Community clout

Print edition : June 05, 2020

Migrants disembarking from a container truck at Mithapur in Patna on May 17. Photo: ranjeet kumar

Early surveillance, testing and people’s participation kept the virus under check, but the State’s health infrastructure is expected to come under strain with the return of lakhs of migrants from other States.

Although Bihar managed to contain the virulence of COVID-19 initially, thanks to the Nitish Kumar government’s early surveillance and response, it is feared that the return of lakhs of migrant labourers from various parts of the country in late May may result in a spike in the number of infections. The exponential spread of the disease in the villages will put pressure on the State’s already weak health infrastructure. According to rough estimates, over 8 per cent of the returnees have tested positive. Between May 4 and 14, when there was a sudden surge in the return of migrants, the State tested 4,275 samples, of which 320 were positive. Roughly 10,000 migrant workers are arriving daily on the Shramik special trains. According to a statement issued by Railway Minister Piyush Goyal, Nitish Kumar has agreed to run 50 special trains daily to bring back migrants.

On May 17, 560 migrants tested positive; the majority of them had returned from Delhi, Mumbai and Ahmedabad. So far, 7,40,819 migrant labourers have reached Bihar by 229 trains. According to government officials, over 29 lakh labourers registered themselves for travelling back to the State.

Since the number of cases was not very high in the initial stages of the outbreak, the government had time to put in place a working system. With the creation of quarantine facilities, procurement of testing kits and conversion of hospitals into designated COVID centres, the State is relatively well-equipped to deal with the crisis.

As on May 18, Bihar recorded 1,423 cases and nine deaths. In spite of the State’s inadequate health infrastructure, 438 patients have recovered, making Bihar one of the States with a high rate of recovery.

Apparently, a proactive approach and early steps helped Bihar. According to Dr Sunil Kumar Singh, a medical practitioner who is also a senior functionary of the Janata Dal (United), Bihar is perhaps one of the few States that undertook door-to-door surveys at the very beginning and enforced a lockdown even before the Centre announced it. “Our door-to-door surveys allowed us to find out cases in the early stages. We were able to quarantine and treat them before it was too late. This resulted in the low mortality rate in the State, which can serve as a model for other States,” he said.

The surveys revealed a low percentage of infection. In Nalanda district, for example, the survey found only 5 per cent of the population with symptoms. Of them, 440 were tested for coronavirus, but none of them tested positive.

In Begusarai district, 2.51 lakh people were found with cough, cold and fever-like symptoms; 300 people were tested on the basis of their medical and travel history, but none of them was found to have contracted the virus.

“Out of three crore people surveyed, only about 1 per cent of the population was found symptomatic and the number of positive cases was lower,” Sunil Kumar Singh said. But the situation could change drastically with the migrant labourers returning from the red zones.

He said: “Migrant labourers are taken to quarantine facilities immediately after they get off the trains. They are tested, and if needed, sent for treatment. Our monitoring mechanism is one of the best in India.” What actually made the monitoring system effective is community participation. Villages residents were vigilant and if anybody managed to slip out of the quarantine facility, which was happening frequently in Bihar, they would bring them back. “This has resulted in containing the numbers,” he said.

As for reports that the conditions in the quarantine centres were pathetic and resulted in people fleeing the place, Sunil Kumar Singh admitted that there could be some such cases. However, the government was taking immediate corrective measures to improve the situation. “No arrangement can be 100 per cent foolproof, especially in times like this. We are open to constructive criticism and if an alert media or a vigilant section of people bring shortcomings to our notice, we work on them to improve,” he said.

The biggest worry for Bihar now, he said, was looking after the returning migrant labourers and providing them work so that they remained in the State. The government was evolving a two-pronged strategy in this regard. In the immediate term, many of these labourers have been employed under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Skilled labourers are employed in suitable jobs. For example, they have been engaged in repairing/renovating or painting government buildings across the State. Even private offices have been instructed to get their building works done so that these people can be engaged in some productive work.

In the long term, the government is looking at reforming land and labour laws and formulating a new industrial policy. “Biharis are talented. If we give them a suitable environment they can transform the State. We are working on such a plan,” Sunil Kumar Singh said.

The State’s human resources are an asset, which is evident from the fact that Biharis have excelled in whatever work they are engaged in wherever they are. “This is not true only of migrant labourers, but even highly qualified professionals, technocrats and bureaucrats the world over are making us proud. When this asset is coming back to us, we might as well put a mechanism in place in order to retain them. This way we can transform the State in the next few years,” he said.

In a State where caste and politics come into play, and with the Assembly elections due in a few months, it would be interesting to see how these ideas pan out.

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