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Migrant workers’ rush chokes transit points in the East: Where do we go, what do we do now?

An official in Ranchi said about 3,000-4,000 people reached the city on an average every day over the past week on the Alappuzha-Dhanbad Express.

From Jharkhand to Bihar and West Bengal, governments scrambled Monday to cope with the return of thousands of migrant workers from cities and states as far away as Kerala amid an unprecedented 10-day shutdown of rail and inter-state bus services to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

Officials said thousands of people have returned over the last 10 days, mainly from Mumbai, Pune, Delhi and Chennai, and cities in Punjab and Kerala.

An official in Ranchi said about 3,000-4,000 people reached the city on an average every day over the past week on the Alappuzha-Dhanbad Express. The Pune-Danapur Express transported over 4,000 people to Bihar on Sunday alone before rail services were stopped.

The sudden rush has led to migrant workers being left stranded at key transit points in these states — and at the mercy of private transporters. In Bihar, authorities are facing an added problem of residents in villages objecting to the return of their neighbours from virus-hit regions.

In Patna, the home department directed district magistrates to make temporary arrangements to accommodate those who have returned, at village schools, panchayat buildings and other government facilities.

Speaking to The Indian Express, Bihar Additional Chief Secretary (Home) Amir Subhani said: “Some villagers are apprehensive of infection… We have asked all districts to make arrangements for those reaching from other states. These places will work as self-quarantine or observation places, too.”

In Kolkata, police officers were seen trying to arrange private transport for a group of about 50 migrant workers returning from Kerala, who were waiting at the Esplanade crossing.

“We reached Howrah station on Saturday, some in the evening and some late in the night. But we could not get buses to travel to our homes in the districts. We moved to the Sealdah station but found that no local trains were running, either. Many of us are from Malda and Murshidabad, which are far away,” said Sheikh Mozammel, a resident of Hasnabad in Basirhat and employed as a mason in Kerala.

In Patna, the Mithapur bus stand witnessed chaotic scenes, prompting District Magistrate Kumar Ravi to reach the site and relax norms to let the stranded passengers leave, many huddled on the roofs of buses.

In Jharkhand, Chief Minister Hemant Soren said facilities are being provided for migrant workers to reach their homes. “There are more passengers than expected, we trying to get them home safely,” he said.

On the ground, however, The Indian Express came across a logistical nightmare at the Khadgada bus stand in Ranchi, a transit point to Bihar, where three nursing staff were noting down contact details of those who approached them. There were no thermal scanners, or help desks.

“In Kerala, we listened to news on the coronavirus and decided to leave on the Dhanbad train. We spent two days in the packed train, getting space only to sit, and reached Ranchi today. My home is in Nawada in Bihar, and I thought I could get a bus from here,” said Siwan, a 28-year-old employed in a marble factory in Kerala.

But with the shutdown in place and no support, Siwan and the 20 others with him haggled with a private bus operator to take them home. “The bus operator wanted us to pay Rs 45,000. We agreed but then he said he would drop us at the border. We had to abandon the idea,” he said.

“There is no arrangement from the government, we are running in different directions for help,” said Mohammad Bechu Ansari, who worked in a tile-making unit in Kerala.

Mohammad Jibrail, another migrant worker, said they were screened multiple times in Kerala. “But here, authorities noted down my name and put a stamp on my forearm, ‘HQ’ (Home Quarantine). We were on the train for days, and I don’t know what disease I have got,” he said.

Jibrail and others with him booked two vehicles to reach their homes in Nawada, paying Rs 7,000 each.

A few other workers from Tamil Nadu were waiting to reach Samastipur. “We did not get any local transport and had to walk 2 km from the Ranchi station to reach the bus stand,” said Hareram Sahni, who worked at a granite factory.

Six kilometres away, at the Hatia railway station, Mania Devi sat on the ground with her family and a pile of luggage. “We took a train from Erode in Tamil Nadu and are trying to reach our home near Patna. Everything is shut. Where do we go? What do we do?” she said.

Nearing night, Devi managed to get space in a private vehicle for Rs 8,500. “It is too much for us, but we just want to go home,” she said.

When contacted, Jharkhand Transport Secretary K Ravi Kumar said the government has arranged for bus services to Kolkata and Patna — passengers have to pay the fare.

Asked about complaints of mismanagement and lack of support, Ranchi District Commissioner Rai Mahimapat Ray said: “We did not expect so many passengers… We have pulled out doctors from their homes to check them. I cannot put an SDM to check on a doctor. However, services have been tightened and everything has been sorted.”

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