Despite Maharashtra lockdown, labourers rushing to leave Mumbai, Pune in jampacked buses face coronavirus threat

Parth MN

Commotion erupted in one of the villages in Maharashtra's Latur district on Monday morning. A young daily wage worker had returned home a week ago from Pimpri Chinchwad, for the statetwide shutdown meant he had no work. After having returned, he had been coughing and suffering from flu. People around him tried to convince him to go to the doctor, but he did not.

"He even refused to tell the doctor his travel history, or who he had come in contact with," said Madhav Pitle a local journalist who met the youth at his village. "He was extremely scared. Finally, he told me his roommate in Pimpri Chinchwad had been tested positive for COVID-19."

The police had to be called in who forced him into an ambulance and took him to Latur town, where the government medical college is sampling suspected patients of coronavirus across the district and sending the samples for testing.

However, the youth had already travelled nearly 400 kilometres from Pimpri Chinchwad - in the outskirts of Pune - to Latur in a jam-packed bus with over 100 passengers. "He did not have the luxury of staying where he was," Pitle said and added, "Can you blame him when educated people across the country are not following social distancing?"

In Maharashtra, over 100 positive cases have been reported so far. To enforce social distancing, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray announced sealing of state borders, among other restrictions, and shutting down of commercial establishments till 31 March. A gathering of more than five people is now prohibited in Maharashtra and a person can only step out of their homes for "essential services". More importantly, even intra-state travel is now banned, which means, a person cannot travel between two districts in Maharashtra. It is aimed to contain the spread of virus into rural Maharashtra, where health infrastructure is in abysmal condition.

However, hundreds of thousands of labourers have been leaving Mumbai and Pune for their villages because gradual shutdown of operations beginning second week of March has meant they no longer have work now, and will have to struggle to make their ends meet.

For about a week since 15 March, local reporters in Latur said that buses leaving from Mumbai and Pune were full to capacity. There are a total of about 250 buses €" government and private €" coming in to Latur everyday from Mumbai and Pune. A government bus has a capacity of seating 60, while private buses can accommodate up to 150 passengers. Even if one goes by the conservative estimate of 60 people per bus, it means 15,000 people per day are travelling in a jam packed vehicle. Over a period of five to six days, at least a lakh people have travelled to Latur from two major cities of Maharashtra. This is, of course, not including railways and shared taxis.

Interaction with local activists and journalists indicate that Latur is not an anomaly.

Farmers and labourers across the agrarian region of Marathwada €" under which Latur falls €" have been returning to their villages. With eight districts in the region, it is safe to say about 6-8 lakh people would have returned to Marathwada from Mumbai and Pune in a week €" the two major cities which make for the bulk of the positive cases of coronavirus in the state.

The daily wage labourer from Latur is only one of those few lakh people.

The homecoming for the workers, however, has not been happy in several areas of Marathwada. Doctors said the sudden influx of people has brought with it fear and panic. A doctor in one of Latur's talukas requested anonymity and said that some of the returning labourers are not being allowed by villagers  fearing they have contracted coronavirus. "We have been getting incessant calls from sarpanchs of different villages. They are asking us to inspect people who have just returned from the cities," the doctor said.

The situation has added more burden on the collapsing health infrastructure in rural Maharashtra. The doctor further added that his primary health care centre, along with five sub-centres, is supposed to cover for over 40,000 people. "We only have six beds, we need more health workers, paramedical staff and even doctors. In the past week, the number of people coming in to get checked has exploded," the doctor further added.

However, the doctors in rural Maharashtra do not have proper protective gear and are at risk themselves. "We are using masks and gloves that we have had for all these years," the doctor said.

Over the past week, the doctor said, they have inspected 300 people daily, and they are referring them to the government medical college in Latur town if they show symptoms of coronavirus. "Since we cannot check everyone at the clinic, we have deployed Asha workers in the villages. There is one worker for 800-1000 people," he said.

The Asha and Anganwadi workers are even more vulnerable as they are going door-to-door without hand sanitizers and protective gears. The doctor said they were using an old cloth to stitch masks for the Asha workers.

Shubha Shamim, vice-president of All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers (AIFAWH) and Maharashtra State General Secretary of Anganwadi Karmachari Sanghatana said that the 65,000 Asha workers and over 2 lakh Anganwadi workers in Maharashtra should have never been asked to do this job. "Normally, you do not even consider them government servants," she said and added, "They have no social security, and most of the workers are single women. If anything happens to them, who will look after their families?"

Shamim was quick to point that it was unfair to deploy Asha workers for this task when the government staff who normally enjoy benefits of being a "government staff" should be asked to do this job. "Government servants who draw a salary of Rs 60,000 and above are sitting safely at home while an Anganwadi or ASHA worker who barely makes Rs 2,000 a month are being thrown into danger," she said.

With one isolation bed per 84,000 people, one doctor per 11,600 citizens, and one hospital bed per 1,826 Indians, the paucity of resources is visible across India. In rural Maharashtra, things are worse. According to 2014 data, government hospitals have 11,302 beds in rural Maharashtra for a population of over 6 crore. By a rough estimate, we have one bed for over 5,300 people. Making things more difficult for the doctors, people are afraid to share their travel history.

The labourers afraid to coming forward with details of their travels are also facing a pandemic for the first time. They are not just afraid of being tested positive for COVID-19, but also the economic cost it would exact.

Social scientist and activist Jean Dreze wrote in The Hindu that the states should come up with "initial measures" that could include "advance payment of pensions, enhanced PDS rations, immediate payment of MGNREGA wage arrears, and expanded distribution of take-home rations at schools and Anganwadis".

"Migrant workers, street vendors, contract workers, almost everyone in the informal sector €" the bulk of the workforce €" is being hit by this economic tsunami," he wrote.

The article further noted, "The average household in, say, Canada or Italy can take a lockdown in its stride (for some time at least), but the staying power of the Indian poor is virtually nil."

Chandrakant Mehtre, who works as a driver in Pune, said he is clueless about the future. Mehtre, who has a farm in Latur's Deoni taluka, said, "I was asked to go home on 21 March. I do not even know if it is a paid leave or an unpaid leave. I worked in Pune and sent money back home. I cannot afford to stay idle for long."

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