Migrant’s homecoming: Here’s why it is a logistical migraine

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BY ANINDYA BANERJEE

New Delhi, May 1 (IANS) Within days of Prime Minister Narendra Modi announcing a sudden countrywide 21-day lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus in the country, Pushpa Devi along with her two daughters, one son and differently-abled husband started a walk from the national capital. They were part of a growing crowd.
They made their way back home to Aligarh after catching a bus from Anand Vihar terminus, but a significant lot continued to remain stranded in different states, often with very little to eat and almost no money to buy milk for their kids. However, as the Centre allowed them to return home and a multi agency, multi state effort has kicked in, this turns out to be India’s biggest logistical nightmare amid a pandemic that has shut India’s economy.

Buses versus Trains:

This Wednesday, after detailed deliberations, the Union Home Ministry brought a smile on the face of countless migrant workers like the ones who had hoped to travel to their respective states and gathered at Mumbai’s Bandra Terminus. It issued fresh guidelines for interstate movement to allow stranded migrant labourers, tourists and even students to return them home. Thus far, only movement of essential commodities were allowed among states. States must arrange for sanitized buses for transportation, it said.
But many states said it is not unfeasible to move such a large number of migrants through buses. They said, not only enormous numbers of buses will be required but it will take forever for them to reach back. Four instance, travel between Meghalaya and Rajasthan can take days, which are separated by 2,224 kms. Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot wrote to Modi questioning the feasibility of using buses for transport, while Bihar’s Deputy CM Sushil Modi asked for trains.
After running a test train this morning at 5 AM between Telangana and Jharkhand, the government has okayed special trains for bringing started irate labourers home. While the Railway Ministry has been entrusted to work out a plan, it needs appointing nodal officers, ascertaining genuine applicants, ensuring social distancing while getting the job done of ferrying hundreds and thousands of laborers from across India.

States already on the go:

The Uttar Pradesh government has said that it has arranged for 1,000 buses to ferry the migrants back home. Buses were scrambled for Kanpur, Ballia, Varanasi, Gorakhpur, Azamgarh, Faizabad, Basti, Pratapgarh, Sultanpur, Amethi, Rae Bareli, Gonda, Etawah, Bahraich and Shravasti.
Around 1,200 migrants left for Jharkhand on a special train inside which 54 passengers were allowed in each bogeys instead of 72.
Meanwhile, Kerala minister VS Sunil Kumar said that another special train is scheduled to depart Kerala’s Ernakulam this evening for Odisha’s capital city Bhubaneswar. Over 1,000 people are traveling in that train.
Meanwhile, the first bus carrying 30 students, who were stranded due to the nationwide lockdown in Rajasthan’s Kota, arrived in West Bengal on Friday morning, the police said. “We are really happy to be back after so many days of lockdown. We were in real trouble there. We must thank our state government for taking such an initiative,” said Rajiunnisa, a student from Murshidabad, who got stuck in Kota due to the shutdown, while speaking to IANS.

Matter doesn’t end with homecoming

This will not be an easy task, to say the least. First of all the railway ministry needs to determine the number of trains that need to be run and on what route. Each train needs to be run under capacity to ensure social distancing. Screening before travel as was proposed for travel through buses will also be a herculean task.
Once the passengers reach, it remains to be seen whether they are quarantined for 14 days by the state governments and if they do, whether it will be in a government facility.
The challenge will be all the more severe for states like Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh that send the maximum number of migrants. For instance, a day before Modi had announced the lockdown, around 40,000 migrant workers had reached Bihar. To ensure the state does not face a COVID-19 outbreak, the Bihar Government had put them in a special facility at borders and let them go home only after due screening. Screening 40,000 workers takes time and hence the state had to arrange for their stay and food while arranging social distancing within that facility. Needless to say it costs crores of rupees too.
Once the new tranches of migrant workers reach these three states, it will be a logistical nightmare where they need to be screened, kept away from each other, fed and provided medical assistance when needed.
It also means, appointing nodal people down to the level of village panchayats who will ensure the migrants who return stay in quarantine and keep a watch whether they develop any symptoms.
BJP MP Vinay Sahasrabuddhe says, ” The government is mindful of the robustness of the exercise. But it is also mindful of the fact that migrant laborers were to go home. That’s why the Centre is taking the states along. It is indicative of its empathy towards the migrant laborers.”

(Anindya Banerjee can be reached at anindya.b@ians.in)