Lalan Kumar considers himself successful on two counts: that in his last one year in Chennai, he picked up a fair bit of Tamil and sold “Magahi, Benarasi and Kolkatia paan” to South Indians. “My paan is a little different from what they make there — each has three smaller paans with fillings of cloves, cardamom and zarda,” he says.
Now the 25-year-old says he is lucky for another reason, that he is back with his family even as several others are struggling to get home amidst a nationwide lockdown, called to check the spread of coronavirus.
Lalan started for home on March 21, three days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the 21-day lockdown, taking a train from Chennai to Kolkata and then another to Munger. “I had my reservation for March 21, but when I got to the station, there was not an inch of space. The compartments were also crowded. Everyone was in a mad rush to get home,” says Lalan from his home in Harpur village in Munger.
Bihar has reported its only COVID-19 death from Munger — a 38-year-old with renal complications back from the Gulf.
The state Labour Department is yet to compile data on migrants returning over the past fortnight — the number is estimated to be 15,000 for last week alone. As the department reaches out to over 8,600 panchayats to determine that number, the Munger district administration has a list of about 2,500 who have returned from Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Punjab and Delhi, besides Dubai, UAE and the UK, where they worked as plumbers, tailors, electricians, washermen, technicians, tea-sellers, farmers and daily wage labourers.
Lalan is among 16 to have returned over the last week. “Sar par jo machine lagakar test karte hain, mera bhi hua railway station par (talking about a thermal scanner)… Now I am finally home. In a crisis, there is nothing like being with family,” he says.
But Lalan admits there will soon be other worries. His father, a taxi driver, is out of work too, and if he can’t go back to Chennai any time soon, the family that lives in a thatched house will have to dip deeper into their meagre savings.
Lalan says that in Chennai, he made Rs 1,500 on good days and sent Rs 10,000-12,000 home every month. He has two younger brothers and parents at home.
A few homes from Lalan’s is Mahadev Yadav’s. The 50-year-old, who worked as a security guard with a private company in Hyderabad, earning Rs 15,000 a month, came home on March 24, the day the Prime Minister announced the lockdown.
“Unlike in Bihar, where security guards are paid not more than 10,000, Hyderabad pays well. I have been there for 11 years now. But when everybody started talking about coronavirus, my family called me back. Other people from Bihar were returning too, so I decided to leave,” he says.
So Mahadev took a train from Hyderabad to Patna, and another one to Sultanganj railway station, after which he sat in a shared auto and came home.
He has travelled unreserved several times before, but this time was different. “There were people everywhere — on the berths, on the floor. And then, everyone kept talking corona, corona… that we shouldn’t sit close to each other. But what could we do? All of us had to get home,” he says.
When he reached his Harpur village, fellow villagers asked him to first get himself checked at the Tarapur sub-divisional hospital. He went through the test, got his name listed as a migrant returnee and then came home.
Mahadev says his employer gave 10 days’ leave, with a promise not to cut pay. But he isn’t sure what the employer would do after 10 days. “Anyway, I am glad I came before the lockdown… I would not have been able to do anything there,” Mahadev says.
While his wife and son are concerned about his health, Mahadev says he has not been showing any symptoms of the disease. “I am not even sneezing,” he says. But he has been trying to isolate himself. “I have been sleeping in a separate room and my family brings me food,” he adds.
Like Mahadev, Gagan Singh, who worked as a farm labourer in a Ludhiana village, was attended to by a doctor when he got home to Parsa village in Munger. “The village head informed local health officials and so they sent a team to my house,” he says.
Singh says the doctor told him the next 10 days were crucial. “As far as possible, I am trying to maintain a distance from my family members,” says Singh, who earned Rs 15,000 a month in Punjab.
In many villages in Bihar, afraid of “outsiders” spreading the virus, the government has accommodated those coming in schools or panchayat buildings, now doubling as observation homes.
Mohammed Aftab, 29, of Goura village in Kharagpur, flew down from Dubai, where he worked as a driver earning the equivalent of Rs 50,000 a month, to Varanasi on March 16. He then went to Mumbai on some work before returning to the village.
On March 22, a few villagers informed the local Health Department about his travel history. A team from the Kharagpur primary healthcare centre came to Aftab’s village and took him to the PHC, where he will be kept under observation.
Kharagpur Medical Officer Dr L B Singh said, “Aftab has an international travel history and he will have to stay at the PHC for a 14-day quarantine.”
While Aftab says he went through the requisite medical checks and thermal screening at Varanasi and later in Mumbai, and that he was “ready to go into quarantine”, Shailesh Kumar, from the adjoining Tetia Bambar village, says, “It was only after some villagers complained that Aftab agreed to be kept under observation. We are scared with so many migrants returning. It is good that the government has a list now.”
Mohammed Shahid, 22, and Mohammed Ziyaul, 32, who work as technicians in a private company in the UAE and who reached their Ghazipur village in Munger on March 10 and 11 respectively, too, went through health checks and quarantined themselves for 14 days. “My parents wanted me to come back as they worried about the virus spreading from China to the Gulf,” says Shahid.
Besides Shahid and Ziyaul, the village has several others working as tailors, washermen, electricians and technicians in other states and countries.
Omar Farukh, whose wife is the mukhiya of Ghazipur, says, “I have just handed over to the administration a list of 17 people who have returned from other countries and states.”
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