With the country witnessing record single-day spike in coronavirus cases for three days in a row, Chief Ministers of Punjab and Chhattisgarh said movement of migrants and their management was the biggest challenge in the containment of the infection.
While Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel said the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in his state was due to incoming migrants testing positive, his Punjab counterpart Amarinder Singh said it was expected that the states from where workers were returning would test them before allowing them to go home.
"The biggest challenge right now is the large influx of people from other states and from outside India," Amarinder Singh told PTI, adding that these home-bound people included a large number of migrants who had gone outside the state in search of work.
"We don't really know how dependable that is," he said, adding that in the case of Nanded pilgrims the Maharashtra government failed to conduct necessary tests.
A large chunk of the 4,000 pilgrims who returned to Punjab from Hazur Sahib gurdwara in Maharashtra's Nanded have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Baghel told PTI, "Managing and handling incoming migrants is the biggest challenge for the state at present. There are concerns over them sneaking into villages."
He said 16,449 quarantine centres have been set up in villages of Chhattisgarh.
Around one lakh migrant workers have come back to the state, and another one lakh were expected to return soon. An estimated 15,000 migrants were returning to the state every day, the chief minister said.
Baghel reiterated that Chhattisgarh, which is surrounded by seven states, will keep its borders shut till the COVID-19 situation improves in the country. Currently, the state borders are opened only for the migrants to return home, he said.
Amarinder Singh said his state has made extensive arrangements for quarantining and testing all those entering the state.
"This is huge pressure on our limited resources. Testing and providing medical facilities are also major challenges for us, like I believe it is for all states at present," he said.
Singh said as of the last count before the coronavirus outbreak, Punjab had 13 lakh migrant labourers from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and other states working in industries and in the agricultural sector.
"Of these, 10 lakh had registered to go back to their native places after the Centre allowed such movement amid the lockdown and trains were arranged for their transportation," he said.
The Punjab chief minister, however, said around 35 per cent of the migrants were not returning, as was seen when they did not turn up when the first Shramik Special train left.
"Fortunately, with industries now opening up, many of these migrants are opting to stay back. They need the work and the wages, which they are now hoping to get. In fact, on the very first day of the train movement from Punjab, 35 pc of the registered labourers chose to stay back," Singh said.
"I believe that more will choose not to leave as more and more industries become operational which is bound to happen over the next few days. My government is facilitating industries to start operating with all protocols in place by giving them quick permissions and approvals. Nevertheless, we do expect a shortfall in the labour, at least in the short term," Singh said.
COVID-19 cases in India saw the biggest spike for the third consecutive day on Sunday with 6,767 new infections and 147 more fatalities reported in the last 24 hours. The country has been under lockdown since March 25 to curb the spread of coronavirus, which has infected 1,31,868, people and killed 3,867 people till now.
A large number of migrant workers from major urban industrial centres in the country have been moving with their families towards their home states, often walking and also in cramped trucks and other vehicles, during the nearly two-month-long lockdown.
The Centre has said around four crore migrants are engaged in various works in different parts of the country and so far 75 lakh of them have returned home in trains and buses since the nationwide lockdown was imposed.
The railways has engaged over 2,600 Shramik Special trains since May 1 to transport migrant workers from different parts of the country to their destinations.