Odisha, gearing up to quarantine 5L returning migrants, faces mammoth task; social distancing only hope and also biggest challenge

Sudarshan Chhotoray

Since 1989, Harihar Pradhan, 48, a resident of Manapada village Panchayat under Brahmagiri Block of Puri in Odisha has been working in Surat, Gujarat's flourishing power loom industry, as a weaver. Harihar operates 12 looms on average and earns around Rs 20,000 every month. Of hist salary, Harihar sends Rs 15,000 to his wife in Odisha for his family of four, including two daughters who are pursuing college education.

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus, and the nationwide lockdown announced thereafter, however, has interrupted this steady flow of income.

Over a month into the lockdown, Harihar has exhausted the amount he received from the textile mill owner and there's a lot of uncertainty about his job. Harihar now wants to go home and be with his family.

"With my little knowledge on the world today, I simply guess there would be a recession in the textile sector, and it's going to affect Indian exports," said Harihar.

An even if the textile mills do run, in the current scenario, it will be difficult to get raw materials such as yarn, colours and machine tools, Harihar added.

Harihar Pradhan, a resident of Brahmagiri in Puri, Odisha, was working at a textile factory in Surat before the lockdown was announced. Image courtesy: Sudarshan Chhotoray

Harihar Pradhan, a resident of Brahmagiri in Puri, Odisha, was working at a textile factory in Surat before the lockdown was announced. Image courtesy: Sudarshan Chhotoray

The financial uncertainty has forced Harihar (and many others like him from Odisha) to register with the Government of Odisha's portal dedicated to help the pravsi sramika (migrant labourers) working outside the state to return home.

The Odisha govt has issued detailed guidelines enforcing a mandatory registration for migrant workers and 14-day forced quarantine for every person entering Odisha during and after the lockdown.

Having already suffered a huge loss after the Cyclone Fani made landfall in their area Brahmagiri, the lockdown has been a double whammy for Harihar and his family.

The cyclone devastated his home while also damaging the paddy crop and the orchard. The damage from the cyclone ostensibly is the reason that a large number of youths from the area have migrated to work in Surat, Mumbai, Kerala, Chennai, and Goa.

Balaram Pradhan, a resident of Kulangi Village under Sorada Tahsil in Odisha's Ganjam district, is in the same boat.

Balaram who is working at Eddupally under Ernakulam district in Kerala, expressed strong dismay over the second round of the national lockdown, saying it jeopardised his plan to earn more and get married soon.

Balaram had planned to surprise his parents and brothers by purchasing a bike for his family. But now it has been put on hold.

A construction labourer, 24-year-old Balaram comes from a family of migrant workers. His father is still working at a textile mill in Surat while one brother works in the construction sector like him. His younger brother is continuing to study.

Since the state government has come up with an elaborate plan to bring migrant workers home and quarantine them for 14 days, people like Balaram and Harihar have no other option but to give their consent to the terms in writing.

The larger question though is: How will they stay in their own villages and yet not meet their near and dear ones?

Quarantine centres set up across villages in Odisha

Dedicated quarantine-cum-isolation centers have been set up in villages, municipal areas and panchayats across the state. Public places such as schools, colleges, cyclone-cum-flood shelters, anganwadi kendras and panchayat buildings have been converted into temporary hospitals and isolation centres.

The state has set up at least 7,125 temporary medical centres (TMCs) in 6,798 gram panchayats which have 2,27,000 beds. Besides these, special COVID-19 hospitals have been established in almost all 30 district headquarters and four private medical college hospitals have been tasked to operationalise 500-bed hospitals each.

According to state government estimates, 5 lakh migrants are expected to arrive in the state after the nationwide lockdown is lifted and the Odisha government is making special arrangements to bring them home.

Just before the announcement of the second nationwide lockdown in April, violent demonstrations were reported from Surat in Gujarat, with Odia migrant workers taking to the streets near Diamond City, Pandesara, Sachin GIDC and Patel Nagar areas, demanding that they be sent back to their homes.

Odia migrant workers in other cities across the country as well as abroad have also sent videos narrating their innumerable suffering and plight.

While 4,86,000 migrant labourers have already registered so far, exodus of another 5 lakh is expected in the next couple of months due to uncertainty over jobs, opined social scientist Subas Panda.

Social distancing biggest issue

While arrangements have been made to accommodate migrant labourers returning from other states, the challenges are plenty, including arranging the logistics for their safe travel to their villages in Odisha, and then settling them in quarantine centres with proper facilities.

