Bengal villagers take up policing as migrants return from other states

Topics Coronavirus | Migrants | West Bengal

On March 23,  when Tapan Biswas, who works as a mason in Kerala, came back to his home at Madarihat in north Bengal's Alipurduar, his neighbours were swift to inform the police about his arrival. However, for five days, Biswas was not traceable while police, local Panchayat members and neighbours kept looking for him. Biswas says he was hiding at his home as he was petrified by the prospect of being taken away by police for a health check up. Nevertheless, Biswas was screened for Covid-19 and let go after being asked to stay in isolation for two weeks. However, flustered with constant vigil of people, he says, “Everyone is saying I went out, when I didn’t. I am being harassed. What is my fault? I came home after 5 days of travel and this is how I am treated here. ”

Few days back, nearly seven migrant labourers quarantined themselves since they arrived in their village on March 25 from Chennai.

In the last ten to fifteen days, West Bengal has seen huge inflow of migrant workers as they returned home due to Coronavirus scare. However, their return has triggered a sense of fear among locals, prompting them to take upon themselves the task of policing, so as to protect against community transmission of Covid -9. 

According to P Nita, villages in north Bengal, one of the hubs of migrant workers in Bengal, villages have drawn their own boundaries and are informing police as soon as they are seeing an unknown face in their territory. “The locals have been so proactive that even outside bazaars, arrangements have been made for soap and water and no one is allowed to enter the market without washing hands,” she says.

On the flip side, on a long term, such policing might also take the form of social ostracisation and fight over resources.

“Bengal villages have traditionally been vigilant and responsible. However, in the present form, social distancing, might also lead to a long term trend of social ostracisation. We can already getting reports that in some villages migrant workers are not being allowed to enter the villages,” says Dilip Benerjee, an Ashoka fellow who has studied migration pattern in West Bengal.

According to a government official in one of the districts falling the Sundarban regions in South 24 Parganas, it is difficult for migrant workers to slip through the villages as at all entry points, especially at ferry terminals, they are being questioned. The Sundarban region, which had a large migrant population working in Kerala, has seen one of the highest inflow of these workers in the last two weeks . There are about 54 inhabited islands in the region, and the only way to commute is through waterway. The government has also restricted the movement of commodities like vegetables and food articles from one island to another, said a government official.

At Ghoramara, one the remote and fastest sinking islands of Sundarbans, nearly 75 migrant workers came in the last fortnight, according to a Panchayat official in the region. Meanwhile, locals are already battling massive erosion, and one of the government schools in the island is set to drown due to erosion in the next three to four months, according to the official. Thus, the influx of migrant labourers is also seen as a huge pressure on resources and livelihood options. 

The situation is even more grim in north Bengal, where options of farming are limited.  

“Whatever food grains we had, we have exhausted them. There is no source of income now and we used to survive on daily wages by selling wood for living.  If this lockdown continues, we will die of hunger,” says Bhuvin, a resident of Kalchini in Alipurduar district of West Bengal.

According to Census data 2011, West Bengal ranked fourth among states in terms of outward migration. The numbers have only gone up since then. In the last two decades, West Bengal has seen a massive wave of outward migration, especially to states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Delhi and Maharashtra due to lack of employment opportunities in West Bengal.

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