COVID-19: Odisha villages tense amid returning migrants

Villagers now demand health check-ups of the returning workers

By Ajit Panda
Published: Wednesday 25 March 2020
Migrant workers at construction sites and other sectors in the informal economy suffer severe financial losses Photo: Needpix

Hundreds of migrant workers have started returning to their villages in Nuapada and other districts of Odisha even as India entered a lockdown to counter the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

This large-scale reverse migration has sparked fears among villagers in Odisha — a state that has thousands of migrant workers in metropolitan cities and other urban areas — that workers may also bring back the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) infection to villages.

Villagers now demand health check-ups for the workers to find out if they carried the virus infection.

This fear is compounded by the fact that the mechanisms to accurately observe the exact numbers of those returning were either inadequate or not in place, at a district or block level.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to the Union government first announcing a janata (people's) curfew and subsequently a nation-wide lockdown on March 24, 2020, to enforce social distancing measures to contain the virus.

Workers from the unorganised sector — including the construction sector — and those in the informal economy expect to suffer long-term unemployment and a loss of their livelihoods.   

This spurred workers across the country to crowd railway stations and bus stops, increasing the chance of spreading the virus.

Around 50 migrant workers returned to Liad village in the district’s Sinapali block from Mumbai, Chennai and places in Telangana on March 23 and March 24.

The gram panchayat office at Makhapadar village was made aware of the arrival of 38 migrant workers. The rest, however, did not inform local authorities of their return. Around eight workers suffered from cough and cold, according to the village head (sarpanch).

Tension prevailed in the village after the sarpanch called for the shelter of the workers in a school, a move opposed by residents of a Dalit colony located near it.

The workers were forced to stay near a river overnight until their health check-up was conducted at a community health centre nearby.

They returned to their homes after the check-up. Most of the labourers were employed in the construction sector, while two had fled from a brick kiln they were working in.

The residents of Badi village in the district’s Khariar block feared the spread of the disease after one migrant worker returned to his home there. The villagers informed the block administration and the local MLA, after which an anganwadi worker gave the worker a clean bill of health, pacifying villagers.

Around 16 workers returned to their villages under Gudal panchayat. A team from the Sinapali community health centre, along with ASHA workers, conducted a check-up of 12 workers and found them safe. The rest, however, were unaccounted for.

A total 40 migrant workers returned to their villages under Komna and Bhela panchayats from Mumbai, Delhi, Raipur, Chennai, etc. All were found to not be carriers of the virus, after health check-ups.

The district police said the return of workers from outside the state had stopped ever since the borders of the district — which is next to Chhattisgarh — were sealed on March 21.

Labourers working in Chhattisgarh capital Raipur, however, continued to arrive till March 23. People got down near the border from private vehicles and crossed it by walking, according to villagers in the district. This happened despite a ban on public transport as a lockdown measure.

Most of the workers belonging to the villages of Sinapali block preferred a route that ran from Mainpur to Sinapali to avoid surveillance.

Many other construction workers from Nuapada district, who were working in Mumbai, consulted their family members on returning. Family members, however, advised them to stay back.

Several construction workers who returned had not taken any advance payment from their employers.

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