Cashless & abandoned

Print edition : June 05, 2020

Returning migrant workers wait at a shelter in Ranchi to board buses that will carry them home to their villages, on May 14. Photo: PTI

The Jharkhand government gets little help from the Centre by way of funds even as thousands of returning migrants pour into the State.

The cash-starved Jharkhand government, ruled by an alliance of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), has been pleading with the Centre since the lockdown began to release funds. The Centre has so far ignored the requests, even for funds that rightfully belong to the State. The Centre owes Jharkhand roughly Rs.14,000 crore by way of goods and services tax (GST) dues, and thousands of crores are due to the State from coal companies and public sector units.

A close aide of Chief Minister Hemant Soren said: “Even as the Modi government makes tall claims about huge packages to the tune of Rs.20 lakh crore, Jharkhand is still waiting to receive even a single penny from the Centre. Even our own money has been withheld.” About Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcements of the so-called COVID package over five days recently, Vinod Pandey, JMM general secretary and spokesman, said: “Empty words, which only sound good. Nothing in reality. Let alone helping us with giving any aid, if the Centre only released our rightful dues we would be able to make ends meet.”

He added that Hemant Soren had written several times to Modi in recent weeks explaining how he had inherited an empty coffer from the previous BJP government and how his government had been left penniless because the lockdown began only three months after his government took over. The Assembly had to be adjourned suddenly, without the Budget being passed. “If only our own money was paid, we would not have to beg the Centre for funds. But obviously, the Central government is more interested in doing politics than in helping States deal with the tragedy,” he said.

Hemant Soren said: “We have written so many letters, but not a single penny has come from the Centre. We are at a loss to understand why. Despite following all the ICMR [Indian Council of Medical Research] guidelines, and all instructions issued by the Centre from time to time, we are being treated in this step-motherly manner.”

Pandey described as a “complete lie in the case of Jharkhand” Railway Minister Piyush Goyal’s accusation of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra not “cooperating with the Centre in its corona fight”. “We have followed each and every guideline issued by the ICMR and the Union Home Ministry. And that is one reason why we have been able to keep the infection under check,” he said.

Jharkhand has indeed tackled the pandemic exceptionally well. As of May 17, there were only 217 cases in the State; 113 patients recovered and only died. “Even three deaths is unfortunate, but I would like to mention here that these three people suffered from co-morbidities such as cancer and brain tumor. The rate of recovery in Jharkhand is one of the best in India,” Pandey said.

Returning migrants

Yet, the real challenge for the State begins now with thousands of migrant labourers returning home. With the State having given no-objection certificates (NOC) for 110 trains, many more are expected to arrive soon. Over 1,20,000 migrants have already arrived, and six lakh workers/students will arrive in the next few days. Many of the returning migrants may well be carrying the infection. As of May 18, 88 of the 217 affected people in the State were migrants. The problem will only aggravate as thousands more pour into the State.

Making arrangements for quarantining and testing for such huge numbers is the short-term challenge. The long-term one is to feed them and give them employment in due course. State government officials believe that many of the returning migrants will stay back in their villages even if the situation improves, given how harrowing the lockdown experience has been for them.

A senior government official said: “We have chalked out an elaborate action plan. Some of these workers will be given work under the MGNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act]. Those who are skilled or professionally qualified will be provided suitable employment. Our first and foremost responsibility is to give all these people work so that they stay back in the State even after the situation normalises.”

He added that the Jharkhand government had drawn up a unique kitchen plan at the gram panchayat level. Called Mukhyamantri Didi Kitchen, these kitchens will provide freshly cooked food twice a day to anyone who is hungry. Similarly, at the police station level, too, cooked food is distributed to anyone who is needy. “Our midday meal programme has been shifted out of schools. The food is taken to the villages where all children, whether they go to school or not, are fed,” he said.

During Hemant Soren’s previous regime, the popular “daal-bhaat” scheme made available cooked rice and lentils at Rs.5 in the cities. The BJP government headed by Raghubar Das dropped the scheme. Now the government has revived it, and the food is given out free for the time being. “We have ensured that nobody goes hungry,” the officer said. Frontline verified the claim in random conversations with people in villages.

Communal element

Keeping the communal element out of the COVID-19 battle is another challenge. The first cases had surfaced in Ranchi district’s Hindpirhi area where a group of minority community members, including a foreign national, was found in a mosque. The BJP and outfits associated with it carried out a relentless campaign claiming that the disease had spread only because of Muslims. The ensuing communal tension threatened to engulf large parts of the State.

Pandey said: “Our fight [against communal polarisation] was difficult, and the Centre’s attitude made it worse. The Central government started giving details of the patients according to their religion. This betrayed their real intent and agenda.” According to Pandey, there were sporadic communal flare-ups across the State. “But we managed to quickly identify patients with Jamaat association, isolate them and treat them. We have now succeeded in bringing the situation under control,” he said