“Hum aapko haath jod ke bol rahe hain, yahan se nikaal lijiye (With our folded hands, I request you to please get us out of here),” Imam Ansari, a resident of Garhwa district of Jharkhand who is stranded in Pune, pleads to an executive of a COVID-19 helpline in Jharkhand. “We are crying. People at home are also crying. There is food for 2-4 days, after that nothing. I have no money.”
As Ansari speaks, a number flashes on the executive’s computer screen: 35. There are 35 people in the queue, waiting to get through to the helpline. The executive notes down Ansari’s details – “an electrician, earned Rs 350 a day in Pune” – on a Google Docs file and assures him that the government will reach out to him.
On March 23, the Jharkhand government converted its 181 helpline, launched by the previous Raghubar Das government for its Jan Samvad programme, into a COVID-19 helpline to handle calls on the virus and measures to check its spread. Another helpline operates out of the labour department office.
However, since the March 24 announcement of the 21-day lockdown, most of the calls on the helpline have been from Jharkhand’s migrant workers stranded in other states, usually desperate cries for help and food.
On Monday, the state Press Information Bureau stated that “various helpline numbers have been set up for more than 3 lakh people who are stranded outside the state”.
For the last several days, many of these migrants have been putting out their contact numbers and addresses on social media in a desperate attempt to seek food and other basic necessities.
“All the calls have been about food, food, and food,” says Arvind, the executive who answered Ansari’s call. “Most of the calls are from labourers who are stuck in other states. Only 20-30% of the calls are from within the state,” he adds, moving on to the next call. There are 34 waiting to get through to the helpline.
Another executive, Rajeev, receives a call from a group of labourers, asking if there’s any chance of a bus service from Ahmedabad. “Don’t fall for such rumours. There is no bus service.” There are now 27 calls on the waitlist.
Sanjay Jain, whose company provides the tech platform for the 181 service, says, “We have received 10,000 calls since the start of the COVID-19 helpline. Initially, the queries were on the virus, curfew, testing, etc. Now most of the calls are for food.”
With many of the stranded migrant workers from Jharkhand, Chief Minister Hemant Soren has been requesting other state governments to take care of the migrants. The government appointed Principal Secretary to CM, Rajeev Arun Ekka, as a nodal officer to help the migrants. The government has also formed a team of 15 IAS officers who have been assigned specific states to look into the problems of labourers.
There have, however, been complaints of people not being able to get through to the helplines or of lack of follow-up of the complaints.
Raju Singh, who works as a driver for a courier company in Kolar, Karnataka, told The Indian Express that he has been stuck in the company’s parking lot for the last 11 days along with others, eating “rice, salt, and water” once a day. “The manager is not picking our calls. We will die without food. We have no money. I had called the helpline on Saturday, but have got no relief yet,” he said.
The government has, however, promised to reach out more effectively. Jharkhand Chief Secretary D K Tiwari said, “Various governments are reacting to our constant follow-ups. Like in Andaman and Nicobar, people stranded were provided rations. We are trying to reach as many people as possible.”
Here’s a quick Coronavirus guide from Express Explained to keep you updated: What can cause a COVID-19 patient to relapse after recovery? | COVID-19 lockdown has cleaned up the air, but this may not be good news. Here’s why | Can alternative medicine work against the coronavirus? | A five-minute test for COVID-19 has been readied, India may get it too | How India is building up defence during lockdown | Why only a fraction of those with coronavirus suffer acutely | How do healthcare workers protect themselves from getting infected? | What does it take to set up isolation wards?
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines