Last month, as the lockdown eased, Bikram Singha, 26, from West Bengal’s Uttar Dinajpur, decided to return to Kozhikode in Kerala where he had been working as a daily-wage mason for four years. His plan was to head to the rented quarters where he had been staying earlier and go through the mandatory two-week quarantine before looking for a job.
But on July 19, when Singha got off at the Kozhikode station, revenue officials and police stopped him, told him the Covid situation in the state was bad, and that he would have to take the next train out of the state. The following day, Singha took a train back home.
Even as inter-state travel restrictions were eased and Kerala allowed migrants to return, the state’s Covid numbers have been steadily increasing. The surge in cases has coincided with strong local opposition in the migrant hubs of Palakkad, Thrissur, Ernakulam and Kottayam, especially in the rural areas, against returning migrants staying in quarantine centres in their midst.
Though the state government has mandated the revenue department to arrange for centres where people can be quarantined for free, in the face of resistance from residents, the workers are being asked to go back or, as in the case of Sohel Nazirudhin Shaikh, forced to take up paid accommodation.
Shaikh, 32, from Anand in Gujarat, who had been doing painting jobs in Kerala for the last 10 years, had left Kerala days before the lockdown. “I decided to come back when I heard about a job. The owner of the rented accommodation in Chathamangalam, 30 km from Kozhikode, where I had been staying, agreed to let me stay in quarantine there,” he said.
But when he reached Kozhikode, he was told to go back and forced to buy a return ticket. “I then called my friends in Kozhikode, who got activists and others to intervene, after which the officials agreed to let me stay. But by then the house owner changed his mind, saying the locals weren’t too happy, so I was forced to go to a hotel for Rs 900 a day,” he said.
“Even after 14 days, I was not allowed to go out for work nor was any Covid test done. After staying there for 24 days, I protested and only then was I allowed to go. Now I don’t have a job and I have lost a lot of money too,’’ he added.
A senior official of the Labour Department said it’s the responsibility of the contractors who bring migrant workers to the state to ensure quarantine facilities for them. In the case of workers who come on their own, district administrations have been tasked with directing them to Covid centres for their quarantine.
Prem Lal, tehhsildar of Kozhikode block in the district, said, “Migrant workers who cannot afford paid quarantine will have to go back. We are sending them back from the railway station itself,’’ he said.
When told about the government’s position allowing migrants to return, he only said, “This is the practice now.”
At Paippadu, a panchayat in Kottayam that had around 12,000 migrants before the lockdown, residents have objected to these workers returning to their cramped living quarters. They have now formed ‘action committees’, asking owners of buildings to ensure separate rooms or cubicles for migrants to ensure social distancing.
Kerala Labour Minister T P Ramakrishnan, however, said he was unaware of the matter of migrants being forced to return. “We are providing migrant workers with all facilities. If there are local protests, we are ready to look into the matter. Kerala will never turn away any migrant worker. If labour contractors cannot provide quarantine facilities, the government will ensure that facility for workers,’’ he said, adding that “if there are complaints, we will look into it”.
Ashok Kumar, from Jalore in Rajasthan, had no one to complain to. He, along with three others, had taken the Delhi-Ernakulam train to reach Kerala. “But we were told to go back. So we have booked return tickets. What option do we have? We have lost about Rs 20,000,’’ he said.
George Mathew, co-ordinator of the Progressive Workers’ Association, a body that has been working for migrant workers, said the government and employers should join hands to provide quarantine facilities to workers. “The exploitation of paid quarantine centres should be stopped. Many migrants are coming back to Kerala because they have no jobs in their home states. But the paid quarantine and the attempt to pack them back to their home states should be stopped,” said George.