The state government has earmarked a huge budget for that purpose. According to sources from government, each gram panchayat has been provided with Rs 5 lakh for setting up quarantine centres and additional amount will be released for food and other requirements.

However, despite these elaborate arrangements a larger question is emerging: How to ensure social distancing?

The Ministry of Home Affairs while relaxing the lockdown measurers allowed the movement of stranded migrant labourers after 4 May, from one state to another, and has asked the states to strictly adhere to the health protocol and Standard Operating Procedures. Even the World Health Organization (WHO), the scientific community and public health experts world over have underlined the need to ensure social distancing to preven the spread of the virus.

Experts are also sceptical whether authorities will be able to maintain social distancing while transporting the migrant workers from different parts of the country to the quarantine centres located in the vicinity of their homes.

"It will not be possible to maintain social or physical distance while transporting them for over thousands of miles," a senior transport department official said on condition of anonymity.

Though Odisha has relatively a very small number of COVID-19 cases (154), because of its overwhelming migrant population, the state is now a sitting duck for further spread of the disease.

Nearly 30 lakh Odias are working across the country and abroad as migrant labourers mostly in construction, textile, hospitality, plywood and food processing industries. A vast section of them, nearly 10 lakh, are employed by Surat's (Gujarat's) textile, diamond, jari, olanga ship breaking industry, and the petroleum and other industries.

Besides, more than 3 lakh are in Mumbai, Pune, Nashik, Nagpur, while a  large section of them are working in south India's booming construction sector, power looms, tea gardens, plywood, food processing and brick kilns.

Apart from them, Odia migrants are also found in large numbers in Goa, Raipur, Kolkata, Delhi, Punjab, Himachal and Haryana.

These migrants are reportedly now feeling insecure and are living in constant fear because of the uncertainty about their jobs and daily living due to the outbreak and are desperate to return home. Their desperation is evident from the fact that nearly 5 lakh Odia migrants have registered in the state government's website expressing a desire to return home.

The arrival of migrants in such a large number, also means that the authorities must ensure that all social distancing measures are followed to the T.

Considering most migrants live in slums or in dense and dingy conditions at sites of factories and construction sites, they generally leave behind their family or parents back home. So, there will be an obvious urge to meet their spouses, children, parents and other family members once they return.

It would be difficult to suppress that instinct, as per a sociologist.

Besides, family may also try to provide homemade food, beverages to the migrant workers, and that may lead to conflicts between law enforcing agencies and the community. The much talked about social distancing to keep the coronavirus away could soon become a thing of the past.

Additional chief secretary of health and coordinator-in-charge of social distancing, Pradipta Kumar Mahapatra, however, seems confident that the entire operation will be successful.

He said that the govt has made adequate arrangements so that social distancing is maintained and ensure that there is no community transmission even if positive cases are discovered.

"We have worked out a protocol. Immediately after their arrival, they (migrant workers) will go for a medical screening. ASHA, ANM and anganwadi workers have been trained for this. A five-member panchayat team will look after their quarantine arrangements and supervision with support from administrative officials, and all suspected cases will be referred to the panchayat-level COVID-19 health centre for further check up and isolation," he said.

"The most challenging part would be finishing the 14-day self-quarantine period and upon testing negative, mainstreaming them back into the society and their family," Mahapatra added.

According to a conservative estimate, the Government of Odisha is going to bear the burden of additional expenditure of Rs 3,000 crore to bring back migrants, their safe quarantine, food, bed and medical expenses. Upon the completion of 14-day quarantine, each of the migrants will be paid Rs 2,000 besides their food, personal usable kit and transportation.

Villages demand police protection

"You will need to deploy police and officials to enforce social distancing, but it will not be possible to provide police protection to each and every quarantine centre located in remote villages," said Bamadev Sahu, a retired police officer. The government needs to mobilise villagers and involve the community, Sahu observed.

"We have requested District Collector to provide at least one policeman to each centre, so that minimum protocol is maintained," said Sashmita Nanda, chairperson of the Odapada Block under Dhenkanal district.

"We will ensure they follow guidelines of the  government to which they have already given consent, otherwise we will take action against them," added Nanda, informing that the block has made arrangements for 12,00 migrants.

Significantly, Odisha is the first state to vest the power of a collector to sarpanchs especially to manage quarantine centres and the large influx of migrant population to rural areas.

"It's good that the chief minister has assigned us with the power of a collector, but it will be difficult to enforce because almost all those who will come here and get quarantined are our known people. We will appeal to them to maintain discipline and will definitely ensure their safe quarantine period. We have trained volunteers from our village to guard the centre," said Bijaya Das, sarpanch of Brhmabarad Gram Panchayat.

