On Friday, the Uttar Pradesh government sent 250 buses to Rajasthan’s Kota city to bring back stranded students amid the ongoing nationwide lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Around 7,500 students from Uttar Pradesh were living in the the city, which is famous for its scores of coaching centres that help aspirants prepare for engineering and medical entrance exams, reported the Press Trust of India. The students had been stranded in the city since March 24, when the Union government announced a country-wide lockdown, halting movement across state borders.

These restrictions have resulted in terrible misery, especially for migrant workers whose jobs have dried up, leaving them no money to buy food or pay for rent. In an attempt to get home, some have walked or cycled hundreds of kilometres, even smuggling themselves in with goods in trucks. Several have dropped dead with exhaustion.

Just after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the second phase of the lockdown on Tuesday, the students of Kota, started a social media campaign demanding that the restrictions be relaxed for them. Using the tag #SendUsBackHome, students urged authorities to evacuate them from Kota.

This seems to have worked. Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot said in a tweet, “Students in Kota can be sent to their home states on the consent of the concerned state government so that these young boys & girls do not panic or feel depressed.”

Lockdown rules

This movement of the students set off a political storm, with the state of Bihar objecting to it. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said allowing inter-state transport was against the purpose of the lockdown. “The way special buses are being sent to ferry students from Kota, it is injustice with the principle of the lockdown,” he said.

Till now, lockdown rules issued by the Modi government have explicitly forbidden inter-state transport. However, as seen in Kota and earlier for a group of 1,800 Gujarati pilgrims in Haridwar, these rules can be broken if state governments themselves agree to it.

Reacting to the controversy, the Union Information and Broadcasting minister Prakash Javedkar said on Sunday, “ [The] PM’s appeal that people should stay where they are should be fully observed.”

However, the Union government has, till now, not explaned what action will be taken for this violation. Given that the Uttar Pradesh state government sent the buses itself, it is unclear if New Delhi can take any action at all.

Migrant workers

While the Friday movement was explicitly facilitated by the Uttar Pradesh government, earlier on April 14, a large group of 50 private vehicles had reached Bihar from Kota. This prompted the Bihar government to write to the Union government on April 15 asking how Rajasthan had given permission for this movement.

Rather than resulting in the lockdown be strengthened, Friday saw the Uttar Pradesh state government run vehicles stself to ferry students out.

As can be expected, the move has again focussed attention on the problems of migrant workers, who have faced extreme distress due to the lockdown.

In its April 15 letter to the Union government, Bihar had pointed out that letting the students of Kota go home would open a “Pandora’s box”: “If you allow students, on what grounds can you stop migrant labourers who are also stuck?”

Nitish Kumar reiterated this point on Saturday. “Getting the students back home during the lockdown is injustice towards the labourers,” said the Bihar chief minister. “It is also violation of the lockdown.”

Kumar further pointed to the fact that, seen on need, migrant workers were more deserving of being sent home: “Students studying in Kota come from well-to-do families and most of them live with their families in Kota. What is the urgent need to get them home while all these migrant labourers from Bihar are stranded for weeks.”

Students from Kota arrive in Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh. Credit: PTI

Criteria followed

Till now, neither the Uttar Pradesh government nor the Rajasthan government have explained why and what objective criteria – if any – were used to make an exception for Kota’s entrance exam students.

While both the movement of Kota’s students and labour violate guidelines, they differ in scale, thus posing different levels of risk for their home states: there are vastly fewer students than there are migrant workers. However, it is not known if this lens was used or whether more arbitrary factors such as the relative wealth of the students compared to migrant labour or the social media campaign they ran that ultimately led to governments caving in.

While the Union government has not commented on how or why it had implicitly allowed this lockdown violation, on Sunday it released further guidelines reiterating strongly “there shall be no movement of labour outside the state/UT from where they are currently located”.