Overwhelmed migrant workers kiss the good earth on their return to Jharkhand

A collateral damage of the lockdown is that millions of poor, migrant workers have lost faith in the government, both at the centre and in the states

Workers after alighting from trains kissing the home soil
Workers after alighting from trains kissing the home soil

V P Sharan/Ranchi

The transition from implicit faith in the Government to complete distrust in the Government’s ability and willingness to do good, has been made during the lockdown. Millions of poor, migrant workers have lost faith in the government at the centre and in the states.

This is evident in the workers paying scant attention to advisories, appeals and even warnings issued by the Government. The returnees to Jharkhand know that even the state government, nudged by the Centre, has prohibited their walk on highways. Police detained and arrested some of them but failed to deter them. Even those who returned to Jharkhand by train, were not allowed to get down at stations nearer home.

As a result, they are forced to walk, sometimes hundreds of kilometres from the Ranchi railway station to reach home, unable to find buses or unable to afford the exorbitant rates charged by transporters. To provide an idea of distances, the distance between Ranchi and Chatra, Dhanbad and Jamshedpur is 120 to 150 kilometres, but Pakur is 363 Kms away.

A reassuring feature, however, is that among the first 1.34 lakh returnees to Jharkhand in Shramik Special trains, only 82 have tested COVID-19 positive. Others could be asymptomatic and test positive later though. But the administration does not seem to be equipped to keep track of the people and test them at regular intervals. What happens if community transmission takes place in the countryside is anybody's guess.

Jharkhand Government sources informed that 76,664 returnees travelled by train, 47,621 in buses and the rest walked the distance or used bicycles and motorcycles. On state and national highways pass- ing through Ranchi, Jamshedpur, Khunti etc., the sight of migrants walking is commonplace, especially during early morning hours, before scorching heat makes it impossible.

Manjur Ahmad Ansari, who has the franchise to run a branch of the Medanta Hospital on NH 33 says it is heart breaking to watch the migrants walk back with tattered clothes and often barefoot. His people offer them biscuits and tea etc. when the Muslim inhabited area takes Sahari early in the morning. Most migrants, he recalls, say they would have starved to death if they had stayed back, abandoned by employers.

One of them, Kundan Manjhi, had been regularly going out of the state to work. But this time he realised, he says, for the first time, how inhuman and selfish fellow human beings can be. Umesh Bhuian who left Vishakhapatnam on foot to reach his village in Chatra in Jharkhand, gave a similar account of his woes at his place of work and vowed he would prefer to die in his village than be a migrant again. Will the Government be able to regain its credibility after its flip flops on lockdowns?

Most of the 1.35 lakh migrant workers who have already returned to Jharkhand seem reluctant, and some determined, to go back. The trauma of being abandoned and the distress of finding themselves with no work, no income, no food and no resources is unlikely to go away soon. Some of them became so sentimental after coming out of the railway station that they knelt down in gratitude and kissed the soil, a sight that moved people who witnessed it.

The Jharkhand Pradesh Congress Committee, following directions of the party president Sonia Gandhi, had launched a helpline and JPCC president Manas Sinha said that distress calls were still being received. Over 40 thousand calls from 24 states had been received, he informed. JPCC had informed the state government that the Congress was willing to pay the migrants’ train fare.

While as many as 64 ‘Shramik Special’ trains have already arrived, Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren has asked for 115 more trains to bring back the migrants. He has also requested the Centre for No Objection Certificate for special flights to bring back the stranded workers, sources informed.

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