Sitamarhi: Raja Maheshwari, a migrant worker from Nepal, came to India in March. He got a job in Sasaram, Bihar, and was just beginning to settle into this foreign land when the Covid-19 pandemic forced India to announce a strict lockdown that brought almost the entire nation to a halt.
Out of options, Maheshwari and 20 other Nepalese acquaintances started out for their homeland on foot. However, India and Nepal had both sealed their borders by then. The 21 people were caught by the Nepalese Police and handed back to India.
They are not alone. Maheshwari is one of dozens of Nepalese apprehended at the border while trying to cross over during the lockdown. As many as 300 of them are currently lodged at several quarantine centres across Sitamarhi, Bihar.
Some have been here for over 40 days, way longer than the standard 14-day quarantine period for Covid-19. But, with the border still closed, their wait continues.
Sitamarhi Superintendent of Police (SP) Anil Kumar said most of the 300 people had completed the 14-day quarantine period.
“We have some Nepalis who have been quarantined for about 40 days since they were caught trying to cross the border, as early as 31 March,” the SP added. “Most of them have been at the quarantine centres between 21 and 40 days.”
On the journey home
The India-Nepal border in Sitamarhi district runs through open fields, stretching from Bairgania to Sursand for about 80 km.
Since the lockdown kicked in, Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) and police personnel posted at local border outposts have been catching people trying to cross over. As there are no shelter homes in Sitamarhi, these workers have been kept at quarantine centres, said SP Kumar.
“The highest number of Nepalese migrant workers are in Korlahiya. A few of the other centres include Bairgania, Bathnaha, Sonbarsa and Sursand,” the SP added.
Maheshwari is living at the Bela Machhpakauni quarantine centre, which is a repurposed school building and one of two such facilities visited by ThePrint for this report (the other is at Kanhwa).
The labourer came to India two weeks before the lockdown and found a job at a construction site in Sasaram.
“For 5-6 days, the work was really good but then the lockdown was imposed. We were a group of 21 people who left Sasaram around 15 April,” he added.
There are around 16-17 Nepalese migrants at the two centres, most of them daily-wagers from Delhi, Mumbai, Gurugram and Noida.
Chawdhary, a daily-wager from Nepal also living at the Bela Macchpakauni quarantine centre, said he had been there for 20 days. “I had started my journey on foot (in the last week of April) and then got into a truck from Badarpur (Delhi). When I finally reached Sitamarhi and tried to go to Nepal, police brought me here,” he added. “Now, I have been kept here for more than 20 days.”
Chawdhary said he was forced to undertake the arduous journey after his employer started charging them for upkeep.
“Initially, the contractor under whom I was working had given us food & rations but later lala (the contractor) started demanding money,” he added. “We had no rations, no money, so we left for home.” Chawdhary left Delhi with a group of 7-8 Nepalese migrant labourers, all of whom have been quarantined in the same facility.
The quarantine centres at both Bela Machhpakauni and Kanhwa host Indian migrant workers as well.
‘Easy to spot the Nepalese migrants’
A.K. Jhakkar of the 51st Battalion of the SSB said they intercepted the first batch of Nepalese labourers on 31 March. “A group of 17 Nepalese migrant labourers from Haryana and Noida were trying to cross the border… They were intercepted at the Kanhwa BOP (border outpost) and brought to the Kanhwa and Gorhari quarantine centres. Proper screening was done,” he added.
The Kanhwa and Gorhari quarantine centres are within 2.5 kilometres of each other. The Kanhwa quarantine facility is at a distance of 800 m from the 51st Battalion company headquarters.
Jhakkar said it was “not too difficult” to apprehend the Nepalese migrants.
“We keep questioning people moving along the border. When someone says they have come to look at their farms, we know they are Indians,” he added.
“Nepalese migrants can be recognised from the look of exhaustion on their faces, they look distressed from the journey. Normally, upon questioning, they don’t lie and we explain to them that they cannot leave for Nepal because the borders are sealed,” he said. “Then we get them here to stay at the quarantine centres.”
‘Have approached central govt’
SP Anil Kumar said they had taken up the matter of the migrants repeatedly with the central government. “We have informed both the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). They haven’t yet updated us on anything…” he added. “As long as they don’t tell us, we cannot really do anything about these migrant labourers. In fact, there are many Indian labourers also stranded in Nepal due to the lockdown.”
Any relief on their movement across the border remains unlikely unless the governments on both sides remove the restrictions in place.
Government sources said there are people stuck on both sides of the Nepal border since the border checkposts are closed, adding that it’s an issue with Bhutan and Bangladesh too.
With inputs from Nayanima Basu