In Mamata Banerjee's Bengal, quarantine and testing of migrant workers is a myth

Migrant workers returning to West Bengal are being herded into ill-kept and hastily-prepared quarantine centres, with complete disregard of the protocols.

 |  7-minute read |   04-06-2020
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Migrant workers are returning home to their villages across West Bengal in thousands. The Mamata Banerjee government is ill-prepared to receive and to house them as per quarantine protocol. It is becoming increasingly clear that in the lockdown period when the Centre provided assistance to states to the tune of Rs 11 thousand crore to set up quarantine centres for migrant workers returning home, the Mamata Banerjee government did nothing about it.

As a result, migrant workers returning to West Bengal are being herded into ill-kept and hastily prepared quarantine centres, with complete disregard for the protocols. Most of these so-called quarantine centres are crowded, lack proper sanitation, serve very low-quality food, and are often infested with snakes.

The quarantined workers have had to resort to protests at not being provided with even the basic facilities, not being tested and being herded into these suffocating camps. A look at the entire situation in the Cooch Behar district in North Bengal, for instance, gives an idea of the actual situation on the ground. More than a lakh migrant workers have already returned to Cooch Behar by the time of writing this report. The situation of poor quarantine facilities has arisen because the inept Mamata Banerjee government failed to prepare for their return and was busy accusing the Modi government of discrimination. It was more preoccupied in ill-treating the Inter-Ministerial Team sent by the Centre to make an assessment of the kind of support that the state needed to bolster its fight against Covid-19. The state government was further obsessed with quarantining opposition MPs, mainly from the BJP.

main_quarantine-cent_060420031834.jpgThe migrant workers returning to West Bengal are being herded into ill-kept and hastily-prepared quarantine centres, with complete disregard to the designated protocols. (Representative photo: Reuters)

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had announced that those migrant workers coming from the five hotspot states will be sent for institutional quarantining. But as is becoming increasingly evident, there is practically no framework or infrastructure for institutional quarantining. Most of the quarantine centres are overflowing and are in bad shape. They lack sanitation facilities, are overcrowded, the food served is inedible.

It is becoming clear that during the lockdown period, the TMC government has practically made no effort in establishing proper quarantining facilities. Reports of workers in the quarantine centres becoming restless have started pouring in. In a number of districts, the migrant workers in quarantine are unable to bear these inhuman conditions any longer and have started protesting. The district administration, under instruction from Nabanna (the Secretariat), simply lets them off, allowing them to go home. Once they enter their villages, these migrant workers face resistance from the residents, who fear getting infected. A number of these migrant workers have admitted that they were not tested in the quarantine centres and were eventually allowed to leave. This was the situation last week (the last week of May).

The situation as of now is that the entire managing of quarantine centres has been left to the contractual VRPs (Village Resource Persons) — a sector of health workers which had been created by the state government for generating awareness on sanitation in villages. Each Gram Panchayat (GP) has about 15 VRPs, who work on a contractual basis and are paid a daily wage of Rs 250. There are 15 VRPs per GP, and 3,354 GPs in West Bengal. The main responsibilities of these VRPs include social auditing of MGNREGS, PMAY, NSAP and the control of vector-borne diseases. They are recruited by the West Bengal State Rural Development Agency (WBSRDA), which is under the Department of Panchayat and Rural Development. The official engagement for the VRPs is for 30 days a year, and the monitoring of vector-borne disease is an additional responsibility. They are paid an honorarium equivalent to that of skilled labour under MGNREGS.

This category has been pressed into the work of managing rural quarantine centres without any formal government order. The attitude of the state government behind this informal arrangement is that these workers are working on a contract basis. Hence, they will not have to be paid the Rs 10 lakh compensation promised by the state government for healthcare workers, if they contract Covid-19 and die while on duty. Some of these VRPs are now getting infected and have repeatedly appealed to the district health and administrative authorities to provide support by deputing trained healthcare workers. Initially, the district authorities assured them of support, but nothing has been done so far despite repeated promises. As of now, the district officials have stopped responding to calls made by VRPs. District health officials themselves seem to be confused and are helpless in such situations.

main_mamata-banerjee_060420032223.jpgThe inept Mamata Banerjee government failed to prepare for the return of the migrant workers, and was busy accusing the Modi government of discrimination. (Photo: Reuters)

Swab test reports of migrant workers who have been tested are coming in only after 10 to 12 days. Most of them test positive. However, by the time the reports come, the migrant workers who are exhausted, irritated, fatigued, starving and suffocating, have already gone back home. The district administration and the state government have virtually abdicated their role and responsibilities. Once the migrant workers reach their respective villages, they move around freely. It is only when their reports come in, that the administration acts to bring them to the hospital.

It means that most of the migrant workers who test positive are admitted to the hospital only after 10 to 12 days of their swab test — if at all they are tested. In order to save face and position, the District Magistrate says these workers are being sent for home-quarantine. However, everyone knows it well that it is not so. They have been sent home because the state government had made no arrangement and had no plan in place for them. In fact, in a letter to the Chief Minister dated June 1, the Association of Health Service Doctors pointed out how “in several sites, the condition of the quarantined people are beyond words in terms of (living) with minimum comfort”. The doctors further added that in such conditions “there is a possible mix of pre-symptomatic and mild symptomatic from Covid-19 endemic states, which may generate bad impact for the community at large”. The letter also says how “follow-up of home-quarantined persons is also reported to be suboptimal in various places”.

The Mamata Banerjee administration stands exposed in terms of its role in putting in place a quarantine framework and is forcing migrant workers returning from Maharashtra, Delhi, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, to go to their villages. As a result, villages across the state are seeing protests by residents, who are fighting with families of the migrant workers. This is a situation in which both — the migrant workers and villagers — are affected. Migrant workers, because they have not been tested and were forced to leave the quarantine centre because of inhuman conditions. The villagers, because they fear getting infected because the returnee migrant workers have not been tested, or even if tested, the results are not known. Often the protests turn violent, with some of them vandalising the homes of the migrant workers. The administration — district, as well as the state — has maintained a stoic silence on the issue.

Now let us come to the entire paraphernalia of testing these migrant workers. There is an unwritten order from the state administration that not more than 50 samples can be sent daily. It indicates the poor testing facilities in the area — North Bengal, for the purposes of this article. In the meantime, more than a lakh migrant workers have already returned to the districts. At this pace and approach, it will be impossible to send all samples even over a year. It is not that the district officials do not understand these dynamics. They are themselves in a quandary and are living on the edge.

Leaders from the ruling party in the district have disappeared from the area. People and the district officials agree on one thing — these “leaders” will reappear from their burrows as soon as some package is announced by Nabanna for setting up quarantining facilities in the district. The penchant for cut money will draw them out. 

Also Read | North Bengal: Pandemic is new, neglect endemic


Anirban Ganguly Anirban Ganguly @anirbanganguly

Director, Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi & Member, Policy Research Dept of BJP.

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