Incoming challenge

Print edition : May 22, 2020

Vehicles carrying stranded Keralites queuing up for clearance at a checkpost on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border at Walayar in Palakkad May 5. Photo: K. K. Mustafah

A family of migrant labour before leaving on their way home from Kannur railway station on May 3. Photo: S.K. MOHAN

With lots of emigrants returning home from abroad and from other States and the critical financial situation, the Kerala government faces challenges other than curbing the pandemic.

The first week of May was of great relief for Kerala, with no deaths or new COVID-19 positive cases reported for several days in a row and 462 (or 92.59 per cent) of 499 people who had tested positive recovering and leaving hospitals. There were no positive cases in six of the total 14 districts; in four of the remaining eight districts there was only one positive case each. Only about 21,724 persons were under observation, and of them just 372 in designated isolation facilities.

But May was also sure to be a month of rising concern in Kerala, with already 4.2 lakh emigrants registering with the NORKA-Roots website by May 4 for returning home from at least 12 countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, the United States, the United Kingdom, Malaysia and Singapore.

Similarly, in the first four days since registration started, 1.66 lakh Keralites stranded in other States also had registered in the NORKA website to return home, an operation that called for an entirely different and complex logistics if they were all to be monitored at the various border entry points in the State and their institutional or home quarantine ensured after proper medical check-up.

The largest numbers were from Karnataka (55,158), Tamil Nadu (50,863) and Maharashtra (22,515). People had also registered from Telangana, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. By May 4, as many as 28,722 people had applied for passes to travel to their home State, and though only 5,470 passes were issued in the first two days, many returnees were stranded on the way or at border points because of hurdles raised by the authorities in other States.

Though Kerala was not insisting on COVID-19 free certificates from those coming back from other States, the inter-State returnees needed travel permits to undergo medical screening in the States of their origins. Many could not afford private transport and therefore are forced to wait for public transport facilities to open after the lockdown.

Inter-State workers

Meanwhile, the State also faced rising demands from inter-State migrant workers now camping in labour camps for facilities to return home. In a few places, for instance in Malappuram district, where 65,255 such “guest workers” (as they are called in Kerala) were residing, the labourers even organised a street demonstration, a first in the district, demanding immediate transport facilities. The neighbouring Kozhikode district, too, witnessed such demonstrations.

After negotiations spread over several days with the Centre, other States and Railway authorities, a few special train services were launched from May 1. Nearly 6,000 guest workers left for their homes in the first two days to Jharkhand, Bihar and Odisha from various stations in Kerala.

However, many special train services were stopped abruptly after that as the home States of such workers denied approval for their immediate return as facilities for their arrival, including quarantine and further transport arrangements were reportedly not yet ready.

There are nearly 3.6 lakh guest workers in Kerala, and the State authorities say 300 to 400 special train services will be needed in the coming days to take all those who want to return back to their States.

The first trains to leave the State with guest workers saw a well-organised attempt by the Kerala government to identify those in the camps who wanted to return home, verify their documents, conduct medical check-ups and transport them to the respective railway stations in KSRTC (Kerala State Road Transport Corporation) buses and see them off in trains with travel permits, tickets and free food packets to last their long, non-stop journey and to ensure that they followed social distancing norms throughout the journey.

At the same time, there was widespread confusion too among guest workers as the first few trains could accommodate only very few people. Also, a large majority of them were in camps where lack of information on how to register for their journey home or about train schedules and cancellation of already announced special trains were leading to desperation and panic reactions. There were also complaints that guest workers located in camps away from the major centres and workers who had come on their own into the State (and not as a group under an employer or contractor) were being left out of the entire scheme.

Return from Gulf countries

But surely, the most sensitive issue the Kerala government needed to tackle was the return of Keralites from other countries, especially those in the Gulf countries. The opposition parties have found in this an opportunity to pounce on the State and Central governments for the delay in providing transport facilities to those living now in desperate and dangerous situations in other countries, especially those in the Gulf region.

State government sources have said Kerala expected about five lakh Keralites to return home. The Central government has planned to bring back passengers according to a list prepared by the respective embassies, “strictly on ‘payment basis’”. Flights are to be operated from May 7 and it will take 45 to 60 days to bring back the first lot of at least two lakh Keralites by flights and naval vessels to the three major cities, Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode.

As per early estimates, nearly 15,000 Indians are expected to return to the country during the first seven days from May 7. Nearly 64 flights are to be sent to 12 countries, six of them in the Gulf region, including the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman, and rest to the U.S., the U.K., Bangladesh, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore. The maximum number of flights would be operated to Kerala and Tamil Nadu among eight other States.

Initially, 15 services are to be operated to Kerala, mainly by Air India and some other private operators, with each flight carrying about 200 passengers on an average. Naval vessels are also being pressed into service and can carry between 800 to 850 people. Already two vessels were on their way to Dubai on May 5, with, the journey from Dubai to Kochi expected to take three and a half days.

Extensive arrangements

Meanwhile, as Frontline had already reported, the State authorities have already made extensive arrangements for a mass return of Keralites from abroad, including provision of 1.6 lakh beds in surveillance centres, 70,000 rooms with toilets, plus an additional two lakh bed accommodation facilities, 5,610 ICU beds in government and private hospitals and 1,966 ventilators. Those who do not have symptoms are to be transported to their homes for a 14-day quarantine immediately on arrival at the airport. Those who do not have facilities to quarantine themselves at home are to be sent to government facilities or to hotel rooms if they are willing to pay for them. Those who show symptoms of the disease are to be sent to surveillance centres or hospitals.

Fiscal crisis

But the most serious issue is the fiscal crisis Kerala is about to encounter, with the Central government ignoring its long-pending demands to raise the deficit ceiling of the State and to pay the GST (goods and services tax) arrears due to the State or for more resources for the health system.

According to a report by the State Planning Board, Kerala suffered a loss of Rs.29,000 crore as a result of the nationwide lockdown from the first 10 days in March to May 3. The agriculture sector alone, including the plantation sector, suffered a loss of Rs.1,570.75 crore. The fisheries sector suffered a loss of Rs.1,371 crore and the animal husbandry sector Rs.181 crore. Production loss in the industrial sector was an estimated Rs.8,000 crore. Hotel and restaurant sectors had an income loss of Rs.17,000 crore, and the tourism industry has had a temporary loss of Rs.20,000 crore. In the IT sector, there was a daily loss of 26,200 jobs and in allied informal sectors the job loss was 80,000 per day.

Unlike in many other States, the people, especially those belonging to the underprivileged sections, in Kerala were largely protected from the initial severe impact of the lockdown by the special measures implemented by the State government, among them an immediate livelihood package worth Rs.20,000 crore. The State had taken upon itself the responsibility of providing all the primary needs of the people, including free food and accommodation, free ration, food through community kitchens to all needy people, including thousands of “guest workers”, immediate release of welfare pensions and arrears, and interest free loans to thousands of members of the Kudumbashree network in addition to the provision of huge resources needed to run its acclaimed COVID-19 prevention efforts.

However, a serious financial crisis is threatening the State, which has already forced it even to issue an ordinance to defer a portion of the salary of its employees equivalent to six days for each month from April 2020 to August 2020—a total of one month’s salary by the end of the fifth month. The ordinance was issued after the Kerala High Court issued a two-month stay to an executive order issued by the government earlier to this effect, which was challenged by the opposition employees’ organisations.

The State has now no other go but to wait for assistance from the Central government if it is to move forward, with what the State Finance Minister says it has in hand now: “zero income”.