As Assam’s Covid-19 cases rise, the state government points a finger at Rajasthan. The spat started after May 6, when a bus packed with 43 passengers returned from Rajasthan’s Ajmer Sharif, which is a red zone, bringing five more cases to Assam.

While one passenger, who showed symptoms of infection, was tested, the others were sent into home quarantine. When the symptomatic passenger tested positive, the rest were sent to institutional quarantine and samples collected. Four more passengers turned out to be infected.

The cases have prompted a reshuffle among key officials in Assam’s bureaucracy, including the labour commissioner, and changes to the state’s testing protocol. All travellers entering the states will now be tested instead of just those showing symptoms. Those from red zones will be given priority.

Assam Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma blamed the Ajmer district administration for failing to observe physical distancing norms as it dispatched a busload of people.

It is part of a growing number of rows between states as the mammoth task of helping migrants return home is set in motion. On April 29, weeks after lakhs were left stranded by the sudden lockdown to contain the coronavirus, the Centre announced that inter-state movement for stranded migrant workers would be allowed. In a vaguely worded order, it left states to work out the details, set up nodal authorities to register migrants wishing to travel and ensure that safety norms are maintained in the process.

It then proceeded to confuse states further by announcing that only students and “distressed” workers would be allowed to travel across states to go home. What criteria would qualify distress, how travellers were to be filtered, was left to the states’ imagination.

With no standardised protocol in place, and limited means to test, screen and quarantine migrants, home states and host states are sparring over the logistics.

Migrant workers in Mumbai wait to get health certificates. Credit: PTI

Home state blues

While West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee declared on April 23 that it would do everything to bring back lakhs of migrant workers stuck across the country, the state has done little to make good on this promise. Despite the Centre’s notification, Bengal, which has shown a high fatality rate for the virus, was slow to open up its borders.

Both Maharashtra and Karnataka, host to a large number of workers from Bengal, complained the state was refusing to give consent for trains ferrying them home. The Gujarat government fumed about a communication breakdown, alleging Bengal officials did not even respond to its requests to accept migrant trains.

Buses from Jharkhand were turned back at the Bengal border, with the latter claiming it had no standard operating procedure to receive migrants.

On Saturday, after a pitched battle with the Centre, Bengal reportedly cleared 10 special trains to ferry migrants into the state.

Host state blues

Maharashtra, which plays host to about 10 lakh migrants from other states, is finding it hard to send them home. For days, Uttar Pradesh refused to allow workers to return from Maharashtra, which has among the highest number of cases in the country. It later relented but not without adding preconditions – migrants would have to be quarantined for 14 days and tested in Maharashtra before they travelled.

Haryana and Karnataka also attached similar caveats. Bihar, which had earlier given blanket consent to migrants returning from Maharashtra, then amended its stance to say it would decide case by case. Odisha was also reluctant to accept returning migrants, Maharashtra ministers claimed.

Train fares

The matter of who is to foot the transport bill has also caused friction. Delhi and Bihar got into a heated exchange after the former demanded reimbursement for sending migrants on a special Shramik train to Muzaffarpur. Delhi claimed the Bihar government must reimburse it for buying tickets in bulk for returning migrants. The Bihar government shot back that migrants would be compensated for train fare at the quarantine centres once they returned.

According to the railways ministry, however, payments seem to have been made largely by the sending state. In Maharashtra, the Congress claimed to have picked up the train fare for thousands of migrants.

Workers from West Bengal who had been stranded in Ajmer arrive at Howrah. Credit: PTI

The Centre, under pressure to make train travel free, has replied that it was paying 85% of the fare and states only had to pick up 15%. This claim turned out to be somewhat fictitious, since there is no order to that effect. The Bharatiya Janata Party tried to argue that the existing Central subsidies would cover 85% of the fare in special trains for migrants. It also claimed that BJP-ruled states had paid the fares without complaint – a claim belied by the experience of migrants returning from these states.

Whose case?

Meanwhile, Jharkhand accuses Chhattisgarh of sending back migrants who had tested positive. It pointed out that two construction workers who had returned to Palamu district with Covid-19 had spent a month at a quarantine centre in Chhattisgarh. They were symptomatic and their samples had been collected before they were transferred to Jharkhand. But the Chhattisgarh government waited to inform Jharkhand only after they had reached their home state. Many more infected persons could have entered Jharkhand, officials from the state complained.

Chhattisgarh, in its defence, said the test results were only available after the workers had left for home. Besides, a returning worker from Jharkhand also turned out to be infected. An official in Raipur, however, admitted that the state was keen to send back stranded migrants who were creating “law and order” problems. Districts who wanted to maintain their status as green zones were also in a hurry to send back potentially infected migrant workers.

A similar controversy erupted after 20 workers returning to Jharkhand from Surat, a red zone for the virus, turned out to be infected. Jharkhand claimed the Gujarat government had kept it out of the loop as it issued them travel passes. The cases contributed to the single biggest spike in a day for Jharkhand.

It is a worrying trend: as returning migrants contribute to new cases, home states are reluctant to receive them. While richer host states like Haryana and Karnataka would like to keep migrant workers back as they reboot their economies, most would rather not add to their caseload. Assam, for one, sent back the driver of a bus that had ferried migrants from Mumbai and is conservative about allowing migrants to return.

As the Centre steps back, providing little by way of support or clear guidelines, there seems to be no state for migrants in India.