Home >News >India >Back home, migrant workers reel under multiple challenges

She had anguish written all over her face. Home seemed far away, even after a 1,200km-long train journey from the textile hub of Surat in Gujarat to the back-of-beyond Atarra in Banda district of Uttar Pradesh.

Last Tuesday, in the gruelling afternoon heat of the parched Bundelkhand region, Madhu Kumari stood outside a school in Atarra, rocking her one-day-old girl, while waiting for a vehicle to reach her village in Raebareli district, another 160km away. The last leg of the journey was also the most painful. Around noon on 18 May, while on a special train for migrant workers, Madhu gave birth to a girl. As there was no doctor on board, the women took on the roles of midwives. Her umbilical cord was severed with a blade a fellow passenger was carrying.

However, none of this compared with the nonchalance she faced after getting off the train. Madhu Kumari and her husband Manoj, who worked at a textile unit in Surat, were forced to wait for nearly 24 hours. She spent the night in the local school, slept on a jute mat, in a room swarming with mosquitoes. The food was meagre—they were twice served puri sabzi. On the afternoon of 19 May when this reporter met her, she looked worn out, on the verge of collapse.

The local police and revenue officials screening returning migrant workers and their families did not think it was necessary to arrange an ambulance. Only after some journalists alerted a local politician, a vehicle was sent.

Madhu reached her home later that evening to a roomful of worries such as how to care for the infant and arrange food for the family. Manoj has been out of work since the lockdown was announced on 25 March to contain the spread of covid-19 infections. They had run out of cash and the family borrowed money to pay for train tickets.

“There is nothing for us here, so we will go back once the lockdown is lifted," said Manoj. The family does not own any farm land and is entirely dependent on subsidized foodgrain provided under the federal food security scheme. To make matters worse, Madhu could not register under the scheme despite repeated attempts.

That afternoon, when Madhu waited with her child outside the school, a crowd of more than a hundred people was getting restless. Many had to pay more than three times the fare to agents in Gujarat for a berth on the Shramik Special trains run by Indian Railways. “The ticket fare was 575 but I paid 2,000 to an agent. I had no option after five failed attempts to book a ticket," said Ajay Kumar, who was waiting for a bus to Gonda, about 300km away.

Kumar, much like Madhu’s family, is now bracing for hard times. The food relief for an estimated 80 million migrant workers announced by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on 14 May will likely take more than a month to roll out. Also, 5kg of grain for a family will at best last not more than a few days.

Food availability is not the only challenge facing states that are witnessing an influx of home-bound migrants. In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, asymptomatic migrant workers are sent to their villages and advised 14-day quarantine. On ground the situation is entirely different. Inside villages of the dry and arid Bundelkhand region, where water shortages are acute and arranging a square meal is not easy, very few people are washing hands or wearing masks.

In hamlets segregated on caste lines, social distancing is rarely followed. Between castes, social distancing often worsens existing prejudices.

However, for India’s most populated state, the challenge is an impending spread in infections that will put to test its creaky public health infrastructure. About 2 million inter-state migrant workers have made their way home till 22 May, show government figures. Of these, close to 659,000 are being screened by health workers. Of the 48,654 samples collected, 1,361 have tested positive for covid-19.

Returning migrants now account for close to a fourth of the covid-19 caseload. This is only likely to worsen in the coming days.

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