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Saturday, May 15, 2021

No Covid checks for migrants, rural Jharkhand braces for worst

On Friday, The Sunday Express spent three hours from 3.30 pm at the Hatia station, one of the two in the state capital, and tracked the arrival of three trains, from Yeshwantpur (Bengaluru), Mumbai and Surat, all migrant hubs with new Covid curbs in place.

Written by Abhishek Angad | Ranchi |
Updated: May 2, 2021 7:16:23 am
At the Hatia railway station in Ranchi, Friday. (Photo: Abhishek Angad)

As the first set of migrant workers returned to Ranchi on special trains from across the country, a hoarding with an image of Chief Minister Hemant Soren welcomed them: “Johar! Jharkhand sarkar aapka ghar aane par swagat karti hai (Welcome! Jharkhand government welcomes you upon your arrival at home).”

Then, with circles drawn up on the floor for social distancing, they were screened one by one and greeted with roses, food packets and water bottles. All of them were taken to their districts on transport arranged by the state. Once home, they underwent Covid tests and mandatory 14-day quarantine in panchayat facilities.

This was May last year.

On Friday, almost 12 months later, The Sunday Express spent three hours from 3.30 pm at the Hatia station, one of the two in the state capital, and tracked the arrival of three trains, from Yeshwantpur (Bengaluru), Mumbai and Surat, all migrant hubs with new Covid curbs in place.

What this newspaper saw told the story of the second Covid wave that has battered the country: no circles, no social distancing and hardly any sign of Covid-appropriate behaviour. Many of the returning workers and several police personnel manning the platform were not properly masked. The swab collection facility was deserted, and all the passengers exited without any thermal screening. Outside, the hoarding was blank.

No wonder then, that the Chief Minister confided during a meeting with representatives from various districts two days ago: “80 per cent of the population reside in rural areas and I am worried about their safety as many people are returning.”

On August 31 last year, Jharkhand saw the highest number of positive cases in a day during the first wave: 3,331. On May 1 this year, 6,323 people tested positive. Jharkhand has 57,043 active cases.

From the first outbreak last year till March 31 this year, 1,113 people died of Covid. But this April alone, 1,282 more deaths have been recorded.

Outside the railway station, Mohammad Aftab, who was working as a tailor in Mumbai, waited for transport. There was no state-sponsored support, and drivers of the few auto rickshaws available were haggling for better fares. “After another lockdown in Maharashtra, I did not want to go through the trouble that we faced last year. I came back to remain with my family… No, I wasn’t tested in Mumbai or here in Ranchi,” he said.

Last year, Jharkhand recorded the return of over 5 lakh migrants. This time, Transport Secretary K Ravi Kumar said: “We don’t know how many labourers are coming in.”

Asked why tests were not being done, Ranchi Deputy Commissioner Chhavi Ranjan said: “Tests are being done. We are doing it on special trains as and when the Railways informs us.”

Out in the villages, where many of the migrant workers have returned to, the fear is palpable. And several representatives flagged this during the district-level meeting with Soren.

“Migrant labourers are scared, they secretly come to their villages. They need to be quarantined and tested. This time, the virus has reached villages,” Poonam Devi of Godda Zilla Parishad told the Chief Minister.

Hazaribagh district officials flagged the lack of testing and quarantine while those from Dumka complained of lack of medicines and oximeters. “The fear is such that people are leaving the bodies of their near and dear ones,” Dumka’s Zilla Parishad vice-president Aseem Mandal said.

Speaking to The Indian Express, Additional Chief Secretary (Health) Arun Singh said tests need to be conducted and this has been conveyed to district administrations. “The priority of the state government is to save lives and the entire machinery is looking into it,” he said.

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