Bhubaneswar: The trickle of home-bound Odia migrant labourers, stuck in various parts of the country due to the coronavirus-induced lockdown, is slowly but surely turning into a torrent. The state government facilitated their return, but now seems ill-prepared to cope with it.
The first signs of the government hitting the panic button were visible on Sunday, with chief secretary Asit Tripathy warning the returnees who were violating quarantine norms of stern action, including arrest.
Tripathy’s warning came after more than 100 Surat-returned migrant workers, who had been lodged in two quarantine centres in Ganjam district, walked out, protesting the lack of facilities and the quality of food being served to them. Though Ganjam collector Vijay Amrut Kulange sought to play down the incident, saying that the returnees were yet to get acclimatised to the new environment, visuals of the protest shown by local TV channels made their anger clear.
Apparently alarmed by the development, the chief secretary issued a stiff warning to the ‘refractory’ quarantine centre inmates. “The returnees, who are creating nuisance and escaping from quarantine centres will be shifted and will be kept at quarantine centres away from their districts. If they violate the rules they may even face arrest. Their quarantine period will be extended and no incentive will be paid to them after the completion of quarantine period,” said Tripathy. He directed local sarpanches, who have been invested with powers of district collector by the government, to closely monitor the quarantine conditions and take necessary action against the violators.
The warning, however, provoked immediate protests from civil society members, who felt that the government, instead of admitting its own shortcomings in making proper arrangements for the distressed migrant workers, was trying intimidate them and put them under unnecessary stress.
“The truth is that proper quarantine facilities have not been created at several places. Even a sufficient number of toilets are not available. So there is bound to be resentment. The government should have made better preparations,” said Bidyut Mohanty, founder and secretary of the Koraput-based non-profit, Society for Promotion of Rural Education and Development (SPREAD).
The magnitude of the problem seems to have unnerved the government. While it had initially estimated that not more than five lakh migrant workers stuck in different parts of the country would register themselves for return to Odisha, 4.82 lakh people instead registered themselves within 48 hours of the state government opening its portal.
The truth is that on a rough estimate, around 20 lakh Odias are working in different parts of the country, a sizeable chunk of whom are seasonal migrants. They go out every year in search of work from the hunger zones of Kalahandi, Bolangir, Nuapada and Bargarh. Ganjam, the home district of chief minister Naveen Patnaik, accounts for the majority of the Odia labour force working in the textile factories of Surat and other parts of Gujarat.
“The problem with the government is it does not have reliable data on this migrant work force. The figures available are completely obsolete. Absence of authentic data is bound to hamstring the government in making preparations for the return of this workforce which suddenly finds itself in distress because of the lock-down,” said Umi Daniel who has studied the phenomenon of distress migration closely.
The civil society activist also feels that Odisha government’s response to distress call of these migrant workers stranded in cities like Surat could have been much better organised. “The state government has a lot of experience of dealing with natural disasters and rescuing people caught in difficult situations. This operation should have been organised entirely at government’s cost instead of workers paying for their bus journey. They were already under a lot of mental and financial stress,” said Daniel.
The state government has also been accused of being late in responding to the SOS calls of the migrant workers hit hard by the lockdown. It acted only after there were violent demonstrations in Surat by Odia workers desperate to return home. Some of them were also arrested. With media reporting such incidents extensively, the state machinery moved and chief minister spoke to his counterparts in states like Gujarat and Maharashtra to facilitate the return of Odias stranded within their territories.
“And even after the government decided to act it was hamstrung by lack of authentic data on the migrant labour force. No wonder it was underprepared and is now facing all kinds of problems in dealing with the home-bound workers,” said eminent right to food activist Rajkishore Mishra.
State government claims to have set up dedicated quarantine-cum-isolation centres in villages, municipal areas and panchayats across Odisha. Public places such as schools, colleges, cyclone-cum-flood shelters, anganwadi kendras and panchayat buildings have been converted into temporary hospitals and isolation centres.
Ganjam, the home district of the chief minister, is expecting around two lakh returnees. “We are making arrangements according to our capacity,” said Ganjam collector Vijay Amrut Kulange. But even that may not be enough.
Leader of opposition, Pradipta Kumar Nayak lashed out at the government for not paying heed to his advice of drawing up a comprehensive plan for making proper arrangements for the stay of the huge workforce returning to the state in quarantine centres. “The reality is that many of these centres don’t have proper toilets and drinking water facilities. These things have to be planned in advance,” he said.
Ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) general secretary Bijay Nayak, however, rubbished the allegation, asserting that the state government had made the best possible arrangements in the quarantine centres. “Our government has gone out of its way to help people. But unruly elements are everywhere. Chief secretary has rightly warned such trouble makers of stern action,” said Nayak.
Civil society activist Umi Daniel, however, points to another dimension of this labour problem that the government would be facing once the migrants returning to the state are released from the quarantine centres after the mandatory lock-in period of 14 days.
“The biggest challenge will be providing them jobs. The government has been talking about doubling man-days under MGNREGA from five lakh to ten lakh per day, but it may not have taken into account the coming monsoon when it would become near impossible to generate so many man-days. Besides, there will be skilled and semi-skilled labourers who have to be identified and suitably employed. This is going to be a tall order,” he averred.