Mumbai: Maharashtra’s Nandurbar district administration was in for a shock as several trucks began to enter the district limits on the intervening night of April 27 and 28. These trucks were packed with migrant workers sent to the district from across the Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh border. The movement was sudden and the authorities were clueless. By the end of the day, the district administration says, close to 3,000 workers had been pushed into the state limit—some in trucks and others by foot.
The workers, belonging to Bhil and Powara tribes, have been working in the sugarcane cooperatives in Surat and Tapi and some as daily wage workers in several districts of Madhya Pradesh. The official figures claim that around 12,000-13,000 workers are stuck in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh for over a month and could not return to Maharashtra because of the nationwide lockdown and also the strict Ministry of Home Affairs’ (MHA) order that no interstate movement can be permitted. This, according to the district administration, is only 20% of the total migration.
“Close to one lakh people travel to these states for work. While most of them had managed to return just before Holi, others got stuck because of the lockdown. Since then, they have been at the mercy of the owners of the sugarcane cooperatives and the state governments there,” Nandurbar district collector Rajendra Bharud told The Wire.
The MHA, on April 29, more than a month of strict restrictions on interstate movement, decided to relax its earlier orders and has now permitted migrant workers to return to their home state, provided there is a coherent synergy and plan in place between the states sending and receiving migrant workers. What happened in Nandurbar, however, was before the Central government’s decision and the Maharashtra government says it an “inhuman and irresponsible act” by the Gujarat and MP governments.
After the influx of migrant workers, the Nandurbar district administration has been manning its 22 checkpoints and over 180 villages on state borders to identify those who were suddenly sent into the state limits. The state’s tribal minister and district guardian minister K.C. Padavi says that the decision to send these workers back was sudden, taken without consulting the Maharashtra state government.
Since then, both Padavi and Nandurbar district collector Rajendra Bharud have sent letters to the MP and Gujarat state administrations, seeking an explanation for their “inhuman and irresponsible act” of allowing so many tribal workers to enter Maharashtra amid the national lockdown, without due consultation. Padavi says he decided to take a chance and arrange for the workers’ health to be checked since they were already under stress. Facilities are also being arranged to quarantine workers who show symptoms of COVID-19.
Collector Bharud said, “Suddenly around 3 am, a large number of people entered Nandurbar. We had no clue where they were coming from. After an inquiry, we found out they were tribals from Nandurbar district who had been working at sugarcane cooperatives in Surat and Tapi and a few districts of Madhya Pradesh.”
Bharud said that the workers worked at over 100 different sugarcane cooperatives situated in Gujarat and MP and were forced to travel back to Maharashtra since the owners of those cooperatives refused to take responsibility. “Most of these sugarcane factories are owned by the local politicians. Most workers have returned without collecting their wages. They were not provided food or even an allowance to travel back home,” Bharud told The Wire.
The local administration of the two states had issued permission letters even when the MHA had clearly stated that interstate movement is barred. “While trucks and a few vehicles from Gujarat had permission from the local tehsildars, the MP government had issued a blanket permission allowing the movement on April 26. These permissions are illegal since we had a clear standing instruction from the Central government not to allow any such movement,” he added.
For the past two days, the district administration has been busy setting up health check-up camps and has been screening people for symptoms of COVID-19 and other ailments. “Many workers had travelled hundreds of kilometres, passing through difficult hilly and forest terrains. Among them were women and children too. Since a few of them had developed fever and cold, we immediately quarantined them,” Bharud said.
Similar incident on Maharashtra-Karnataka border
A similar incident occurred on the Maharashtra-Karnataka border, where more than 3,000 labourers from various north Indian states are stranded and have been waiting for permission to pass through Maharashtra. These workers have been stopped near Dhoolakhed at Chadchan taluk in Vijayapura district.
Padavi has accused the BJP of playing “dirty politics” and causing distress to the migrant workers. “Our state has been taking care of several workers from Gujarat, MP and Karnataka and we will continue to do so. But these state governments are hell-bent in causing more stress and are using poor, marginalised workers to play their dirty politics. It is a serious humanitarian crisis and these states are responsible,” Padavi said.
This is not the first time that the Gujarat government has shown hostility towards Maharashtra state and its workers. On March 31, around 120 labourers – women and children included – had to undergo a gruesome ordeal after they were forcibly packed into an enclosed container truck and pushed into Maharashtra state limits. The Valsad district administration was responsible for the incident and the workers were rescued on reaching Palghar district in Maharashtra.
Maharashtra, right now, is housing close to eight lakh workers across the state. Bharud says there are at least 4,000 workers from Gujarat and MP in Nandurbar and two neighbouring districts, Dhule and Nashik. “These workers contribute to our economy. They have literally built this state with their labour. The least that any government can do is provide them with shelter and food during such a crisis. We will host them for as long as this crisis lasts,” Bharud added.