For 1,200-odd migrants returning from Kerala, it was not the sight of banal homecoming. Stranded and in distress, the posse of workers had taken the gruelling journey by train that lasted 32 hours.
A special train from Aluva in Kerala’s Ernakulam district reached Khurda Road station, 25 km from Bhubaneswar city, at around 9 am Sunday.
Most of the migrant workers, who travelled about 1,790 km, disembarked at Khurda Road station while a few got off at Jagannathpur station in southern Odisha’s Ganjam district.
The train was one of the first five Shramik Specials to start on Friday, while 10 such trains departed on Saturday amid controversy that the Indian Railways was charging them superfast train fare charges.
There is no clarity as to who paid their train fares.
Railway officials are saying the state government is bearing all ticket expenditure. However, a state government official said the workers had booked their own tickets and so far, there was no provision to reimburse what they spent. A railway official said these trains had superfast charge plus reservation charges at par with the fare structure in normal times. “Additionally, the railways is providing complimentary water and meals. We are also taking fewer passengers due to social distancing, which adds to the costs,” said a Railway Board official.
Janardan Pati, state president (Odisha) and member of the central secretariat at Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), said: “The homebound migrant workers are not getting concessions from the state government. They are paying two to three times the normal fares (in buses). Besides, sufficient special trains are not running to bring them back.”
Two more special trains with 1,200 migrant labourers each will reach Odisha later on Sunday. One Berhampur-bound train has started from Surat, the textiles hub in Gujarat that houses the bulk of Odisha’s migrant labour. The second train is from Ernakulam and is headed for Bhubaneswar.
Earlier, droves of migrant workers had reached Odisha from Surat. Students from coaching nerve centre Kota (Rajasthan) have also reached home in buses. The state is quarantining all of them, besides meeting their expenses on food and accommodation during that time. The state government has rolled out a helpline portal that workers in distress in other states can access. The portal has evoked an overwhelming response. More than 700,000 non-resident Odia workers have registered with it.
“After the customary health screening, the workers have been sent to their districts. Work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Generation Scheme (MGNREGS) has restarted and the inbound workers are assured of some gainful employment. We haven’t decided on their employment strategies, nor are we aware of their preferences. There is a possibility that some returnees may still go back to their workplace,” said a state official.
Pati flayed the government for not having plans to rehabilitate small, wayside vendors and transport workers.
“Migrant workers will dread returning to their workplaces for at least six months. Industries will struggle to find ample workers to run their units. And, if workers do not re-join, micro and small units will collapse,” Pati added.
The 1,200 workers are from 23 districts in Odisha. Kandhamal, in the state’s southern hinterland, has the highest number of them (382), followed by coastal Kendrapara (283).
While Odisha has set up quarantine facilities to accommodate incoming workers, their capacity is not enough to accommodate nearly 700,000 of them. Their job prospects are uncertain.
The Citizens’ Action Group (CAG) on Corona, a non-profit civil society group, here has recommended immediate, short-term and long-term employment and livelihood regeneration should be initiated for the migrant returnees. Emphasis on food security and employment under the MGNREGS, agriculture support for kharif crops, support under the Odisha Labour Welfare Board, and skilling young people should be ensured. The government should also facilitate labour market information and a safe remigration of the workers to reclaim their work at migration destinations, it held.
According to figures collated by the CAG, the returning migrants are being accommodated at panchayat homes and other local quarantine centres. The combined capacity of these centres is a fraction of the number of migrants who are expected to flock to their homes. This has posed an enormous challenge for the local authorities. Quick surveys by the CAG indicated that in many gram panchayats, the capacity to quarantine is less than 20 per cent of the people registered to return.
The body says the local administration will find it tough to give them jobs under the MGNREGS. More than 1,500 gram panchayats (a third of Odisha’s total) are yet to make any expenditure under it.