With lakhs of migrant workers waiting to return to their native states, the Maharashtra government will have the most numbers of people to repatriate after the Centre on Wednesday released guidelines allowing states to undertake relocation of such people immediately.
In a set of supporting guidelines issued on Thursday, state Chief Secretary Ajoy Mehta instructed district collectors to enumerate those who are seeking to return to their homes states. However, the state had earlier this month stated that there are currently 7.5 lakh migrant workers in its 4,871 shelters alone. Owing to the very large numbers, the government is mulling over whether to provide state transport buses, whether to provide this service free of cost, and whether the receiving states may be willing to share the cost of bus transport. Top ministers are also keen to reiterate the request for special trains to ferry the workers home.
State Transport Minister Anil Parab had said earlier that 10,000 buses of the Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation have been kept ready for the workers’ repatriation once the Centre permits the same, but a final decision will only be taken on Friday.
Organisations working with migrants and urban poor said on Thursday that the Centre and state’s suggestion to use buses to ferry the workers appears far-fetched given their very large numbers in Maharashtra.
“We need special trains. These are very long journeys from Mumbai or Pune to Gorakhpur or deep inside Bihar or Odisha. It’s also not clear if there will be enough buses,” said Chandan Kumar of the Angmehanati Kashtakari Sangharsh Samiti, which has been working with workers from various states living in the Pune, Pimpri-Chinchwad and the nearby industrial hub.
A collective of various organisations working with migrant workers has also communicated to the state that the process of relocating the workers should be assisted by trained teams such as the NDRF, and that it should consider providing a travel and food allowance to the workers for the journey.
Government sources said discussions began on Thursday regarding requisitioning private bus operators’ fleets, but the cost would be a consideration. The state would need a minimum of 20,000 buses in addition to the 10,000 state transport buses available immediately, and if social distancing norms are to be maintained during the journey, then these buses would have to make more than one trip each.
“The operational part looks very tedious and cumbersome,” said Shweta Damle of Habitats and Livelihood Welfare Association. “A lot depends on the source states – they must communicate well and in a timely manner the various rules.” She conceded that there are no easy solutions to the crisis for Maharashtra.
Meanwhile, the state government’s standard operating procedure for movement of stranded persons released on Thursday said that the nodal authority, the district collector, must register the workers, and submit a detailed list of those wishing to return home. “Sending and receiving states” will consult each other on the schedule of the movement, it added.
Explaining the protocol, Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh said that collectors are now the nodal officers for those seeking to return home, whether migrant workers, students, or others. “Those who are stuck here should approach the collector and fill a form providing details about themselves, their village, how they plan to go there, etc. Once the collector gives approval, they can start going to their villages,” the minister said, making no mention of whether the stage would organize transport for the migrants, or if this would be charged to them.
Those making their own arrangements to travel immediately will also require letters in a given format from the state’s disaster management authority. The letters would have to clearly state that they have been screened and do not show any COVID-19 symptoms.
“How do I get such a letter when they’re not letting us out of here at all? Also, what about the month’s lost pay?” asked Matadin Dhankar, a marble worker from Morena in Madhya Pradesh who lives and works in and around Pimpri. He has spent nearly 40 days in a municipal school converted into a shelter in Pimpri-Chinchwad. “Will they give us some kind of cash assistance for the losses? How will I go home without anything to a family that survives on my earning alone?”
Chandan Kumar said the other problem that the state and central governments are both silent on is the added pressure that the repatriation would put on the rural economy. “There has to be some kind of plan for these people going back home. Sending them home is not a solution on its own,” he said.
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