Seal border to stop migrant workers: Centre issues advisory to states

Migrant workers board crowded buses to their respective villages, amid a nationwide lockdown, in Ghaziabad on Sunday. Photo: PTI
Fearing a renewed surge of coronavirus (Covid-19) cases by the movement of migrant labour, a panicky central government cracked down hard on state administrations across India, including some run by the Bharatiya Janata Party, for allowing migrants to move across cities and highways and ordered that not only should labour stay where it was, but that the administration must take steps to ensure its well-being in situ.

The massive exodus of migrant labour from industrial and commercial centres like Noida, Ghaziabad, Thiruvananthapuram, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, and Kolkata had caused chaos on Saturday, leading to fears that long queues of people jostling and pushing could lead to a surge in cases.

These were people who, having lost their jobs after a lockdown and with no savings, food or shelter, decided to return home. Many took recourse to walking long distances, but realising the political damage queues of people trudging on roads with their belongings on their backs could cause in the future, some state governments, including the Uttar Pradesh (UP) government led by Yogi Adityanath, quickly announced they were arranging transport to ferry them to their villages. This, in turn, led to even larger numbers massing on borders and at bus stations of bigger cities.

This lead to a spat between Delhi Chief Minister (CM) Arvind Kejriwal and the Centre, with Kejriwal charging that his pleas to reassure labour that their basic needs would be met where they were, became ineffectual when Adityanath offered transport to migrants.

On Sunday, following discussions with the Centre, state governments put elaborate plans in place to monitor those who had already reached home and to prevent more from travelling out, so that the spirit of the all-India lockdown was maintained.

After a high-level meeting chaired by Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba on Sunday, the government issued fresh directions that district and state borders be effectively sealed and opened only for goods movement.

Migrant workers along with their family members wait to board buses to their respective villages, amid a nationwide lockdown in wake of coronavirus pandemic, at Lal Quarter Bus Stand in New Delhi, Sunday | Photo: PTI

“District magistrates and superintendents of police in the respective states will be made personally responsible for implementation of these directions which have been issued under the Disaster Management Act,” an order issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs said.

The states have been asked to stop incoming buses at the border and place the occupants on mandatory 14-day quarantine. Food and other essentials should be made available to the people during this period, the Centre said.

Action should be taken against landlords who are asking such tenants to vacate, the Centre said. Food and shelter provided to the needy — including migrant labourers — be made available at the place of their work. Sufficient funds are available with the states for this, the Centre said. Also, employers should pay the workers for the lockdown period, it added. Although there is no official count of migrant labour, UP is among the states contributing a sizeable chunk.

Earlier, the UP government had advised migrant workers to stay put where they were and had appointed nodal officers, comprising a senior bureaucrat and a police officer each, for the different states, including Delhi, Maharashtra, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Odisha, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, etc to coordinate with the respective administrations in ensuring they get food and are not harassed by their landlords during the interim lockdown period.

However, the influx started when Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi announced that the lockdown would continue till April 14. After this, the state government deployed a fleet of over 1,000 UP State Road Transport Corporation buses to ferry these migrant labourers to their districts. Most of these labourers were bound for the central and eastern UP districts viz., Varanasi, Gorakhpur, Ghazipur, Ayodhya, Gonda, Sultanpur, Bahraich, etc.

Ghaziabad: Migrants wait to board a bus to their native villages, during a nationwide lockdown imposed in the wake of coronavirus pandemic, at Kaushambi in Ghaziabad. Photo: PTI

The state government has allocated Rs 13.50 crore to the various districts to arrange for the stay of these workers, apart from screening and quarantine facilities at the local level. The government is utilising the vacant premises, such as schools, colleges, community centres for such temporary arrangements.

“They will be allowed to go home only after serving the mandatory quarantine period at these facilities,” said UP Additional Chief Secretary Awanish Kumar Awasthi.

The government is mobilising social and religious organisations for setting up community kitchens for them, so that they can be provided with food packets during the period of their stay at these places.

Meanwhile, Adityanath asked nodal officers to try convincing the people of UP origin working in other states to observe social distancing and remaining in their current locations. Besides, the district authorities have been directed to monitor people who have already arrived from other states over the past few days. The authorities have contacted nearly 60,000 gram pradhans via personnel manning the CM helpline to reach out and keep track of those who have returned home, intimate the health officials if they exhibit symptoms corresponding to Covid-19.

Meanwhile, having previously assured the government of its cooperation, the Opposition Congress party on Sunday said the Centre had got it all wrong. In a letter to the PM, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said India was different from all other countries and a total lockdown would not be effective here.

“It is critical for us to understand India’s conditions are unique. We will be required to take different steps than other large countries that are following a total lockdown strategy,” he said in a letter to the PM. This contradicts the position of some in his own party members who had not only asked for a strict lockdown but also demanded Parliament be shut as part of this process.

Migrant workers along with their family members wait to board buses to their respective villages, amid a nationwide lockdown in wake of coronavirus pandemic, at Lal Quarter Bus Stand in New Delhi, Sunday | Photo: PTI

Gandhi said the number of poor people in India who are dependent on a daily income is too large to unilaterally shut all economic activities in the wake of the pandemic. “The consequences of a complete economic shutdown will disastrously amplify the death toll arising from Covid-19,” he feared.

“The sudden lockdown has created immense panic and confusion,” he said, adding factories, small industries, and construction sites have closed, and tens of thousands of migrant labourers are undertaking the arduous journey to reach their home states.

Gandhi said the labourers have been rendered vulnerable without their daily wages or access to nutrition and basic services. “It is important that we help such sections find shelter and provide them with money directly into their bank accounts to help them tide over the next few months,” he said. The Congress leader added that a complete lockdown will almost certainly lead to millions of unemployed youth rushing to their villages, thus, increasing the risk of infecting their parents and the elderly population living in villages. “This will result in a catastrophic loss of life,” he noted.

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