Coronavirus outbreak impacts Odisha: Migrant workers, tourism suffer

Thousands of Odisha's migrant workers go to west Asia to find work as plumbers

By Ashis Senapati
Published: Monday 16 March 2020

The novel coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19) dealt a double blow to Odisha.

Thousands of the state’s migrant workers were left in limbo across several west Asian countries and the state’s tourism sector witnessed a sharp fall in the number of tourists for the second consecutive year.

Cyclone Fani — which led to the loss of several lives and damaged property across the state —severely impacted Odisha’s tourist circuit in 2019.

A 33-year-old man from capital Bhubaneswar — who returned from Italy — tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus on March 15, 2020.

Once news of the case broke, families of a large number of workers — who migrate to west Asia from Odisha to work as plumbers, masons and mechanics — were worried.

Several west Asian countries have suffered the impact of the outbreak.

One such country is Iran, where thousands of Indian migrants work and where more than 400 died from the virus.

Sagarika Das, 32, who stays in Bachara village in Kendrapara district, is one such worried family member.

Her husband Jagannath Das, 35, is in Iran for the past three years, working as a plumber for a construction company. “The news of the death toll in Iran from the virus leaves my heart pounding in fear,” she told Down To Earth.

Das was, however, not alone in expressing concern over the safety of their loved ones staying abroad.

There are around 20,000 workers — most of them plumbers — in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other west Asian countries from Kendrapara district alone.

“My husband Karim Khan works as a mechanic in Tehran in a garage. Now, we are praying for his safety,” said Sabina Biwi who is from Gogua village in Kendrapara.

Bhagawan Rout went to Iran in 2016 from the district’s Patarapur village to work as a plumber.

Each month he sends money for his elderly parents. Bhagawan’s father Narendra, however, does not want the money and prays for the safe return of his son.

Expatriates from the district are credited with boosting the rural economy in the past four decades by sending remittances worth crores of rupees annually, only from plumbing works, according to Jagajiban Das, a local trade union leader.

A migration support and resource centre was inaugurated at Kendrapara in 2019 to provide help to the district’s migrant workers.

No information about the condition of workers residing in the affected countries was received, according to Ramachandra Nayak, the district’s labour officer.

Help would be offered once the workers or their families ask for it, he added.

Tourism is another sector hit by the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Coronavirus has affected the economy of travel sector. We hope after a month everything will be normalised,” said Samar Sahoo, the owner of a local travel agency.

Tourists cancelled their visit to Odisha after the outbreak, according to travel agents.

“Tourists from Buddhist countries like China, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam used to visit the holy sites of Lalitagiri, Ratnagiri and Udayagiri, known as the Diamond Triangle,” said Benjamin Simon, the managing director of another travel agency.

The virus also dealt a big blow to tourism in Koraput, Malkangiri and Gajapati districts, known for ‘tribal tourism’, he added.

Fears over the virus outbreak also affected tourism at Odisha’s Bhitarkanika National Park, with a number of European tourists reportedly cancelling their trip to the country’s second largest mangrove forest.

The government, after cyclone Fani, had attempted to boost tourism prospects.

With the rapid spread of the virus, however, efforts in this direction seem to have been severely undone.

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