Nineteen-year old Rupasi Khatun is at her wits end. “We are running out of money. Our seth [firm proprietor] is not paying us,” she told Scroll.in on the phone. “We need to go back home. But I can’t understand why there are no trains to Bengal.”
Khatun sews garments for export for a local firm in Ahmedabad. Like lakhs of Bengali migrant workers, she is stuck at her place of work, running out of food and money with no means of getting back home.
While West Bengal has been one of the strongest supporters of sealing its borders as part of the lockdown, there was a change in stance on April 23, as chief minister Mamata Banerjee announced that the “government of West Bengal will initiate every possible help to people of Bengal stuck in different parts of the country due to lockdown, in returning home”. On April 29, the Modi government published an order that allowed states to take back their migrants.
However, since then, Bengal has done little to actually act on its promise. This lack of action betrays anxieties around how the return of lakhs of Bengali workers – many of them from states more acutely affected by the pandemic than Bengal – could spread the coronavirus in rural areas of the state.
Till Thursday, West Bengal has allowed only two trains, bringing back less than 2,500 migrant workers. This when more than 100 trains have been run across India. Both Bengal trains were run at the request of the origin states – Kerala and Rajasthan – as correspondence reviewed by Scroll.in shows.
To make matters worse, Bengal has not responded to requests from other states, when it comes to taking back Bengali workers. On May 4, Karnataka complained that Bengal was refusing to give consent for trains. Maharashtra made the same allegation on May 6.
Harshad Patel, the Gujarat government’s nodal officer for West Bengal migrants accused the Trinamool government of stonewalling requests to accept migrant trains. “We are not able to connect with them,” complained Patel, when contacted by Scroll.in. “There is no response and no consent from West Bengal. We cannot send trains till they agree.”
“Ask them to at least respond,” he continued. “If they give consent, we can plan trains and request the railways.”
Borders (still) sealed
West Bengal’s reluctance to unseal its borders does not stop at trains – the state also has instituted an entry pass system for private vehicles which barely works. “Their online system is unavailable and no one picks up the helpline,” complained Animesh Mondal, 34, a sales executive from Barrackpore currently stuck in Pune.
This complaint is echoed by Siliguri’s Subhasish Dasgupta, whose seven-year old son had gone to visit his uncle in Guwahati and is now stuck there. “The entry pass system is very complicated and the state government is not running buses,” complained Dasgupta. “A private car will cost me Rs 22,000. How can a person afford that during lockdown, please tell me?”
West Bengal’s nodal officer, PB Salim, did not respond to Scroll.in’s requests for comment.
The combination of not running trains and barely handing out entry passes means that Bengal’s ban on movement is near total on the ground. Not only are migrant worker trains stalled but almost anyone outside Bengal – even if they are willing to travel in a private vehicle – will find it difficult to get back home.
Fear of spread across rural Bengal
West Bengal’s reluctance to unsealing its borders might be driven by apprehensions of infection spread. “It won’t be proper to allow lakhs of stranded migrants labourers all in one go. They need to be brought back in phases because detailed planning has to be made. Else every effort made till date will go down the drain,” West Bengal’s chief secretary Rajiv Sinha told the Hindustan Times.
Tanmoy Ghosh, General Secretary of the Bangla Sanskriti Mancha, a social organisation that works with migrant labour, argues that the Bengal government’s reluctance stems from the possible consequences once these migrants return back home. “The state government is apprehensive about the spread of infection because the numbers of migrant workers are huge – in lakhs,” explained Ghosh. “They can’t arrange state quarantine centres and other such infrastructure across rural Bengal overnight.”
The Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s Mohammed Salim blames the state government for not being ready earlier. “There were 40 days of lockdown. Why weren’t arrangements like quarantine centres made during this time?” he said. “Since there has been no preparation, now the state government is hesitating in getting back Bengali migrants. As a result, the state is refusing permission to trains and not handing out entry passes.”
Other states apprehensive too
The Trinamool, however, faulted the Union government for this situation and promised that the number of trains will go up. “Let’s be frank, the first phase of the 21-day lockdown was announced with a four-hour notice. This was bad planning by the Centre and also the Railways later,” Derek O’Brien Trinamool’s leader in Rajya Sabha told Scroll.in. “The Centre abandoned its migrant labour. Then there were also multiple conflicting notices from the Home Ministry.”
“But this is not the time for a blame game,” he added. “Bengal has already had two trains. One from Kerala and one from Rajasthan. More trains will be run soon.”
The state BJP argued that while the Mamata Banerjee government has mismanaged the migrant situation, it was necessary for Bengal to limit movement through its borders. “Workers are facing difficulty, so they want to come back. But if everyone is brought back, the lockdown would get disturbed and we won’t be able to fight Corona,” West Bengal BJP President Dilip Ghosh said in a press conference on Wednesday. “So even if there is distress they will have to say there.”
Bengal isn’t the only state to be apprehensive about the return of migrants. Bihar, for example, has withdrawn its blanket approval to trains from Maharashtra and will now decide on a case-by-case basis. Maharashtra also alleged that Uttar Pradesh was demanding a Coronavirus test before allowing its migrants to board trains. On Thursday, the Odisha High Court put in a stipulation that a test was mandatory before letting Odiya migrants back in and anyone who tests positive will not be allowed to enter the state.
Given low testing numbers across India, a test filter would drastically reduce the number of migrants who would be eligible to get back home.