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Thursday, September 16, 2021

Contracts up, Bengal migrants who turned Covid warriors left adrift

Now, with the pandemic’s intensity winding down, his contract, like many others’, lapsed on August 31, again leaving them without a job.

Written by Sweety Kumari | Kolkata |
Updated: September 5, 2021 7:37:34 am
Former Migrant worker now work as temporary helping hand in Covid hospital on their way to hospital from Salt lake stadium , government arranged lodging. (Express photo by by Partha Paul)

A year and a half ago, when the lockdown was announced across the country amid the outbreak of Covid-19, 31-year-old Sahadeb Marjit had returned to his Poradanga village home in Murshidabad district from Maharashtra where he worked as a daily wage labourer.

Soon, he was enrolled by the West Bengal government as a“Covid Warrior”. His job was to take temperature readings of patients at the government-run MR Bangur Super Specialty Hospital in Kolkata. He got a monthly stipend of Rs 15,000 and temporary accommodation at the Salt Lake Stadium hostel.

Now, with the Covid situation in West Bengal waning, Marjit’s fate hangs in the balance. His job contract with the state government ended on August 31, and now he is left without a source of livelihood.

“When we reached the hospital on September 1, they asked us to return. We waited till 12.30 pm in the hope of meeting the hospital superintendent but his assistant said he was busy. We had no other option than to return to our hostel,” Marjit said.

He was among the 60 Covid Warriors who were staying at the Salt Lake Stadium hostel and deputed at different hospitals for the past 15 months. “With our contracts ending and the hospitals not allowing us to enter, nearly six of us have left for our hometowns,” Marjit said.

Before the pandemic, he used to earn around Rs 600 daily as a migrant labourer in Maharashtra. Managing food and accommodation with a monthly earning of just about Rs 12,000 was a challenge in itself. However, unlike many others, who lost their jobs in the pandemic, Marjit had a steady income and a place to stay – thanks to his job as a Covid Warrior.

“I never imagined getting a job where I will get to work with doctors and other hospital staff with dignity, and it was made possible by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. The experience of these past months would stay with us forever. Now, if the government fails to absorb us, the loss will be theirs as much as it is ours. They are short of health workers and the experience that we garnered over the last months could have helped improve healthcare services in West Bengal,” Marjit said, adding, “I have almost forgotten my identity as a migrant labourer”.

Sourav Mondal (21), like Marjit, is fretting over his future after his contract with the state Health Department ended.

Mondal, who was assigned to work at the government-run Sagore Dutta Medical College, was also told to return as his contract had ended. He too worked as a daily wage labourer in Maharashtra, repairing musical instruments and earning between Rs 8,000 and Rs 9,000 per month before the pandemic.

“I loved my work, which was mostly interacting with patients and taking care of their small needs. It had almost become a part of my life. Now, that my contract has ended, I am anxious about my livelihood. I don’t want to move out of my state again for work,” Mondal, a resident of Purba Medinipur, said.

More than 600 migrant labourers from Murshidabad, Birbhum, Malda, Cooch Behar, Kolkata and Medinipur districts, who returned home during the first wave of the pandemic, were hired by the state Health Department on a temporary basis. Most of the migrant workers were enlisted in the programme and after brief training.

“After almost two years of working in a job that got us respect, it would be impossible to return to my earlier work. I don’t know what the future holds for me if the contract isn’t renewed. Returning to my pre-pandemic life would require a tough mental adjustment,” said Jaharul Haque of Dinhata in Cooch Behar, who has been feeding infected patients, cleaning them since August, last year.

With an elderly and differently-abled father to tend to at home, 24-year-old Khudu Sheikh (24), another migrant labourer from Shaktipur in Murshidabad district, doesn’t want to relocate again. “Everyone in my neighbourhood knows that I am involved in government work. Now, I can’t even think of returning to my village jobless,” Sheikh said.

The idea to involve returning migrant workers as Covid Warriors was first mooted by Dr Amardendra Nath Roy to former chief secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay who immediately approved the proposal.

“They volunteered at a time when no one was ready to enter Covid wards. We cannot forget their contribution. It was an arrangement that assured them a source of livelihood and gave us more Covid Warriors. Hence, it would be sad to see them return to their previous lives as migrant labourers after gaining valuable experience working in the healthcare sector for close to two years. They have precious experience of Covid and how to deal with it. However, it will all go to waste if they have to return to their previous lives. The government must think of reinstating them in some capacity or use their experience in some other way on a contractual basis,” Roy, an assistant professor of orthopaedics at the Murshidabad Medical College and secretary of the Covid Warrior Club of Murshidabad, told The Sunday Express.

The government is, however, non-committal.

“It was a temporary engagement depending on the requirement on the ground. We will be rationalising our requirement and enlist their services again at hospitals as and when a need arises,” state Health Secretary Narayan Swaroop Nigam told The Sunday Express.

In the run-up to the Assembly elections this year, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had stressed the need to engage Covid Warriors, mostly migrant labourers, in similar work.

“Many (migrant labourers) are still working with us. After the elections, we will enlist them for various jobs, including in the health department, so that they can help us in our fight against Covid,” Banerjee had said in Behrampore in April this year.

Pinning their hopes on the chief minister, most of them are keen to see the state government extend their contract or give them a permanent placement.

Their contracts had been renewed time and again over the last one-and-a-half years. However, the contracts, which were up for extension again on August 31 weren’t renewed. With no word on renewal thus far, they are feeling “betrayed”.

“Didi (Mamata Banerjee) did a great job. She gave us a source of livelihood even in the current situation. If the government doesn’t call us back to work, it would mean that we were just used at a time when Covid was at its peak and the sufferings of migrant workers were the talking point across the country,” said a Covid Warrior as he along with others walked towards the hostel in Salt Lake Stadium to spend another night in uncertainty.

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