In the last week of March, as the national lockdown began, about 175,000 migrant workers arrived in Bihar’s border districts, demanding to be allowed to return to their homes. Before their arrival, the state government had wanted them to remain where they were. What was now required was an effective quarantine, a task that fell to Bihar’s principal secretary of disaster management, Pratyaya Amrit. He had already been busy, setting up screening camps and requisitioning schools and panchayat bhavans for use as quarantine centres. Food, supplies, medical staff and cooks had to be arranged, as well as busses to take migrants from Bihar’s borders to quarantine camps in their districts. Fifteen days later, when people started leaving the camps, not a single one showed symptoms of the virus.
Now, the challenge has returned. With the Union ministry of home affairs relaxing some rules on movement, trainloads of labourers have started returning to Bihar. Amrit, now Bihar’s nodal officer for managing the state’s response to the migrant migration, says he is prepared. But the task is huge, even the most conservative estimates put the returning migrants at 800,000. Some have already begun arriving, on May 2, a train from Jaipur brought 1,174 migrants back to Bihar. Arrangements have been made with the railways for 60 trains to get the migrants back home by May 17.
Lessons have also been learned. This time, to prevent migrants trying to sneak out of quarantine, they will be housed at schools and government buildings, surrounded by policemen. CCTVs have been installed, and the quarantine length has been extended to 21 days. However, the camps are no jails. “We have ramped up facilities to make residents comfortable,” says Amrit. Meals are provided three times a day, as well as milk rations twice a day. Residents are given clothes, toiletries and sanitary products. Amrit says these have been provided in accordance with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s directive of providing care to those in need.
Santosh Singh, a 17-year-old at a quarantine centre in Darbhanga, says that the rice, dal and curry with soyabean chunks he got for lunch was quite filling. With nothing to do, he says he will catch a siesta in one of the classrooms of MLSM College (one of the institutions repurposed as a quarantine camp). He is one of many migrants who began walking home after the lockdown was announced. He and three others reached Darbhanga on April 25, and would have continued back to their home in Azamnagar Katihar, had they not been intercepted. They will soon be joined in quarantine by many others, as many as 1,200 migrants, travelling by train from Kerala, are set to arrive at this centre by May 6. But this is just the beginning. Amrit knows he must keep his men’s morale high. “You must feel fortunate,” he tells them. “It’s a huge opportunity to work to manage the COVID-19 crisis, a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Amrit’s work day begins at 9 am, all seven days of the week. He starts by checking reports from 19 nodal officers he has handpicked to coordinate with the states from which migrants are returning. He then checks in with the railway authorities, asking about train sanitisation, the availability of food, masks and medical facilities for the journeys and the like. This is followed by video conferences with the district magistrates, where discussions are centred on preparedness at the respective quarantine centres, and the availability of doctors and relief materials. Once this is done, he touches base with the disaster management call centre, where about 10,000 calls are received every day. Once these tasks are complete, Amrit reviews updates about direct cash transfers. The Bihar chief minister has allocated more than Rs 6,000 crore to financial relief and Amrit has so far ensured transfers of Rs 1,000 to 11 million ration card-holders in the state and to 1.87 million Bihar residents stranded elsewhere.
Amid all this, Amrit does not skimp on his family responsibilities, talking to his daughter Apoorva, studying for a Master’s degree in Law in Singapore, and his son Anshumat, an undergrad at Rhode Island, USA. “I don’t skip talking to them. Not even once,” he says. His wife Ratna, he says, is his source of strength, and then breaks into song: “Himmat watan ki hamse hai…” He may not be a great singer, but he is a winner at his job.