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No Remittance, Likely Contagion: Reverse Migration of 10 Lakh Workers Will Test Bihar's Ability to Feed, Cure

Representative image.

Representative image.

Since the state-run hospitals have only 390 specialist doctors, 469 general doctors and 566 nurses, the Nitish Kumar government has asked private hospitals to stop OPD services and remain prepared for coronavirus patients.

A total of 1,187 migrant labourers belonging to 28 districts across Bihar reached Danapur station as the first Shramik Special train from Jaipur arrived on Saturday evening. After being stranded, mostly without food and money, for close to 40 days, their ferry back home will now put to test the economic and social machinery of the state.

The immediate arrangements were in place. Bihar's health minister Mangal Pandey along with officials of the Indian Railways and Patna district administration asked them to head to the nearby screening centres while maintaining proper distancing in queues.

District Magistrate of Patna, Kumar Ravi said all the migrants will be sent to quarantine centres in their respective districts after screening and medical tests.

Hundred buses were arranged to take them to quarantine centres in each of the 28 districts. Fifty soldiers of the Indian Army were also asked to assist the cops in safe disembarking.

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in a video conference meeting on Friday said that all migrants will be quarantined for 21 days instead of 14 where they will be given food and clothes for free.

Close to 10 lakh workers are expected to return to the state. The reverse migration lay bare gaps in the state's administration that forced people to migrate in the first place along with new challenges that the global pandemic, coronavirus, has posed.

Can the State Undo Factors that Forced Migration?

Lack of employment is one of the biggest drivers of migration. Unemployment rate in Bihar was at 10.3 per cent last year and ranked among the highest in the country. According to CMIE, the state's unemployment rate increased by 31.2 percentage points, rising to 46.6 per cent in April 2020, almost twice the national average.

Workers are returning home after 40 days of joblessness with drained pockets. At such a time, the state's unprecedented rate of unemployment will certainly not help.

According to a February 2020 study by Institute of Population Sciences, more than half of the households in Bihar are exposed to migration to more developed places in India and abroad. The survey, which covered 36 villages and 2,270 households, revealed that migration is highest for landless households. The report further found that 80 per cent migrants are landless or have less than one acre of land.

Noted economist, Jean Dreze in a recent interview stated that Bihar will be worst hit due to reverse migration.

"Bihar is the biggest worry in the next couple of months. It has huge numbers of landless labourers. Being a caste and class-ridden society, some communities are leading hand-to-mouth existence even at the best of times," he said.

According to Census 2001, 28.5 lakh individuals migrated out of Bihar. The National Sample Survey of 2007-8 pegged the proportion higher. It noted that 5.64 per cent of the population moved out of the state.

The 2011 Census found that Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are responsible for the most number of migrants as 2.9 crore people moved out from the two states.

The 64th round of the National Sample Survey stated that around 30.7 per cent of the total out-migrants from Bihar moved in search of employment as they could not find work. Approximately, a quarter of the entire male out-migrants left their places of origin to get better employment that the previous one.

The same survey also concluded that 22 per cent of the migrants are from OBC households and 19.3 per cent belong to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.

Bihar has consistently been one of India's poorest states ever since independence. Some blame it on the lackluster federal transfer system, but the grim reality of the state was portrayed in videos that surfaced earlier in the month showing children surviving on frogs during the lockdown.

The backwardness of the state of Bihar is reflected in the lower agricultural output, skewed distribution of land and higher incidence of landlessness and lack of industrialization.

A research paper published in the Journal of Social and Economic Studies states that the current phenomenon of labour migration from the state of Bihar can be traced back to colonial period. "This region started to experience labour out-migration at the earliest. This phenomenon is largely attributed to the pattern of regional inequality and underdevelopment fostered in colonial period."

The paper further establishes that migration is now viewed as a finite stage of life-cycle of people of Bihar. As a male member of a household approaches a certain age, they are sent away to earn.

Dr KP Kannan of Centre for Development Studies suggested that employment via MGNREGA could be one way to ensure income.

Can Households Survive Without Remittances?

An average migrant worker from Bihar sends Rs 2,100 on a monthly basis back home. Bihar gets the second highest domestic remittance in the country. The state received Rs 9,53,61.300 in March 2017. Remittances account for close to 5 per cent of the entire state's GDP.

However, the sudden imposition of the national lockdown has rendered workers jobless, thus drying up the money orders.

"I have no money left after 40 days of no work and having to spend the time in New Delhi. My family back home is surviving on the scanty savings that will be over in no time. All channels of future income seem closed for now," said Rajiv Kumar, 36, a construction worker who is waiting to go back home in Darbhanga.

To understand the importance of the money sent home, consider this: according to the National Sample Survey 2007-08, 70 per cent of the remittances in Bihar are used to procure food items. The remaining is consumed in household maintenance and healthcare.

