West Bengal

Calling a timeout

Print edition : June 05, 2020

At Howrah station on May 17, people who have returned to West Bengal. Photo: Debasish Bhaduri/Kolkata

The Mamata Banerjee government seeks more time in accomplishing the daunting task of bringing back lakhs of its migrants from other States even as the COVID-19 numbers begin to climb.

AS the COVID-19 situation in West Bengal turns grimmer by the day, the Trinamool Congress government is facing flak from the opposition and the Centre not only for its handling of the crisis but also for its alleged apathy to migrants stranded outside the State. The Centre and the West Bengal government have clashed over a fairly long list of issues ranging from lack of financial aid to the State to allegations of COVID data suppression by the State; the issue of migrants from Bengal is the latest point of conflict, with the Centre accusing the Mamata Banerjee government of not allowing enough Shramik Special trains to enter the State.

As the Centre and the State play out what appears to be a political game with an eye to the 2021 Assembly election, the deadly march of COVID-19 continues in West Bengal.. On April 30, the number of people who expired from COVID-19 was 33 (72 deaths as of that date were recorded as co-morbidity deaths) and the number of active cases was 931. On May 18, the number of deaths increased to 250 (including the 72 co-morbidity deaths) and the number of confirmed cases jumped to 2,825, including 1,670 active cases. The State government has not announced co-morbidity deaths since April 30. However, the mortality rate in the State has come down from 12.8 per cent to 8.84 per cent and sample testing has picked up, standing at 93,570 as of May 18 as against 16,525 on May 1.

In this scenario, the issue of lakhs of migrant labourers of West Bengal stranded in different parts of the country, facing starvation, or embarking on hellish journeys by road has become a burning topic in the State. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee herself said on May 18: “We now have three types of crises: COVID, the cyclone and migrants returning home.” Even as migrants, including children, from all over the country were dying on the roads in their desperate attempts to reach home, Union Home Minister Amit Shah in a letter accused the West Bengal government of not cooperating with the Centre in bringing stranded migrants back to the State.

“Migrants from West Bengal are also eager to reach home. Central govt is facilitating but we are not getting expected support from W.B. State Government, which is not allowing the trains to reach W.B,” Amit Shah wrote, triggering a fresh war of words between the Centre and the State. Reacting to the letter, Mamata Banerjee’s nephew, Lok Sabha MP Abhishek Banerjee, posted on social media: “A HM failing to discharge his duties during this crisis speaks after weeks of silence, only to mislead people with bundle of lies! Ironically he’s talking about the very ppl who’ve been literally left to fate by his own Govt. Mr @AmitShah, prove your fake allegations or apologise.”

While this led to yet another conflict between the Centre and the State, it also seemed to jolt the State government out of its apparent inaction as it immediately announced a number of measures that it would be taking to bring back migrants. Although as early as March 26, Mamata Banerjee had written to 18 Chief Ministers asking them to take care of the migrants from Bengal in their States, as of May 6, only two trains from Rajasthan and Kerala, carrying 1,186 and 1,123 migrants respectively, had reached West Bengal. Soon after Amit Shah’s letter, the Trinamool leadership announced that the State government had requisitioned eight trains to bring migrants back from different parts of the country. Mamata Banerjee also said on May 14 that her government had arranged for 105 special trains to bring back over 1.3 lakh migrant workers stranded in 12 States, and on May 18, it was announced that 120 more trains more would be requisitioned soon. As of May 18, 16 Shramik Specials have come to Bengal.

Explaining the difficulty of managing too many migrants arriving at the same time, Mamata Banerjee asked for some time. “How will it be possible to screen so many people and arrange for transport if all of them come at the same time? The State also needs to remain well. We are making a plan; give us time,” she said. According to her, already around 2.5 to 3 lakh migrants have returned by rail and by road.

The State government also wrote to the Chairman of the Railway Board stating that “the entire cost of movement by special trains to West Bengal, of migrants of the State stranded in various parts of the country, shall be borne by the Government of West Bengal…. The trains may accordingly be run as per requisition made by Government of West Bengal.”

The Centre’s allegation has been that the State government has made too few “requisitions”. Hours after Mamata Banerjee made her announcement about 105 trains to bring back 1.3 lakh migrants, Union Railway Minister Piyush Goyal said: “Instead of asking for 105 trains over 30 days, please give permission for 105 trains every day, and we will send all the migrant labourers from West Bengal who want to go back home.”

According to senior Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sujan Chakraborty, the State needs at least 2,500 to 3,000 trains as there are around 30 to 40 lakh migrant workers stranded outside. “You have arranged for 105 trains, but what is the way in which the migrants will be able to know about it? There ought to be a system by which they will know where to apply so that their names will appear on the list. They are moving around completely lost,” Chakraborty told Frontline. The State government has appointed 12 nodal officers to facilitate the movement of migrants.

Through social media and other means, stranded labourers have been appealing to the State government to get them back home. Out of money and facing starvation, they are finally coming to the end of their tether. “We have come to the police station with the form to get us back home, but they are saying they have not received any word from you, and until you say so, we cannot go back. Why are you silent? Thousands are here waiting to go home. The workers from Odisha and Bihar, who have been with us, have all gone home…. We are all losing hope,” a group of migrants stuck in Kerala appealed to Mamata Banerjee through a video message on social media.

Like migrants from other States, those from West Bengal have also started finding their own means of returning home, often at their own peril. Of 25 migrant workers who were killed in a road accident in Auraiya, Uttar Pradesh, on May 16, five were from Bengal: four from Purulia district and one from Uttar Dinajpur. The same day, a worker from Murshidabad district was run over on the road in Gosainganj, also in Uttar Pradesh, while trying to hitch a ride back home.

While the State government arranged more than 1,000 buses for the last leg of the migrants’ journey from the State’s borders to their home towns and provided them with food, there were also allegations of harassment and indifference on the part of the administration. Talking to a local news channel, a group of migrants from Murshidabad district who claimed to have walked up to Nadia from Hyderabad (a distance of over 1,500 km), said: “In other States, there are arrangements to help us. We were given food and water. But we have received no help here.” They even alleged that the West Bengal Police had fined them for violating the lockdown.

In an interesting development, in the face of growing criticism against the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, Mamata Banerjee transferred the Principal Secretary of the Health Department, Vivek Kumar. The transfer, which has been perceived in political circles as a desperate move to shift the blame from the government, came soon after Kumar’s communication to the Centre on April 30 that brought to the fore discrepancies in the COVID-19 data provided by the State government. Kumar had stated that the total number of COVID-19 patients as of April 30 stood at 931, while on the same day Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha said at a press conference that the number was 572. This caused the State government considerable embarrassment.

Nurses leave Bengal

Meanwhile, the State is facing another crisis in its fight against COVID-19 as a large number of nurses from different parts of the country working in Bengal have been quitting their jobs and going back home. As of May 16, more than 350 nurses, mostly from private hospitals, have left the State. “If this continues, it will cause a huge problem, particularly in the operations of private hospitals,” said a high-level functionary of a private hospital chain in the city.