Bihar & Jharkhand

Contrasting tales

Print edition : July 03, 2020

Migrants boarding a bus at the Delhi-Noida border in New Delhi to travel to their native places in Bihar on June 13. Photo: PTI

Migrants who arrived from Kerala via a Shramik Special train at Hatia Railway Station, Ranchi, on June 13 boarding the buses that will take them to their native places. Photo: PTI

The stark difference in the manner in which Bihar and Jharkhand tackled the issue of migrant labourers struggling to reach home during the lockdown is noteworthy.

All through the lockdown Bihar and Jharkhand occupied centre stage in the collective consciousness of the nation, not because of a surge in COVID-19 infections but because of the numbers of migrant labourers on the road struggling to get back home from far-off places in the country, with some of them losing their lives on the road, on railways tracks and inside trains. In Bihar, a total of 20.46 lakh migrants returned in May, while in Jharkhand seven lakh reached home. Their arrival also saw an increase in the number of infections in the two States.

Bihar had recorded only 1,016 cases and seven deaths until May 15, but by June 14 it had a total of 6,475 cases, with 36 lives lost, and the number of infections is still rising. Similarly, Jharkhand had recorded only 204 cases and three deaths as of May 15, but by June 14 it had 1,761 cases and 10 deaths.

“But our recovery rate, at 62.5 per cent, is much above the national average. Also important is the fact that the maximum number of deaths due to the coronavirus has been of those who had co-morbidities. Pure coronavirus deaths in Bihar are very few,” said Dr Sunil Kumar Singh, a Janata Dal (United) leader who is also a practising doctor. But the way cases are increasing is a matter of concern, he said. In Bihar, so far only government hospitals—of which there are only three, in Patna (Nalanda Medical College and Hospital), Bhagalpur and Gaya—and district government hospitals are treating COVID-19 patients. Realising the gravity of situation, the Bihar government has converted the Patliputra Indoor Stadium in Patna into a COVID care facility, thereby increasing the number of fully equipped beds at its disposal by another 400-500.

It is also mulling over the possibility of co-opting private hospitals for COVID-19 treatment, if required. “So far we are able to meet our requirement at government hospitals. But if the situation demands, we will ask private hospitals to reserve beds for COVID care too. The government has written to all the private hospitals regarding this,” said Dr Sunil Kumar Singh. Significantly, the Bihar government closed all its quarantine centres, 15,000 in all, with effect from June 15. “Those arriving from outside will be kept quarantined at home. There is no need for these centres now,” said a senior government official.

The government does not seem to have utilised the long lockdown period to create more facilities despite the fact that it anticipated a spurt in cases once migrants started returning. “We spent the time understanding what exactly was required. Now, as and when the need arises, we will act upon it,” said Dr Sunil Kumar Singh.

The State has done well to increase the number of tests being conducted. Over 3,500-4,000 tests are being done every day, and the target is to increase it to 10,000 a day. So far 1,23,629 people across the State have been tested. The extent of migrants’ contribution to the spike in infections can be deduced from the fact that they accounted for 4,449 of the total of 6,475 positive cases on June 14. The fact that 3,975 people have recovered gives the Bihar government hope that he severity of the infection may not be very high in the State. “Our mortality rate is low, so we can afford to take some risks and start some economic activities while taking all precautions,” said a senior leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Among the precautions being taken are distribution of masks and soap in rural areas and the creation of awareness about physical distancing.


In Jharkhand, too, most of the deaths are of people who had co-morbidities such as high blood pressure, heart conditions, diabetes or cancer. Here too, the recovery rate is high: out of a total of 1,761 cases, over 900 patients have recovered so far. As is the case in Bihar, in Jharkhand, too, returning migrants account for a large number of the total of 1,396 cases. The State has also been diligent about testing. Up to the time of writing, a total of 1,06,171 people have been tested in the State.

However, there is a striking difference in the way the two States are dealing with the issue of migrants . While Jharkhand has started rehabilitating those who have come home, Bihar is still in the process of mapping their skills. In Bihar, all that migrants are being offered are jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which pay a measly Rs.250-300 a day. This has resulted in a great deal of unrest in rural areas, and people have already started going back to other States, especially to Punjab where the paddy transplantation operations have begun and workers are in demand. Farmers in Punjab are luring these workers with the promise of increased wages and better facilities. But all this is happening at an informal level in Bihar, without the government coming into play. Busloads of workers are said to be leaving the State secretly in the dead of night.

Jharkhand-BRO agreement

In Jharkhand, on the other hand, the government has taken it upon itself to seek guarantees from those who want to recruit workers from the State. Chief Minister Hemant Soren, who personally ensured that workers stranded in places such as Leh-Ladakh and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands were airlifted and brought home, has sought written undertakings from prospective employers about the welfare of workers from Jharkhand. “We have seen how our people in other States were not given proper treatment, nor were they treated with dignity. Now we will not allow any compromise with their labour, welfare, rights, benefits and dignity,” he told the media in Ranchi after he had negotiated a memorandum of understanding with the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), which recruits workers from Jharkhand for road-building work in the border areas of Jammu and Kashmir, Leh-Ladakh, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh..

In a first of its kind move anywhere in India, the Jharkhand government signed an agreement with the BRO on June 8 for the recruitment of 11,800 workers from the State. The Jharkhand government has invoked the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, for this purpose, which requires the BRO to register itself as an employer that can recruit directly without the services of middlemen contractors, called Mates, as was the practice so far. Under this agreement, the BRO will pay wages that are higher by 15-20 per cent directly into the bank accounts of the workers, unlike the practice so far where the Mates took their cut from the wages. The BRO will also have to provide benefits such as health care facilities, accident insurance, transport to and from home, and proper housing.

The BRO has been taking workers from Jharkhand for years, in two batches: April-May and October-November. It was this October-November batch of workers that got stuck in Leh-Ladakh in March because of the lockdown and was airlifted by the State government. It was then that the Chief Minister, who received them at the Ranchi airport, actually realised their plight and decided to institutionalise the recruitment system.

A total of 11 special trains have been organised to take 11,800 workers to the border areas. Two trains have already left. The Chief Minister flagged off the first train on June 13 and told BRO officials that these workers should return with similar smiling faces in October. Also in the offing is a special government insurance scheme worth Rs.10-15 lakh for those going out of the State to work. “No more compromises with either the safety or welfare of our workers,” Hemant Soren promised.

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