Uttar Pradesh

Anxiety over arrivals

Print edition : May 22, 2020

Migrant labourers who arrived in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh, from Gujarat by a special train stand in a queue as they prepare to leave for their native villages. Photo: Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP

Migrant workers aboard a special train leaving Mohali, Punjab, on May 7 and bound for their home town of Hardoi in Uttar Pradesh. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

Uttar Pradesh is waiting with trepidation for the return of several lakh migrants throughout May.

“Even though Uttar Pradesh is the most populous State in the country, the number of COVID-19 cases are comparatively lower than in other States, especially when we look at the population to positive cases ratio.” This is the refrain of senior officials of the State government, including the Health Department’s Principal Secretary, Amit Mohan Prasad, in their briefings on the COVID-19 relief activities in Uttar Pradesh. Officials have also stressed that an important reason for this situation is widespread screening and surveillance. Talking to the media on May 5, Prasad said: “So far 50,193 teams have been involved in the surveillance work and have covered more than 43.56 lakh houses and screened at least 2.16 crore people.”

However, the Union Health Ministry’s tabulation on the evening of May 5 showed that deaths due to COVID-19 in Uttar Pradesh had shot up by 71 percentage points over the preceding seven days. A similar tabulation for active COVID-19 cases for the same period showed that the rate of increase in Uttar Pradesh was just 16 percentage points, much lower than the national average of 45 percentage points. Talking about these figures, a senior Union Health Ministry official pointed out, off the record, that the message for the Uttar Pradesh government, and indeed for all governments, was that screening and surveillance needed to be followed up with good clinical care. He was also of the view that the manner in which the public health care system in Kerala had rallied around to provide adequate clinical care to those identified as “active” was the definitive model for the other States to follow.

Many officials at various levels of the Uttar Pradesh government machinery acknowledge that the deficiencies in “good clinical care” will be more glaring in the days to come, especially in the context of the return to the State of migrants from different parts of India and foreign countries. In fact, Uttar Pradesh is one of the States that has led the effort to bring people belonging to the State back from other parts of the country and the world. Special trains have been launched nationwide from the first week of May to bring migrants back to their home States, and it is clear Uttar Pradesh will be receiving a high number of these trains.

On May 3, 3,000 migrant workers arrived in Lucknow and Gorakhpur, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s political bastion, primarily from Maharashtra. With close to 20 trains being put into service, the daily arrivals are expected to be in the range of 10,000 migrant workers. Additional Chief Secretary (Home) Awanish Kumar Awasthi told the media after the first arrivals: “The State government is preparing to receive about 18 to 20 trains each day, on an average of one train in one division. These will include about six trains coming from Maharashtra and six from Gujarat. The government has also coordinated with the Punjab government, and trains are likely to arrive from Ludhiana, Amritsar and Chandigarh soon. Another set of trains is expected to bring back migrants from Karnataka and Kerala.” He also said that over 50,000 people, including workers and students, had already returned to the State in the last week of April and the first week of May. These apparently included approximately 11,000 people from Haryana, 6,000 from Madhya Pradesh, 11,000 from Rajasthan and 1,500 from Uttarakhand and 12,000 students from Kota in Rajasthan, who were brought back on the special instructions of the Chief Minister . Through the month, the State Home Department estimates that approximately 10 lakh workers will return from different parts of the country.

A senior official in the State Health Department, who is also a specialist doctor, told Frontline on condition of anonymity that this new influx would thoroughly expose the veritable absence of a functional community quarantine system in Uttar Pradesh. “The long-standing deficiencies of the State’s public health systems, especially at the level of primary public health centres, are also bound to get woefully laid bare as these migrants come back to their homes. The effect of this, coupled with the lack of preparedness in placing these people into effective quarantine facilities, poses a daunting challenge. As of now, our… do not even seem to have a clue as to how this will pan out and to what proportions this will exacerbate the pandemic. I am of the view that the after-effects of this new influx will conclusively prove that lockdown by itself cannot flatten the COVID curve, which unfortunately seems to be the only strategy that the Uttar Pradesh and Union governments seem to have at this point.”

On its part, the government has deployed approximately 10,000 buses to ferry the returning migrant labourers to their home districts. About 50,000 medical teams have also been deployed to screen them for the coronavirus before sending them to a 14-day home quarantine. “All those being sent to home quarantine will be monitored through committees formed under the gram pradhan in rural areas and under corporators in the municipal areas of the State,” Awasthi told the media. He also mentioned that Yogi Adityanath had directed officials to prepare a “labour reforms” work plan in the next few days to provide jobs to migrants once they completed the quarantine.

The fact that the returning migrant workers were made to pay their rail fares has generated considerable public rancour and has led to a social and political controversy. Social and human rights organisations and political forces such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Congress have termed the “rail ticket fare collection callous and inhuman”. S.P. president Akhilesh Yadav told Frontline that this once again proved that the poor and the suffering were not the priority of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its governments. “They will waive the loans of the rich and the mighty but still charge the marginalised.” Yogi Adityanath’s response was predictable—that the opposition was trying to politicise the issue as it was rattled by the giant strides that the State and Union governments had taken in combating COVID-19. “We are becoming an international model and that is what the opposition cannot stand,” he said in a statement.

Even as this political controversy captured some media and public attention, the rapid increase in the number of cases in many districts of western Uttar Pradesh, which constitute the backbone of the State’s economy, is a cause for concern. Districts in the region such as Agra, Gautam Budh Nagar, Meerut and Ghaziabad recorded a significant rise in cases and deaths in the seven days ending on May 5. The two principal cities of the State, Lucknow and Kanpur, have also registered a significant spike in cases. Social and health sector observers are of the view that the trends from places like Agra and Meerut indicate community spread. However, authorities continue to deny this. Amidst all this, even these hotspot districts and the green zones wait in trepidation for the new problems that the arrival of expatriates could cause across the State.

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