Patna: Images of dancers performing at a quarantine centre in Samastipur might have painted a very rosy picture of how the Nitish Kumar government is taking care of migrant labourers, but reports coming from different centres across the state present a stark contrast: Inmates fighting for food and water, scaling walls in the absence of adequate toilet facilities, and many even fleeing.
Migrant labourers returning to Bihar from around the country are first kept in quarantine centres for 14 days, after which they have to spend an additional seven days at home in self-isolation.
According to state government figures issued Wednesday, around 6.4 lakh migrant labourers are quarantined at 7,840 centres across Bihar. On Thursday, 50 trains arrived in Patna, bringing in more than 60,000 migrant labourers.
However, the living conditions at the centres have come under the lens, and there have been complaints that suspected Covid-19 patients have been packed into the same quarters as others. There have been multiple reports of labourers attempting to flee the centres, to the extent that the Bihar government has reportedly made the completion of quarantine a condition to avail of promised cash incentives.
The plight of the migrants has started a fresh exchange between the Nitish Kumar government, led by the BJP and the JD(U), and the opposition.
While the RJD has accused the government of overlooking dismal conditions at the quarantine centres, the latter has said it’s doing all it can to help the quarantined labourers, adding that “temporary difficulties should be ignored in the larger interest of society”.
Meanwhile, the spate of returning migrant labourers is leading to a sharp spurt in the state’s Covid-19 tally. On Wednesday evening, the figure stood at 1,607, having doubled within a week. Out of these, 788 Covid-19 cases involve migrant labourers.
Food, water leading concerns
Widely discussed and joked about on social media, the images of dancers at the Samastipur quarantine centres have triggered concern among district authorities.
Dancers have been arranged to perform at a quarantine center in Samastipur, Bihar. 😀
— Shashank (@alasdehermes) May 20, 2020
Expect #Bihar to go innovative to kill #coronavirus. Even coronavirus must have bene confused now.
"Dancers called to perform in quarantine facility for migrant workers in Bihar's Samastipur." https://t.co/mgD6EQswjE
— Kumar Manish (@kumarmanish9) May 19, 2020
Some dancers, called from outside,
Performed at a quarantine centre in bihar.
It shows ki Life mein priorities clear honi chahiye, marna toh ek din sabko hai.
— @rahuldot (@rahultap) May 20, 2020
The Samastipur administration has ordered an investigation into how the dancers were allowed inside the quarantine centre.
At other centres, returning migrant labourers are having to fight for food, water and other basic amenities. The reports of lack of food have been so frequent that media people have been prevented from entering quarantine centres, it is learnt, and the duration of stay has been scaled back to 14 days from the initial 21 days (the remaining seven days are to be spent at home).
At one of the quarantine centres in Gaya, where around 240 migrant labourers have been kept in a college, inmates have reportedly complained that there are only two toilets. According to media reports, most of them have to scale the walls of the college in the morning to attend the call of nature. There are only two buckets on the premises. Food, bad as it is, is often served late.
In Nawada, around 150 migrant workers quarantined at a school fled Saturday morning after a person in the facility tested positive for coronavirus. Some of them, ThePrint learnt, were also put off by the lack of food and water.
It took almost eight hours for the district administration to round up the escapees and cajole them into returning to the quarantine centre. Among other things, the incident has raised a question mark on security arrangements at the quarantine centres.
In Buxar and Katihar districts, quarantined migrant labourers have organised protests over the poor quality of food. In Samastipur, there was a scuffle among inmates over water as their quarantine centre had just one tubewell.
Quarantined people have complained that they are often treated as jail inmates locked up in a room, and reports of escape attempts have come from across the state.
“The silver lining is that we have the Aadhaar numbers of the inmates… if they escape, they are easily traceable,” said a state health department official. “So, a threat to lodge FIRs against them forces them back to the quarantine centres.”
Even leaders of the ruling alliance admit that all is not well at quarantine centres.
“There are several hurdles. The fear of Covid-19 is so pronounced that once a Covid-19 case is located at a centre, the cooks and even the ambulance drivers flee the place,” BJP MLA Gyanendra Gyanu told ThePrint.
‘Government fully exposed’
The opposition has weighed in on the complaints, and attacked the Nitish Kumar government over the state of quarantine centres in Bihar.
“The government stands fully exposed… The inmates are given beaten rice, salt and chilli in the name of food. They are being treated as prisoners and not victims,” RJD leader and former Bihar deputy chief minister Tejashwi Yadav said in a statement Wednesday.
“All the claims made by the state government on food and amenities are… for elections or why should the media be banned from entering quarantine centres?” he asked.
Assembly elections in Bihar are scheduled for later this year.
Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi has lashed back at critics, saying the “state government is doing everything to facilitate the smooth functioning of these quarantine centres”.
“The disaster management has been given Rs 700 crore… The opposition is indulging in politics and would like to start a membership drive among the returning migrant labourers,” he told ThePrint.
In a statement issued Tuesday, he said the Bihar government “has prided itself on opening quarantine centres even at the village level, unlike other states where the centres are centralised”.
“The easy way out for the government would have been to send the returning migrant labourers home. But that would have led to the further spread of Covid-19… Temporary difficulties should be ignored for the greater benefit of society in the long-term,” he said.