At Gujarat-MP border: ‘We know coronavirus spreading, but will starve if we stay back’

Aishwarya Mohanty
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Migrants sitting atop a bus as they leave from Lucknow. (Express photo by Vishal Srivastav)

For the last five days, ever since the nationwide lockdown was announced in the wake of coronavirus outbreak, over 40,000 migrant labourers cross the Gujarat-Madhya Pradesh border at Peetol crossroads on National Highway 48 every day.

The beeline of the migrant labourers can be seen from at least a kilometre away, followed by buses, jeeps and trucks even as the police obstruct the way, prohibiting any vehicle to cross the border without the travellers being screened.

Until Saturday, over 95% of the migrants reached the border on foot. However on Sunday, all of them were ferried to the border in state transport buses, private jeeps and even trucks, police officials present at the site claimed.

Niyaz Ali (30), along with 10 others, had started a journey from Jogeshwari in Mumbai on Thursday night to Allahabad on foot, covering 1392 kilometres.

On Saturday morning, they were stopped by the Ankleshwar police. By afternoon they were asked to get into an Uttar Pradesh-bound truck with over 20 others.

Coronavirus India update March 29

On Sunday afternoon at the Peetol crossroads, he ate his first meal in two days.

"This truck is still spacious than the house we lived in. Almost seven of us lived in a 10*10 room,” said Ali who works as a mechanic at a garage in Jogeshwari.

Migrant labourers continue to sit at Anand Vihar bus station in the national capital on Sunday. (Express photo/Prem Nath Pandey)

“We had run out of food. Our garage has been closed for over a week now. The garage owner has been unreachable since the lockdown. We don’t even know if they will pay us our salaries," he added.

"We don't know much about the disease. We know it's spreading and it kills. But if we don't go back to our villages we will die of starvation," Ali added.

Read | Amid exodus of migrants, govt orders 14-day quarantine for those violating lockdown

Most of these labourers used to work in factories, agricultural fields, construction sites and some private firms in Gujarat and even Maharashtra, officials said.

Ali along with the 30 others then joined the long queue to get themselves thermal screened by a medical team and then being sanitized and provided with a food packet by a group of NGOs before crossing over to the MP border from where the state transport buses of Madhya Pradesh ferry them to their respective villages.

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Police constable Krunalsinh Jhala persuades a group of migrant labourers to stay back, in Rajkot on Saturday. (Photo: Gopal Kateshiya)

As the migrants queue up to get themselves screened, a police officer constantly made announcements on why social distancing is important.

However, with heavy bags on their heads and small children in their arms, the migrants rushed to get themselves screened, standing in rather close proximity to each other, before they could be fed.

For some of them, like Ali, this was the first wholesome meal they had in the last few days.

At the Peetol check post, a team of 10 medical staff members including two senior doctors from Jhabua civil hospital and 40 police personnel from the Jhabua district police are stationed for round-the-clock duty. Two of the medical staffers are responsible for thermal screening of the labourer. A register is maintained to note down names of those with any symptoms of the virus. Every day around 50 people on an average find their names and mobile numbers noted in the register and are then referred to the nearby hospital.

However, they are asked to voluntarily go and get themselves checked at the nearby medical facilities.

Migrant labourers on their way from Pinjore to Ballia in Uttar Pradesh on Saturday. (Express Photo by Pallavi Singhal)

Sangita Meda's two-year-old son recorded a slightly higher temperature than the normal and was given medicines from the spot and asked to consult a doctor.

The 26-year-old woman said that she will take her son to a doctor only after reaching home.

"It's important that we reach home first. My son must be exhausted as well. Almost 20 of us are travelling together to our village Bisoli in Jhabua from Bhuj where we worked at brick klins," Meda said.

Dr Deepesh Tailor, a doctor with the Civil Hospital Jhabua and on duty at the check post on Sunday said, "We make note of the persons with any slight symptoms and they are asked to consult doctors. We also note down their phone numbers and take a follow up. We have the names of their villages too which we share with the authorities concerned at taluka or village level. Most of them with fever or cough are children."

However on the other side of the border with a huge influx of migrant labourers, doctors complain that this could possibly escalate the spread of the virus rather than containing it.

"We have been on duty here for the last seven days. The number of migrant labourers crossing the border has peaked. A lockdown means to stay where you are. The Gujarat government should have taken measures to take care of these labourers," a doctor on condition of anonymity said.

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