Sitapur: At the primary school in Pimpri-Shadipur village, barely 100 km from Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow, children mill about the main gates early this morning as they interact with a group of 20 migrant labourers lodged in the premises.
Only, none of them should be anywhere near this area — the school has been converted into a quarantine centre for the men, some of whom have made it all the way from Mumbai, about 1,400 km away, after the 21-day lockdown was imposed on 24 March.
The quarantine centres have been set up in the villages across the state to screen the returning migrant labour for Covid-19 and ensure that they do not transmit it to those in the village. Those arriving here have to spend 14 days in quarantine before they can move to their homes in the villages.
The men inside say they have little choice but to flout the social distancing norms.
Their ordeal of walking home from the metropolises has been compounded by the conditions at the facility, where there is no food, barely any accommodation and little or no sanitation. They have also been left to fend for themselves as there is no staff here.
Sahibaan, 18, who is receiving tea from his 10-year-old sister Kismat, explains the predicament. “Our family is taking precautions but what will we do if food is not provided to us? We cannot die here of hunger,” Sahibaan says. “We have been asked to arrange our own food and accommodation here.”
Sahibaan worked as a mason in Ghaziabad. He says he walked for four days to reach home.
Were provided ration but nothing to cook them with
The men say that when the first of them arrived here on 26 March, the village pradhan Omprakash Verma, provided them with ration but asked them to cook their own food by collecting firewood from near the school.
The men allege that when they insisted on gas cylinders to cook the food, the pradhan took away the provisions and told them to arrange their own food.
“On the first day, the pradhan provided us with five kilos of rice, two kilos of potato and 250 ml of mustard oil, all for 20 people. When we asked him to provide a cylinder, he said that there was none,” said Shaukeen, 26, who reached here from Rohtak in Haryana.
“When we opened one of the rooms, however, we saw a couple of cylinders there,” he added. “When we protested, the village pradhan confiscated even that ration and locked it up in that room.”
The other migrant labourers allege that whenever food from their homes is delivered to them, the village pradhan takes photographs of it and uploads it on WhatsApp for the authorities.
“Whenever all of us eat our food the village pradhan takes photos of it and uploads it on his WhatsApp for the authorities to show he has provided it for us. This was after we called them to complain about the irregularities at this isolation centre,” said Rohit Maurya, 31, who worked as a welder in Ghaziabad.
“When we protested against this, the pradhan threatened to book us for defying isolation norms,” Maurya said, adding that police also allegedly threaten them if they complain about the lack of food and other arrangements.
Pradhan Omprakash Verma, however, told ThePrint that the labourers can’t cook themselves, adding that no one in the village is ready to cook for them as most are from backward castes or are Muslims.
“The migrant labourers who have been kept in isolation can’t cook as they have relied on hotels when they were outside the village. Also, no one in the village is ready to cook for them,” Verma said.
‘Premises not sanitised even once’
The facility does not even adhere to basic sanitary norms. All 20 men have to make do with just one toilet even though there are two more toilets in the village school premises. Both were closed when ThePrint visited.
“The premises were not sanitised even once. We are being made to sleep on mattresses that we brought from our homes,” said Maurya, the welder who walked home from Ghaziabad. “There are three more rooms but they have been locked by the pradhan. If they would have been used, we could have slept and lived here at an appropriate distance by following the social distancing rules.”
The men also say that they have to contend with just one bucket and a “small Dettol soap” that has been cut into two.
“In the initial days, when authorities came to inspect the village, the pradhan provided us with a bucket and a Dettol soap. Since then, there has been nothing else,” said Neeraj, 28, a daily wage labourer who worked as a mason at Jhajjar in Haryana.
He added that when they asked the village pradhan to open the other two toilets they were told to defecate outside if they wish to.
“The day before yesterday, there was a huge rush for the toilet. There were six people in the queue,” said Rohit, 27, a rickshaw-puller in Ghaziabad. “I along with two boys went to defecate outside in the open.”
Pradhan Verma, however, blamed it on the panchayat staff. “I had asked the staff to ensure that all facilities are provided to the labourers but they are careless. I will ask them again to ensure all facilities are being provided to the migrant labour in the village school.”
The labourers also alleged that preferential treatment was being meted out to the pradhan’s relatives.
“There are two family members of the village pradhan who arrived from Delhi but they are living in their homes with their family members while we are being kept here,” said Aslam, 24, a daily wage labourer who worked in Gaur City, Noida Extension. “It is the poor who are locked up while the family members of pradhan and even his relatives live comfortably in the village.”
When ThePrint contacted the Sitapur district magistrate Akhilesh Tiwari on the arrangements at the Pimpri-Shadipur isolation centre, he blamed the poor facilities on the panchayat authorities.
“We are making every possible arrangement but there are irregularities and carelessness at the level of the gram pradhan and gram panchayat.”
Tiwari, however, added that he would take cognisance of the matter and send the respective block development officer to fix the irregularities in the village school isolation centre.
No income, dwindling savings
For most of the men, the 14-day isolation period has left them with no income and is eating away at their savings. The men say they had walked home in the hope of working on the farms and earning an income during the lockdown period.
It is the peak of the sugarcane and wheat harvesting season in the region and agricultural labourers are allowed to work in farm-related activities as long as they maintain social distancing at the work.
Sunil, 28, who waited tables for a catering company at Ashok Nagar in Delhi, said, “We came home walking in the hope of maintaining an income and food but while we are being held in this isolation centre, our families are suffering.
“The sugarcane and wheat harvest is at its peak and will continue only for a week. After that, there will be no employment prospects here. How will we eat and what will we earn?”