Bihar is in the midst of a tidal wave of reverse migration, perhaps the biggest it has ever seen. From May 2, when the first Shramik Special carrying 1,200-odd migrants arrived in Patna, till May 31, as many as 2.03 million people will have reached Bihar. Add to this the nearly 200,000 people who returned in March after the first lockdown and the 50,000 who may have come across the border hitching a ride, and the cumulative figure touches about 2 per cent of the state’s 115 million population. These two million-plus people returning home leave Bihar with that many responsibilities.
“It’s a twin battle and, worse, a concurrent one,” says a senior IAS officer, referring to the fight against the pandemic on the one hand, and the humanitarian crisis on the other. Every returning migrant needs food, shelter, medical screening, quarantine and treatment (if required). If there is a line separating the two crises, it is blurred beyond recognition.
A strange dichotomy
For the returning migrant, however, coming back has sparked an existential conflict within them. In their destination state, they are seen as just a part of the workforce. They get the money they cannot earn back in their state but hardly have any sense of attachment in their adopted home. Back in their own surroundings, they retrieve the sense of belonging but not the job opportunities. Looked at with envy and hope back in their villages because they appear to have done well for themselves by venturing into the outside world, having to return now because of the coronavirus pandemic brings on a sense of shame and failure, especially before neighbours and friends. Not to mention the families, which in many cases, had scrimped all those many years ago to raise the money they needed to be able to leave.
A question of livelihood
Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who has had regular interactions with the migrant workers lodged in quarantine centres, now wants them to stay home for good. “Giving employment to all of you is our first priority,” says Nitish. Instructions have been issued to the industries department to conduct a skill survey of the migrants while the district magistrates have been told to make employment plans for them.
For now, the state is looking at welfare programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) to provide employment. In the longer term, the plan is to involve unskilled migrants in infrastructure-building programmes undertaken by Metro Rail, the electricity and roads departments, and in construction.
In the past two months (till May 25), Bihar has issued 246,000 new MGNREGA job cards, involving 321,000 people. The state has also approached the Centre to increase guaranteed employment from 100 to 200 mandays. Though MGNREGA wages were recently raised to Rs 194 a day in Bihar, the state has requested the Centre to make it at least Rs 232, equivalent to what an unskilled agricultural worker earns in Bihar. “We have created 22.9 million mandays of work in 396,000 schemes so far,” says Anupam Kumar, the Bihar information and public relations secretary. As of now, 1.22 million workers are working in various schemes with an average daily payout of Rs 23.6 crore. Payments are made directly into the bank accounts of the workers.
Financing the Return
Given the anaemic condition of Bihar’s corporate sector, the responsibility for infrastructural development here rests primarily on the state. But again, the current financial capacity of the state government allows little leeway to allocate resources. Bihar deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi says that with virtually no economic activity, the state government has not been able to generate enough revenue from taxes. “The deficit in revenues has been 82.3 per cent in April,” he says. “However, with the Centre recently raising the borrowing limit of states from 3 to 5 per cent of GSDP (as prescribed under the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management, or FRBM, Act), the state can borrow Rs 52,263 crore. This will save Bihar from severe financial constraints,” he says.
Watered down: Nirala and his young family at the Maner quarantine facility. Photo: Ranjan Rahi
The deputy CM says the state has also asked its 11 profit-making state corporations to release 50 per cent of their reserves and surplus (adding up to Rs 1,443 crore) as dividend. Experts believe such measures can help cash-starved states initiate more welfare schemes, but are unlikely to deliver the business infrastructure required to satisfy the aspirations of the returning migrants.
That said, a substantial number of them who were earning less than Rs 10,000 a month in other cities are willing to stay back for MGNREGA jobs, earning Rs 6,000 a month in their villages. But those like Munna Mehta, earning above say, Rs 18,000, in other states, will still have compelling reason to go back. “I’m angry because I can’t find the means to earn Rs 20,000 in Bihar,” he says. “I love my state, I wish to believe the government, and I will return the moment opportunities are available in Bihar. But, as of now, I am planning to leave for Bengaluru at the first opportunity.”
The medical crisis
Meanwhile, for the authorities, the worries have only increased. A majority of the COVID-19 cases reported this month are people who have returned to the state. Of the 3,010 positive cases Bihar had recorded till May 27, as many as 2,072, or 69 per cent, are among migrants who returned after May 3. This has already pushed the state among the top 10 states in terms of the number of COVID-19 cases. Among the infected migrants, 462 had returned from Delhi, 486 from Maharashtra and 301 from Gujarat.
Bihar currently runs 14,474 institutional quarantine centres housing some 1.1 million people (as on May 26) and the exercise is costing the state a fortune. Chief secretary Deepak Kumar puts the figure at over Rs 500 crore. “The quarantine centres are the cushions that not only help the exhausted migrants recoup but also acted as a wall between the travelling Covid infection and rural Bihar. Letting the migrants go for home quarantine would have been an easier option, but it was fraught with risk. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar wanted to protect both the migrants and rural Biharhe took the difficult option,” says Anupam Kumar.
But that policy has now changed. Disaster management principal secretary Pratyaya Amrit has written to the district magistrates, saying that only migrants returning from the cities of Surat, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Ghaziabad, Noida, Faridabad, Gurugram, Kolkata and Bengaluru will be treated as Grade A (read high-risk). They will be sent to institutional quarantine while the others will go for home quarantine with regular checks by health workers.
With 88 per cent of Bihar’s population living in the rural outback, the initial blanket quarantine call may have been the best course of action. One statistic that supports this is the understaffed health services, the state only has 8,808 government doctors, which would surely have been overstretched had the pandemic spread to the villages (the state is in the process of appointing another 6,436 doctors).
Meanwhile, the Union health ministry on Tuesday held discussions with the governments of Bihar, UP, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand on the ways to tackle the rising COVID-19 challenge. The five states have registered a surge in Covid-positive cases in the past three weeks as lockdown rules eased up and inter-state migration picked up pace.
The fight continues, but eventually, as Bihar comes to terms with the twin crises, chief minister Nitish Kumar’s promise of “doing everything” to deliver jobs for them may not be nearly enough for the returnees. Economic reasons may ultimately make the migrants return to their old workplaces. Bihar may have come a long way, but it has an equally long way to go. The pandemic has left industries struggling and small businesses fighting to survive. The migrant, therefore, has every reason to fear that the push to bring him back home may not be backed by sufficient opportunity for reintegration.
14-day wait: Migrant inmates at the Maner centre. Photo: Ranjan Rahi