Losing the plot

The Uttar Pradesh government’s self-congratulatory announcements turn out to be premature as accidents and controversies involving returning migrants rock the State.

Published : May 20, 2020 13:20 IST

A vehicle carrying migrant workers entering Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh from Madhya Pradesh on May 16.

A vehicle carrying migrant workers entering Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh from Madhya Pradesh on May 16.

THE Uttar Pradesh government’s periodic media briefings on the COVID-19 situation in the State, conducted mostly by senior officials and occasionally by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, have been self-congratulatory. The following are typical samples from the briefings during the first three phases of the lockdown. “Uttar Pradesh has certainly become a model in combating COVID on account of its methodical planning and leadership as well as efficient systems and implementation.” “We have done so well in spite of having a huge population.” “Uttar Pradesh has the distinction of arranging for the maximum number of trains from other States to bring back our people.” Developments in the last two days of lockdown 3.0 and the first few days of lockdown 4.0 blew this attitude to smithereens and exposed the deficiencies in the State government’s planning and execution of relief operations.

Twenty-seven migrant workers, bound for destinations in eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, died in a collision between two trucks at Mihauli village in the south-western district of Auraiya on May 16. The early morning accident involved a stationary trolley truck and a moving larger DCM truck. The vehicles had migrant labourers travelling home from Rajasthan and Delhi respectively. They had pooled in resources to hire the trucks in order to go home.

This incident gave the lie to the State government’s claim that it had been able to stop the reverse migration by migrant workers and that proper transportation and other facilities were being provided to workers passing through the State. Opposition leaders such as Samajwadi Party (S.P.) president Akhilesh Yadav, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati and Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi called attention to the flaws in the government’s strategy. It was not long before more accidents involving migrant labourers got reported from other parts of the State.

Two days after the Auraiya accident, three women were killed and seven people injured in Mahoba district of Bundhelkhand region after the mini truck in which they were travelling overturned. The passengers had started out on foot from Delhi, but the truck driver had offered them a lift on the way. On the same day, a van carrying 22 migrant workers overturned on the Lucknow-Agra Expressway at Unnao in central Uttar Pradesh; two people were killed and 20 injured.

Former Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav said that these deaths were tantamount to murder. “The long lockdown was enforced to make sure that people’s movements could be regulated and streamlined, but the accidents series clearly shows that the administration has miserably failed in living up to this task,” he said.

Yogi Adityanath responded to the accidents by taking punitive action, including suspensions, against police officers and holding them responsible for unauthorised travel of people during the lockdown. He also ordered intensive patrolling on all major routes in the State, especially the highways.

There followed reports of police forcibly taking down migrant labourers travelling in trucks and other vehicles and transferring them to buses brought in by the administration. This happened in different parts of the State but predominantly in western Uttar Pradesh, the primary entry point to the State for people coming in from Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan. There was an outcry over this because the passengers were forced to pay up the bus fare. In Agra, Mathura and Kanpur there were impromptu agitations. Angry migrants told the media that many of the truck drivers were transporting people as a humanitarian gesture and were taking only the cost of the fuel from them. They pointed out that while the truck drivers showed compassion the administration was behaving heartlessly.

At Farah on the Agra-Mathura highway, the protests led to traffic jams lasting for several hours. Here, the complaint was that even if the labourers offered to pay there were not enough buses. Local media reports said that thousands of labourers forcibly evacuated from the trucks were stranded on the highway without adequate food, water and other amenities.

The Auraiya accident was not done and dusted either. A couple of days after the accident, it transpired that the survivors, some whom had serious injuries, were being transported in trucks which also carried the bodies of the deceased. According to local media at Auraiya, as many as 11 bodies were put in a single truck with 20 survivors. There were protests in Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand (the State to which many of the bodies were headed). Relatives of the deceased questioned the Adityanath government’s inability to organise ambulances to transport the dead.

The Jharkhand government called the action of the Auraiya authorities “inhuman”. Chief Minister Hemant Soren said in a statement: “The sending of dead bodies in trucks is inhuman and lacks empathy. I request the U.P. and Bihar CMs to send the bodies in better condition till Jharkhand where the district administration and police will take care of the injured and give dignity to the deceased.”

Amid this all-round outrage and criticism, Yogi Adityanath’s administration announced that 200 special buses to transport migrant workers would be deployed in all border districts. The Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) claimed that at the close of lockdown 3.0 as many as 7.60 lakh migrant workers returned to Uttar Pradesh in 590 trains. Most of the trains came from Gujarat (275), followed by Maharashtra (140), Punjab (101), Rajasthan (17), Delhi (6) and Karnataka (20). The CMO also asked people not to venture out on foot, bikes and trucks and said that the government was making arrangements for everybody. “Show some patience, we shall come and get you back” was the refrain from CMO officials.

There was some political drama, too, when Priyanka Gandhi wrote to Adityanath saying that her party had arranged 1,000 buses to transport migrant labourers and that these buses should be given permission to ply. After initially rejecting the proposal as “playing politics”, Adityanath allowed the buses to operate. However, later the CMO said that the Congress had not arranged as many buses as it had promised and that many of the vehicles were two wheelers.

Uttar Pradesh has also seen a spike in COVID-19 positive cases. Health department officials said the weekly case register seven days before the conclusion of lockdown 3.0 recorded a significant rise. As many as 703 cases were reported in the first four days of May alone. Health department officials attributed the spurt to the influx of returning migrants and increased testing. Amit Mohan Prasad, Principal Secretary (Health), said that whereas just around 250 samples were being tested daily a month ago, the State’s daily testing capacity crossed 6,000 on May 18. As of May 18, Uttar Pradesh had 4,605 recorded cases and 2,783 people had been discharged from hospital. The mortality rate in the State is 2.56 per cent.

A major concern for the authorities is the shifting of the outbreak epicentres. The pandemic is showing signs of easing in the five most affected districts—Agra, Meerut, Kanpur Nagar, Lucknow and Noida—which had nearly 44 per cent of the cases. Saharanpur, Firozabad, Ghaziabad, Moradabad, Varanasi, Hapur, Bulandshar, Aligarh, Rampur, Sambhal, Basti, RaeBareli and Mathura are the new hotspots.

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