Waking up late

Nitish Kumar’s good governance image takes a beating with his inept handling of the return of migrant labourers and students to Bihar.

Published : May 05, 2020 15:38 IST

Migrants who arrived at Danapur railway station in Bihar by a special train from Bengaluru leave to board special buses arranged by the State government to reach their native places on May 5.

Migrants who arrived at Danapur railway station in Bihar by a special train from Bengaluru leave to board special buses arranged by the State government to reach their native places on May 5.

Ever since the COVID-19 outbreak began, the Bihar government has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. First, it said it would not allow migrant workers stranded elsewhere to return home lest they would bring infection with them. Then, it said that since the students stuck in coaching centres in Rajasthan’s Kota were from affluent classes they should stay there until the lockdown was over. This prompted many to see Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who is known as “Sushasan babu” (good governance man), as an insensitive politician in the hour of crisis.

Ever since the lockdown began, thousands of migrant labourers from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal have been taking to the streets in various parts the country demanding some form of transport so that they could go back home. Workers from Bihar clearly outnumbered those from other States. While some State governments requested the Centre to help their people get back home from places like Delhi, Maharashtra, Kerala, Rajasthan and Gujarat— where they were put up in shelter homes and provided with food—the Bihar government did nothing much to mitigate the misery of migrants from the State. Nitish Kumar went to the extent of issuing a statement saying that allowing these workers to come back would defeat the very purpose of the lockdown.

Even those who managed to reach the State’s border either by walking or by cycling thousands of kilometres were stopped at the border and quarantined in sub-standard facilities. Videos from these centres showed the pitiable living conditions there and the sparse food given to them.

Unlike other Chief Ministers who either visited the quarantine centres or hospitals or took the initiative to spread awareness among the people, Nitish Kumar did not make a single public appearance for nearly 40 days. The Bihar government, however, has been issuing statements every evening explaining how closely it is monitoring the situation and how well the State is handling the crisis.

“Nitish Kumar has abandoned the people of Bihar in this hour of crisis,” Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Tejaswi Yadav was quoted as saying.

Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) leaders, who did not want to be named, told Frontline that Nitish Kumar’s overrated leadership abilities had been exposed in these critical times. “Absolutely no testing is being done. Our hospitals, which even in normal times are understaffed and lacking in facilities, are horribly inadequate to deal with an outbreak. Everything has been left to the mercy of gods,” said a senior LJP leader.

Adding to the migrant workers’ woes, Nitish Kumar announced that the State government would not pay the travel fare for migrants who would be transported to the State through the trains named Shramik Special. Those who were left without any work or income or food or a proper place to stay in far-flung places had to shell out Rs.600-700 on an average for their journey. Reacting to the State government’s stand, the RJD announced that it would pay the train fares of people travelling by 50 such trains, and the Congress said it would pay the fare of every worker travelling back home. Only after noticing all-round criticism of its indifference and the offers of the opposition parties, the State government announced that it would pay not only the fares of workers travelling back home but also an additional amount of Rs.500 each.

Political dynamics

Political observers attribute the Nitish government’s flip-flop to the State’s strange political dynamics. According to them, there are only two political parties in Bihar that have grassroots support, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the RJD, and both lack a credible local face for the Chief Minister’s post. The BJP is forced to piggyback on Nitish Kumar’s mass appeal and wide acceptability.

Despite its appeal among the poor, the RJD is hamstrung by the incarceration of Lalu Prasad and remains a weak opposition . This puts Nitish Kumar in an invincible position. The RJD and the Congress may have to tweak their political strategies to make themselves acceptable to the non-backward, observers say.

“This is why Nitish Kumar has grown so arrogant in his behaviour. He thinks he can get away with anything. He knows migrant workers are not his vote bank. Unfortunately, even in such tragic times, politics comes before everything else in Bihar,” the LJP leader told Frontline .

Rajiv Ranjan, senior leader of the ruling Janata Dal (United), however, told Frontline that the Bihar government was doing everything possible notwithstanding its limited resources. He said the low number of COVID positive cases and almost negligible number deaths in the State are proof of that. “We are a poor State. If Nitish ji has not supported the moves to bring the labourers back, it is because we don’t have the resources for such a massive exercise. That is the reason he has been appealing to the Centre to make guidelines for facilitating this exercise,” he said.

According to official statistics, over 29 lakh migrant labourers have registered with the government to come back to the State. Unofficial sources put this figure at 32 lakh. “It is not possible to bring such a large number back. Even if we use trains, we will have to keep doing this exercise for one year, to say the least. Besides, there would be the problem of employment thereafter. We don’t have the wherewithal to give employment to so many people. How will we feed them?” asked another JD(U) leader.

Communal campaign

Bihar, surprisingly, has not had many COVID cases so far. At the time of writing this report, over 523 cases have been reported, with four deaths. Munger, with 102 cases, tops the list. Of 38 districts in Bihar, 31 have been affected so far. This, however, could be because the State lags behind in testing too. A total of 27,000 samples have been taken so far, which is highly inadequate in a State of over 12 crore people.

Significantly, communalism has raised its ugly head in the wake of COVID. In Biharsharief, on April 20, a group of Bajrang Dal activists went around planting saffron flags on shops/carts of Hindu vegetable vendors and issuing a warning against buying vegetables from Muslims. Two persons were arrested.

On the same day in Patna, a young man, Sunny Gupta, was killed in broad daylight, after a fight broke out between two communities over enforcing the lockdown. Strangely, while no arrests have been made in this case, the family members of the youth have been booked under various sections for violating the lockdown when they sought to take his body for cremation. This has created a lot of anger against the government. “Bihar is sitting on a communal cauldron,” said a Patna resident.

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