In denial mode

Print edition : June 05, 2020

Migrant workers on the move in Haryana, Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The State administration goes all-out to make sure that migrant workers are not seen on the roads but does little to alleviate their suffering.

On May 17, a video of some policemen beating and chasing away a group of people over agricultural fields went viral on social media. The area was identified as Bamboli village on the Yamuna river in Haryana’s Yamunanagar district, a few kilometres from the Uttar Pradesh border. The video also showed slippers, bicycles and luggage discarded by the people who ran for cover. They were a group of migrant workers on their way home to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar from Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. They had reached Yamunanagar hoping to get on to the national highway at Bamboli for a 30-km trek home to Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh.

These migrant workers had been made to stay in congested shelters located in schools and other government buildings. In chasing the migrants, the police were acting on the orders of the Union Home Ministry that no migrant worker should be seen on the roads. (Deputy Commissioners were to be held responsible if any migrant was even spotted on the road.) The administration in Haryana, as in a few other States, has had only one standard response in dealing with the spread of COVID-19— using force to quarantine migrants, wherever spotted, in congested shelters.

Sumit Pal Singh, an activist of Youth Swaraj, told Frontline from Yamunanagar that the governments of both Punjab and Haryana had done nothing by way of monetary and other relief to ensure that migrants did not have to head home on cycles or on foot. He added that every attempt was being made to prevent them from going back home. But the exodus would not stop.

When migrant workers realised that police presence would make crossing over to Saharanpur by road difficult, they tried crossing the Yamuna, which separates Haryana and Uttar Pradesh near Yamunanagar. Some used boats, while others waded through chest-high water. But the police soon got a whiff of this through the media. “The administration released water in those areas, making it difficult to cross over,” Sumit Pal Singh said.

In the second week of May, 25 workers who had walked from Punjab somehow reached Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh, only to be dropped back at the Haryana border. Later, the State government began to set up “U.P specific” centres for migrants working in Haryana, hoping that they would stay put. But there was no such “centre” for workers from Bihar.

Some factory owners have reportedly assured their workers that they will be paid and taken care of. With the labour-intensive paddy-sowing season approaching, large landowners have also persuaded farmhands to stay back. But in most other cases, there is no assurance of wage or even work. That is the reason why mostly factory workers, the majority of them from Bihar, are on the move. There is no scope for social distancing at the cramped centres where the migrants are compelled to stay amid unsanitary conditions. “But when they put them on buses they project that the norms of social distancing are being followed. What is the point of this? Workers have to wait for days in the centre for their turn to arrive in order to board the buses. The district administrations say that they cannot fill the buses to full capacity or even half as social distancing norms have to be followed,” Sumit Pal Singh said.

Initially, the workers were shuttled between various “centres”. The arrangements to provide food were outsourced to gurdwaras and charitable organisations. “How long will they do this? They are also running out of funds,” Sumit Pal said. Migrant workers were desperate to leave the centres and many of them attempted to do so in the night, under the cover of darkness. He narrated the case of a man who travelled by road in Nangal in Punjab accompanied by his wife, whose leg was in a cast, hoping to reach Hardoi in Uttar Pradesh.

The Yamunanagar incident was not an isolated one. Jai Bhagwan, State president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), said that workers were lathi-charged in Ambala, Sonepat and Karnal. In Yamunanagar there were close to one lakh workers, mostly migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, employed in the plywood industry, utensil manufacturing units and sugar mills. As the factories shut down, workers were left high and dry. As their savings having dried up, they had little option but to leave. “The government is somewhat sympathetic to the migrants from Uttar Pradesh but not to those from Bihar. Migrant workers, mostly from Bihar, who reached Rohtak from Hisar and Bhiwani in the hope of catching a train were sent back by the Rohtak administration,” Jai Bhagwan said.

The Bihar Chief Minister had offered to pay for the expenses of the Bihari migrants, but his Haryana counterpart turned down it down. Clearly, the Bihar government was not very inclined to receive its migrants from Haryana. The Haryana government was also not too keen to send them back. After all, the workers will be needed again once the industries start working. But no one, neither employers nor the government, was willing to foot the bill.

Some eight lakh workers, a large proportion of them from Bihar but also those belonging to other States such as Rajasthan and Jammu and Kashmir, had registered online for permission to leave for their hometowns. Some 1,60,000 workers, mostly from Uttar Pradesh, were sent. “During the lockdown, workers were not getting paid, nor were they allowed to go back to their villages. We insisted that the work in the brick kilns should not be stopped as there was social distancing there in any case. The brick kiln workers were in a fix as they were condemned to stay at the kilns without any pay. After we intervened, work has resumed in the kilns and now they are getting paid as well,” Jai Bhagwan said.

There is no clear assessment of the relief provided by the government because movements are restricted under the lockdown. But people involved in relief work told Frontline that the government’s presence was next to negligible. Surinder Pal Singh, a social activist based in Pinjore near Panchkula, said that a school converted into a shelter home for 200 slum-dwellers near his house was being entirely run with people’s support. “I called the ‘incident commander’ of the pocket, a designation used for persons appointed by the government to oversee COVID19-related issues. He told me to manage the situation on my own. The government has money. They have collected from people’s salaries and the Red Cross too,” he said. In Karnal, too, the civil society was helping out with relief work, he said.

Migrant workers also have to deal with red-tapism. A group reached Baghpat in Uttar Pradesh, only to be sent back to Haryana where they were asked to apply online. Surinder Pal Singh said: “The workers have no slippers on their feet, and here we have governments telling them to apply online and wait for their turn. If this is not cruelty, then what is?”

The total number of deaths caused by COVID-19 in Haryana is 14, which is relatively low. The recovery rate is 61.75 per cent. But the number of samples tested for which results are awaited is quite high. According to the State COVID-19 bulletin, a total of 78,029 samples, including those of 17 Italian nationals, had been sent for testing, as of May 14, and results for 4,625 samples were pending. Nearly 72,494 had been found negative. There were only 334 active COVID-19 patients.

The reported cases have been confined to a few districts, mostly the ones adjoining the national capital—Gurugram, Faridabad, Sonipat and Jhajjar. Of the 43 dedicated COVID hospitals in the State, 31 are in the private sector. The number of ventilators in the government-run facilities and medical colleges, including the All India Institute of Medical Sciences at Jhajjar, is slightly higher than in the private hospitals. Of the 181 COVID health centres, 121 are run by private hospitals or private medical colleges and only 63 are in government-run facilities. The number of ventilators and oxygen-support facilities in the private centres far outnumber those in the government ones.

As Frontline had earlier pointed out, quoting health-care workers, people are not being encouraged to get tested. There are issues of stigmatisation and fears about the spread of the disease.