COVID-19: Our government failed us, say Nepalese workers stranded at border

The govt has refused to let in thousands of workers who wanted to migrate back to Nepal until lockdown is lifted

By Raman Paudel
Published: Thursday 09 April 2020
At a quarantine facility in Uttrakhand's Darchula district. Photo: Raman Paudel

Standing at the India-Nepal border, hundreds of Nepalese migrant workers shouted: “Open the border for us.”

More than a thousand Nepalese migrant labourers working in India were stranded at Nepal’s western border Mahakali bridge, before they were taken to separate quarantine facilities in India.

They were among thousands migrants who headed homes after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an unprecedented 21-day nationwide lockdown on March 24 in the wake of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Nepalese workers were particularly hassled as on the same day, Nepal, too, announced a two-week lockdown to contain COVID-19 spread. It was extended by one week on April 6.

Until the lockdown is lifted, Nepal’s border security police would not allow them in their own country. Foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali said no one could be allowed to cross the border during lockdown.

All stranded workers came from Indian cities of Champaran, Pithoragadh and Dharchula where they worked as daily wager labourers.

Their protest started on March 29, when the Nepal police stopped them at border in Dharchula. One of the protesters, Nara Bhadur Bist, recorded the video of the protest and posted it on social media.

The matter escalated when three of them dived into river Mahakali from the bridge, following which they were arrested.

“We are disappointed because of the government’s ignorance,” said Indra Singh Khatri, who took care of mules in India.

He was among the three who plunged in the river to cross the border and was put under quarantine.

“We could not even talk with our local representatives and serviceman,” he said.

“Our government, our leaders have failed us. Why do I have a citizenship card? Only for voting?” said Ramesh, another migrant worker. He also dived into the river and was under quarantine.

All workers have been sheltered in five different locations in Uttrakhand’s Dharchula district.

All of them have one demand — that they be allowed to cross the border first and get tested for the virus or quarantined.

According to workers at one shelter facility, facilities were abysmal and they were not allowed to use toilet at night.

“There is lack of water, proper beds and food here. Social distancing norms are not being followed. It’s a mess. Some of us are already sick with fever, but no body is bothered,” said Chandra Singh.

“This is a jail, not a quarantine facility,” he added.

The places where workers have been sheltered include a mini-stadium, GIC building in Baluwakot, fire brigade building in Galati, gaushala near Mahakali river and Ramlila maidan in JaulJivi.

A few days since the protest, the border has finally settled into calm.

“Neither the provincial nor the federal government took us seriously. Nepal should be responsible for its citizens. They could at least test us for COVID-19 and send the ones who test negative back home.”

Dharchula district vice-officer Anil Kumar Shukla said that he requested Nepal officials to take their citizens back.

“I have not received any response from Nepal. I see them suffering here and we are also not able to address their problem. We can only provide them meals,” Shukla added.

When COVID-19 had surfaced in Wuhan, the Nepal government had chartered a plane for bringing back over180 Nepalese students from China.

Nepal officials, meanwhile, continue to be apprehensive over taking the stranded workers back.

“We have discussed the matter with the Indian government. It is ready to provide them food with shelter,” said Yadunath paudel, CDO, district Darchula in Nepal.

While border police maintained cannot allow the workers to enter without coronavirus test certificate, Sher Bahadur Deuba, opposition leader in parliament and former prime minister said his party Nepali Congress will address their issues.

Most labourers have been sleeping under a low-quality tin roof. At least 30 people are sleeping under a same hall with no blanket or proper bed.

No worker has tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 so far.

Meanwhile, activists and human rights groups condemned the government for “their ignorance towards their own people”.

On March 23, over 500 migrant workers entered Nepal from south border. Nepal police arrested them and put them under quarantine. However, all of them escaped the same day saying that the quarantine “did not have basic facilities”.

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