60 per cent of all households across seven districts in Bihar, according to the study.

Approximately 19.34 per cent of Bihar’s migrants are settled in Delhi, with 10.65 percent in Maharashtra, 10.24 percent in Uttar Pradesh, 7.06 percent in Haryana, 6.89 percent in Punjab and 4.79 percent in Gujarat, according to the study.

These states reported a number of cases of the virus infection, indicating that without mechanisms to test for the disease in migrant workers, the number of cases could rise in Bihar as well.

Migrant workers across the country — fearing a loss of their livelihood and long-term employment because of the lockdown — are returning to their villages and home towns.

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