Flood of worries

The spectre of floods in the approaching monsoon haunts an election-bound Bihar as it struggles to contain the COVID-19 contagion and deal with returning migrants.

Published : Jun 06, 2020 07:00 IST

A toddler pulling at the cloth covering his dead mother, Arvina Khatun (35), at the Muzaffarpur railway station in Bihar. Khatun, a widowed mother of two, had fallen ill on a Shramik Special train bound for Katihar district.

A toddler pulling at the cloth covering his dead mother, Arvina Khatun (35), at the Muzaffarpur railway station in Bihar. Khatun, a widowed mother of two, had fallen ill on a Shramik Special train bound for Katihar district.

A young woman lying dead on a railway platform in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, with her infant son pulling at the cloth covering her body is one image that will forever be associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant human tragedy in India. The State had managed the crisis reasonably well until the first half of May. Until May 18, there were only 1,425 positive cases and nine deaths in Bihar. Then the situation became chaotic as lakhs of migrants started returning to the State.

Hundreds of positive cases are being reported every day now, bearing out fears that many of the returning migrants carry the infection. On May 31 alone, 209 positive cases were reported. As of May 31, there were more than 3,500 cases and 21 deaths. The recovery rate, which was remarkably good at 54 per cent until May 14, has slipped to 37 per cent.

The doubling rate of cases shot up to 6.45 days, as against the national doubling rate of 13.33 days. The full impact of migrants’ return is yet to be felt. According to official figures, 20.46 lakh migrants had returned home until May 31, of whom over 2,000 tested positive for COVID-19. The State capital Patna has emerged as a major hotspot with 19 containment zones.

After the migrants started arriving in the first half of May, the State has been witnessing over 11 per cent growth rate of the disease. Over 74,000 samples were tested until May 31. For every 10 lakh people, the State is testing 605 samples. A senior Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) leader said: “With lakhs and lakhs of migrant labourers continuing to arrive in the State, whatever we are doing is simply not good enough.” The LJP is a member of the National Democratic Alliance and a partner in the Bihar government.

No surprise, then, that Bihar has decided to continue with the Lockdown 4.0 restrictions until June 30.

As the State struggles to deal with the pandemic, political parties have gone into election mode with the Assembly elections only a few months away. The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the main opposition party, organised a march on May 29 in protest against the murder of three party workers in Gopalganj district. Thousands of RJD workers were out on the streets of Patna, jostling with the police. Members of the State’s ruling alliance were quick to stoke fears of the contagion spreading as a result of such political action on the streets. The LJP leader said: “Biharis are at the mercy of God now.”

The RJD, meanwhile, has been criticising the condition of quarantine centres in the State. Devmuni Prasad Yadav, Patna district president of RJD, said: “The government has done nothing on the ground. Zero arrangement. No food, no facilities. People have minted money in the name of quarantine centres.”

The State also faces the prospect of floods. The meteorological department has predicted a normal monsoon, which is expected to hit the State in the first week of June. In June-July, when the pandemic is likely to peak all over India, Bihar will probably be grappling with floods also. Nearly 20 districts get flooded when the Kosi and the Ganga are in a spate during the rainy season.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) media cell chief, Ashok Bhatt, said: “Bihar is fighting a three-pronged battle: against corona, against the rampaging opposition parties and against the impending floods. But we are geared up to deal with them all.”

Dealing with returning migrants remains the foremost challenge for the State government. Bhatt said: “We will provide them work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA); those who are skilled, will do their own work.”

On allegations that the government has mismanaged the situation, Bhatt said: “They [returning migrant workers] are coming in lakhs, from all over India. It is not easy to make arrangements for all of them. Problems are bound to erupt.” He also said that the State government had anticipated this crisis and that was why Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had initially insisted that people should stay put wherever they were.

Nitish Kumar had indeed earlier refused to bring either students from Kota or migrant workers back. A senior Janata Dal (United) leader explained why the State government changed tactic: “When States like Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand started bringing their people back, the Bihar government, too, had to start doing the same thing. Otherwise it would have become an issue in the election.”

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