A Pandemic and an election: Covid19-led migration to test Bihar alliance

The state government announced Rs 100 crore to bear expenses of migrant workers stranded in other states.
Rakesh Kumar used to sell plants and saplings on his cart in Gurugram. The day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced Janata Curfew, he decided to sell those plants and saplings at throwaway prices, to no avail. “I have not been able to sell a single plant. I would return to my village… I have no money to feed my family. The way things are going, the situation would only be grimmer in the coming days,” said Kumar, a native of Samastipur district in Bihar.

His apprehensions came true: On Tuesday night, Modi announced a 21-day national lockdown to limit the spread of coronavirus. With trains and other modes of transportation shut, Kumar -- who was left with little cash -- decided to head home on his cycle cart.

He is one of the scores of migrants across the country who are left with little choice but to walk or cycle hundreds of kilometres on highways to return to their hometowns and villages. Many of them are headed to Bihar -- with no food and water and without any safety net from the government of the state, which will soon be poll-bound. Therefore, the political impact of this crisis cannot be ignored.

The crisis

At the time of writing this report, more than 500 people have been tested in Bihar. The state has also reported 10 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and registered one death.

As the situation worsened across the country, for the first couple of weeks in March, the state government didn’t seem to be perturbed by the developing crisis.

The death of a 38-year-old Munger resident, who was admitted to All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Patna, for kidney ailments and tested positive for COVID-19, finally forced the state government to sound the alarm. It stopped bus services across the state to restrict the movement of people. By then thousands of migrants were already homebound in trains or buses.

The state government announced a relief package on March 22. “Rs 1,000 per family will be given to all ration cardholder families in the state. The amount will be transferred directly their bank accounts,” said Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in a video-recorded message. The state government also announced one month’s basic pay to all doctors and nurses as an incentive. Besides, it decided to pay social pensions for three months in advance.

A day later, the state government announced Rs 100 crore to bear expenses of migrant workers stranded in other states.

The government also announced a Corona Eradication Fund and decided to deduct a minimum Rs 50 lakh from the funds under the MLA and MLC Local Area Development Scheme.

But this is not enough, say experts.

Gaps in the story

“Since the beginning of this crisis, thousands of people have returned to Bihar,” said Muzaffarpur-based Dr Arun Shah, adding, “the state government failed to properly document most of them. Thousands are on their way. This is horrifying. There is every possibility of an outbreak of COVID -19 in Bihar and the state government is not ready.” Dr Shah is a noted paediatrician, who is known for his work on acute encephalitis syndrome (AES).

The state government has already accepted that six confirmed cases had no travel history.

The combination of an epidemic and a crumbling health infrastructure makes most health experts fear the worst. “The network of primary health centres and community health centres is virtually non-existent in the state. Therefore, all the major government hospitals in the state are constantly over-crowded and over-burdened,” said a senior doctor at a major government hospital in Patna.

Bihar, along with the neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, scored the lowest in the NITI Aayog’s Health Index-2019. According to an affidavit filed by the state government in July last year in the Supreme Court, there was a 57 per cent shortage of doctors, 71 per cent of nurses, 72 per cent of lab technicians, and 50 per cent of auxiliary nurse-midwives. The affidavit was filed by the state government in response to a notice issued by the apex court after the death of hundreds of children because of AES.

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar (left) greets BJP president Amit Shah in Patna on Thursday PTI

Such is the condition of Patna Medical College and Hospital that doctors had to rely on contributions to buy masks. This is when the hospital has an annual budget of almost Rs 300 crore.
Dr Shah said: “The state doesn’t even have enough masks and gloves, let alone personal protection equipment, for frontline health workers. Only one laboratory in Patna, Rajendra Medical Research Institute, is equipped to test COVID-19 samples. After the initial confirmation, the samples are sent to National Virology Laboratory, Pune, for secondary confirmation. It takes a week for this confirmation. There are not enough kits. There would be no more than 200-250 ventilators for a population of 110 million. There are not simply enough beds in hospitals.”

Eye on the election

While Opposition parties have extended their support in the fight against the epidemic, they have kept an eye on the upcoming Assembly election, scheduled later this year. The Rashtriya Janata Dal has offered to make its state headquarters a quarantine centre or an isolation ward. Tejashwi Yadav has sent a cheque of Rs 1.25 crore for the CM Relief Fund and asked his MLAs to provide all possible help.

“The situation of health services in India is already disturbing. And, Bihar is at the bottom of this. The recent crisis denotes that we have not learned from the mistakes of other countries. A large number of people in districts, such as Gopalganj, Siwan, Katihar, and Patna, go to Gulf countries to earn their livelihood and many of them returned in recent days. But there was virtually no screening of them and nor their movement was being tracked. The state government has not even set up a separate counter for patients showing symptoms of COVID-19 infection. While the CMs of Kerala and West Bengal are out on the street looking after management, Nitish Kumar hasn’t left his home,” said RJD leader Shivanand Tiwary.

On Saturday and Sunday, while thousands of migrant labourers from Bihar were standing in long queues at Anand Vihar Bus Terminal in Delhi, hoping to get a ride back home, Nitish Kumar rued the decisions of states to send back them in buses. "The very purpose of the lockdown will be defeated if thousands of migrants are sent back to Bihar in buses. My government has asked the Bihar Resident Commissioner in Delhi to coordinate with various state governments and reimburse the cost of their food and stay," said Kumar. Interestingly, it was his deputy and senior BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi who asked UP CM Yogi Adityanath's help in this matter.

Despite the truce in wake of the recent crisis, political analysts say the situation may become an issue during campaigning. They point out the fact that most of the migrants who are marching back to Bihar belong to backward communities.

“They already feel that the government of India sent planes to evacuate wealthy Indians stranded abroad, but it doesn’t have money for them. The high unemployment rate in Bihar and lack of industrial growth have forced them to venture outside the state. Most of these labourers and workers belong to marginalised sections of society. The lockdown, while necessary, broke their economic backbone,” said one analyst.

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