Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar on Wednesday said calling people “migrant workers” detaches them from the idea of nationality, reported ANI. He added that labourers who have returned to Bihar need not leave again as employment will be generated for them in the state.

“People going from one state to the other are being called ‘pravasi’ [migrant],” he said. “Why? This is one country, there is one nationality. A person going from one place to the other in the country isn’t a migrant. If they go outside the country, then they are.”

Kumar’s comments came at a time when millions of migrant workers in India were left jobless by the coronavirus-induced lockdown imposed on March 25. The Centre began arranging special trains only on May 1, while bus services started from April 20 to take migrants home. Over 80% of the returnees are from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

However, before the Centre made some travel arrangements, many migrants were forced to make gruelling and dangerous trips back to their hometowns as public transport was not running during the lockdown. At least 170 workers have been killed in accidents on the roads or train tracks. Many others died from the exhaustion of walking in the scorching heat. Nearly 80 migrant workers died of starvation or heat sickness between May 9 and May 27 while travelling on special trains, according to the data from the Railway Protection Force.

There have been several reports of migrant workers not being given food and water on long train journeys in the searing heat. Workers complained about the squalid conditions of travel and inordinate delays in train schedules. Many alleged that they were not given anything to eat or drink during the journey, while others claimed they were fed rotten food.

Also read:

  1. ‘I will never come back’: Many Indian migrant workers refuse to return to cities post lockdown
  2. ‘Trains are only for show’: Stopped from walking home, hundreds are stranded at the Delhi-UP border
  3. Six reasons why the Modi government is squarely responsible for India’s worst migrant crisis

Over 13 lakh migrant workers have returned to Bihar till Monday. As of Wednesday morning, Bihar has a total of 4,390 cases including 25 deaths, according to the Union health ministry. Earlier this week, the Bihar government decided that migrant workers returning to the state will not be tested for the coronavirus or sent to institutional quarantine. Thermal screening at railway stations will also be discontinued, but there will be a medical desk to treat those who feel unwell.

Chief Minister Kumar said his government will provide four masks and soap to every family in the villages free of cost, reported Times Now. “The poor in the urban areas will also be provided masks free of cost,” he added. Bihar is scheduled to hold its Assembly elections next year, and the migrant crisis is likely to be the biggest poll agenda.

Follow today’s live updates on the pandemic here