COVID-19: Why Gujarat is a worry for Bihar

Workers claim not receiving salaries from employers, not given any food by state government

By Mohd Imran Khan
Published: Tuesday 12 May 2020

Bihar, with 761 cases of novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and six deaths as of May 12, 2020, is not considered a frontline state. There is fear and anxiety among locals in Bihar over the returning migrants: Thousands of them are coming back via special shramik (labour) trains, fuelling concerns that the virus might spread and result in further increase in COVID-19 cases.

Sanjay Kumar, principal secretary of the state’s health department, claimed the recent positive cases in the state mostly consisted of migrant workers.

“There is no separate data on migrant workers. But going by our experiences in the past 10 days, nearly 60 to 70 per cent of the samples tested positive were of those who returned from outside,” he said.

“This has certainly contributed to a spike in the cases of COVID-19 this month,” said Health Secretary Lokesh Kumar Singh.

One hundred and fifty migrant workers, who arrived by special trains from May 4 to May 10, tested positive for the virus (SARS-CoV-2), with 195 workers testing positive till date. They were sent to isolated wards in hospitals across the state.

The workers who tested postive came from different states: 36 came from Maharashtra, 33 from Gujarat, 41 from the National Capital Region, 10 from Telangana, three from Haryana and the rest from other states.

Eighty-one per cent of those who tested positive did not show any symptoms of the disease, including cold, cough, fever and breathing problems, according to the health department.

There are, thus, concerns that the number of cases in Bihar may increase as migrant workers who belong to the state return home after facing long-term unemployment due to the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Several migrant workers from Bihar, employed in factories in Gujarat, claimed they did not receive any help by either the Gujarat government or their own employers to return home, amid the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

In several instances, the workers claimed they did not receive their salaries for the month of April and were forced to return home because they faced long-term unemployment.

They are currently in quarantine at two different quarantine centres in Bihar and they share one thing in common: They were offered virtually no help from their employers — those who ran the factories or companies they worked in.

They were not extended any help by the Gujarat government either, as they struggled for nearly 50 days to survive, sometimes without food or shelter and boarded special trains, by paying train fare to reach their homes.

“I was sitting for nearly two months because the factory I worked in was shut the day the lockdown began,” Lal Babu, a resident of Bihta village in Bihar’s Aurangabad district, who worked at a garment factory in Surat, told Down To Earth.

“I spent all my saving to survive during the period. There was no ration given to us either by the company or the state government,” he said, adding he would have died of hunger if he would have stayed in Gujarat.

The owner of the garment factory where he worked did not bother to contact his workers after the lockdown, according to Babu, who worked in Surat for nearly eight years.

He recounted how it was a “battle” to survive there by only drinking water and getting whatever food he could manage through the help of fellow migrant workers.

Sateyndar Singh, a resident of Bahadur Bigha village in Aurangabad, expressed anger at the Gujarat government’s indifferent attitude towards migrant workers. Singh — who worked at another garment factory in Surat for nearly 10 years — said he did not receive a single rupee in financial help from anybody, adding that claims of migrant workers being helped were only propaganda.

“No help was provided to us. This was why all migrant workers were eager to leave Surat,” he said.

Both Singh and Babu claim they were forced to arrange Rs 1,000 for a broker to get them seats on a special train. “There was nothing free, except a bottle of mineral water that was given to us at the time of boarding the train,” said Singh.

Rahul Kumar, another migrant worker who worked in Surat and is currently in quarantine in Rohtas district, said he had no money last month and had to ask his family to send him Rs 3,000 to survive. He used Rs 950 to pay to a broker to come back to Bihar.

“Neither my factory helped me, nor the government. I survived for more than 50 hours without food,” he said, adding that he stood in a long queue for food packets, but they were exhausted when it was his turn to receive one.

Kumar said television channels released false information about help being offered to migrant workers in Gujarat by the government and factory owners.

The Bihar government said there were over 2.8 million workers from the state across the country, on the basis of calls received on its helpline, with several experts claiming the number to be close to 3-4 million.

The state government, however, has no official data on the number of workers from Bihar who were employed outside the state.

Official figures suggest most of these migrant workers were stranded in Delhi, Surat, Mumbai, Kolkata, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Visakhapatnam, Bengaluru, Ernakulam and Chennai, among other places.

Till May 11 afternoon, Bihar had 724 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with six deaths reported. The state has tested more than 36,000 samples so far across the state’s seven COVID-19 testing facilities.

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