Das further added that the village has became extra cautious because the first case of Tablighi Jamaat in the state was found in the Brhmabarad village. Though he has recovered, the fear still remains in the locality.

The West Bengal connection

Odisha is among the first states to register the migrants bound homeward.

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik in a video message on 29 April appealed to the public to be more vigilant, cautious, sensible and supportive as lakhs of Odia migrants will return to the state with Centre now allowing migrants to return to their homes.

Patnaik, however, has linked the present spike of cases in state's northeastern districts with the arrival of migrant workers from Kolkata. Overall, 60 persons have been traced to Kolkata where they worked as labourers or street vendors.

Naresh Jena, a human rights activist and a senior advocate in Odisha High Court said that because of the negligence shown in quarantining migrants who had returned from West Bengal, the situation in districts of Jajpur, Bhadrak and Balasore worsened.

"The looming crisis may blow up if we will be unable to maintain discipline in quarantine centres because people who are supposed to be in home quarantine for 14 days are seen moving freely in nearby markets, socialising and were visiting relatives and acquaintances," he said.

Tafahima Akhtar, a women's rights activist, however, said the migrant workers alone can't be held responsible.

"Everybody from the police and local administration to relatives and villagers are to be blamed for this," she said.

"See people have the general tendency to mingle with friends, family and acquaintances, and the urge is stronger when they return from outside. They don't understand that they might be carrying the virus because as it has been seen, initially all are asymptomatic,'' added Akhtar.

She further observed that because of the late warning and lack of awareness on public health, the Tablighi Jaamat case was blown out of proportion and a gross mismanagement was found.

Despite that, the fear of a spike in cases after the return of migrant workers to Odisha looms large in the state as almost 50 percent confirmed COVID-19 cases in Odisha now have a West Bengal connection.

Past paints grim picture, but officials optimistic

To the utter surprise of the local administration, traditional marine and inland fishermen who were working outside the state in Tamil Nadu have taken advantages of the sea route to reach their homes.

"During the last week, hundreds of them entered Odisha and Andhra Pradesh via the Bay of Bengal as according to them, that was the only option left," said K Kotesh of Pati Sonepur Village.

"These fishermen even purchased a motor boat. They paid Rs 1,76,000 to come home as everything looked grim in their eyes," added Koteshu.

Not only that, more than 2 lakh migrant workers had entered Odisha during and before the announcement of the lockdown.

"Those who were identified were rushed to quarantine centres while the government agencies are still searching for others with help from gram panchayats," stated secretary of United Artist's Association Mangaraj Panda.

Mangaraj further said that though three persons were placed in a school converted to a quarantine centre under Patrapur block in Ganjam district, one of the largest migrant-originating districts in the state, nobody came to perform health check-up for weeks.

Vijaya Amruta Kulange, Collector and District Magistrate of Ganjam, however, says that the district is prepared to host at least 2 lakh migrant population who have registered with the government portal and are coming from Surat (Gujarat), Kerala, Mumbai, Andhra Pradesh, Karnatak and Tamil Nadu.

"We have created facilities in 503 gram panchayats and 10,000 beds are already placed and ready with future requirements also. In no case we would allow family members to meet up or provide food to migrants in quarantine because the government has already arranged everything. They can have glance of their family members from a safe distance, we will strictly adhere to the protocol of social distancing, etc," Kulange asserted.

Even beds are arranged in a way to ensure safe distance is maintained while staying in government facilities, he added.

Psychosocial counselling key, say experts

Mental health experts are of the opinion that despite making arrangements for their safe quarantine, psychosocial counseling during quarantine is of utmost important because most of the migrant workers have already gone through unprecedented difficulties after the alarm was sounded by WHO on the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Our recent experiences with stranded migrant population show that almost all are living with constant fear and uncertainty over their job, income and infection of the disease. These, besides the fear for their near and dear ones as well as the pandemic situation prevail over the entire world and country," said director, Mental Health, and Government of Odisha Dr Sarada Prassana Swain.

States like Kerala have treated migrants from other states as guests. They have provided migrants with television, carrom boards, mobile top-ups and even psychosocial counseling to allay their fears. Migrants have reportedly expressed happiness over the facilities provided by the Kerala government.

"We shall ever be grateful to the Government of Kerala for looking after us in this difficult one-and-a-half month period. When we return to our state, we will spend the prescribed quarantine time without any hesitation," said Abdan Kumar, a construction worker from Koraput, Odisha.

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