Kumar further explained that most like him belong from families with no fixed source of income. "We do not have any land so there is no chance of agriculture. My family depends on the money I send back and the seasonal work it finds," he said.

The latest Economic Survey of the state notes, "Admittedly, remittances from migrant workers have positive impact on consumption demand."

Jayati Ghosh, professor of Economics at JNU, reportedly said, "Though we don’t know how many have managed to get back, the remittances have stopped altogether. This is compounded by the fact that all the regulations are being interpreted and implemented shoddily."

Back in the state, Santosh Kumar, a resident of Madhubani district, said, "My elder brother is in Kerala ever since the lockdown. He used to send close to Rs 5,000 every month. I work as an agricultural labour and earn only during the seasons. He has not been able to send money. We hope he returns home as soon as possible but the financial struggle will be huge this year."

CM Nitish Kumar on Friday spoke about skill-training at the centres. "Many projects underway in Bihar happen to be labour-intensive. Once the dust settles, a survey should be conducted to assess the skills these migrant labourers might have and they should be absorbed in the workforce accordingly," he said.

Will Labourers Again Face Ostracism and Torturous Quarantines?

Not just financial liabilities, workers finally making their way back home may also have to face social hurdles. Incidents in the recent past have not been welcoming of the reverse migration.

There seems to be no respite for a migrant labourer in India. He is either cooped up inside a hostile camp, dying on the roads or being subjected to discrimination inside his own village.

In Araria district's Jogbani village, migrant labourers were reported to the police when they reached, after taking the arduous journey back home.

Jogbani is near the border of India and Nepal. Workers in large numbers travel to the neighbouring country for work.

"Twelve workers returned home last week. Villagers reported all of them to the police. Ambulances and officials arrived soon after and all of them were handed over to the medical team," said a resident of Jogbani, roughly 295 km from the state capital.

News18 spoke to police officials in Jogbani and several neighbouring districts who informed that it was not a one-off incident and that most villages in the state were adopting the same policy. In fact, the medical teams are now themselves enquiring and transporting any worker who has returned from his/her place of work outside the district.

Villages like Fatehpur, Jamalpur, Alawalpur, Kamarjee, Kandap, Masadhi, Piariya and West Champaran have cumulatively reported close to 100 such cases. In some areas, police have also pasted pamphlets on walls of those under quarantine asking others not to visit.

In many villages across the state, inhabitants and local leaders have barricaded the entry and exit points of villages, and placed posters that say: “Outsiders are not allowed.”

News18 had earlier reported the case of Janduka Jaria, 35, who had walked for 120 km to reach his village but was not allowed to set foot inside his house.

Such social hurdles will also be challenging for the state to overcome.

Can the State's Health Infrastructure Tackle Potential Spread?

Number of coronavirus patients in Bihar has been increasing.

With only 66 cases after the end of the first phase of the lockdown on April 14, 12 districts had reported Covid-19 cases. By the end of the second spell of the lockdown, this figure increased to 30 districts with 475 cases. Four people have died due to the virus.

New infections reported during the second phase of the lockdown were mostly those of asymptomatic migrant workers.

Districts in north Bihar such as Madhubani, Darbhanga, Sitamarhi and Purnea had remained free of infections until the last week of April, but now have reported cases.

"We must brace ourselves for the situation that may arise out of a large influx that is expected in the wake of the centre's revised guidelines with regard to the lockdown. We must ensure that the quarantine centres have excellent food, shelter, sanitation and medical facilities. The isolation centres must be in place at block and panchayat levels. If needed, we shall set up more centres as the number of people returning could be huge," the Bihar Chief Minister said at the meeting on Friday attended by his deputy Sushil Kumar Modi, Chief Secretary Deepak Kumar and Director General of Police Gupteshwar Pandey.

So far, the state has tested more than 21,000 samples and there are six COVID-19 testing facilities in the state.

According to official estimates, there are nine government medical colleges and hospitals, 533 primary health centres, 1,399 additional primary health centres and 9,949 sub-health centres in the state. Besides, there are 37 district hospitals, 55 sub-divisional hospitals and 70 referral hospitals.

Ever since the migrants began returning home, the state government has procured 15,000 thermal screening kits and a directive has been issued to authorities to convert schools and Panchayat Bhawans into quarantine centres.

Since the state-run hospitals have only 390 specialist doctors, 469 general doctors and 566 nurses, the Nitish Kumar government has asked private hospitals to stop OPD services and remain prepared for coronavirus patients. Doctors in the state have also complained of acute shortage of protective kits, masks and ventilators to deal with the situation in times of exigency.

Also, National Health Mission funds have so far been under-utilised while only half of the Rs 3,300 crore state health budget has been spent.

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