Rajiv Halder, Shankar Bania and Jayanta Maity heaved a sigh of relief when they had reached their village in West Bengal last week after an arduous 30-hour train journey from Mumbai.
Little did these migrant workers, who had been battling all odds to reach homes, know about the growing instances of migrants being treated as untouchables and shunned by their own people across the country.
Much to their dismay, the trio discovered its friends and relatives turning hostile and suspecting them of carrying the contagious coronavirus. They would otherwise have rushed to greet them.
Not only did they prevent the three people from entering their houses, but also did not allow them to be placed under quarantine at a government school at Purushatampur village in Kanthi block 1 of East Midnapore district.
Only after much persuasion and intervention by local panchayat leaders and government authorities, they were “compromised” to allow the three to stay at an under-construction shop near an approach road. The building does not have a roof, windows, doors, electricity, toilet or water facilities.
“As soon as we reached the village, a group of villagers, including our own friends and relatives came running warning that we would not be allowed into the village for 14 days. They told us that since we had come from outside, we could be possible virus carriers. We were treated as untouchables,” Halder said.
This is not just a one-off case. There are many such instances of migrant workers facing hostilities on returning home as the state witnessed a spike in COVID-19 cases. The number of positive cases shot up to 6,168 on June 2, with 396 more infected in 24 hours. As many new cases are returnees, migrant workers are being targeted.
“When the trains are arriving (carrying migrants), people in villages and towns are getting scared, and saying ‘there comes the Coronavirus Express’… it is leading to law and order issues in the state,” said Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who also holds both home and health portfolios.
For the unfortunate development, she blamed the Centre that it had not allowed the state to plan the return of its migrant workers.
In order to prevent such stigmatization, the state government has launched a mass awareness programme. But it has not yet achieved any tangible success.
Another migrant worker, named Biswajit Mandal, died at a hospital last week after he was allegedly not allowed to enter his village at Katwa in East Burdwan district. Family members of the victim said Mandal had fallen ill as he was forced to roam around for about five hours after being prevented from entering the village.
Buses carrying migrant workers from railway stations to their respective districts and blocks have also come under attack, while passengers are being taunted as coronavirus. Last week, people in Nadia district pelted stones at a bus carrying homebound workers, who were returning from Maharashtra.
A migrant worker, named Sanjay Majhi, who had recently returned from Kerala, said a group of people near Baruipur, on the outskirts of Kolkata, taunted migrants when they were on their way to a health centre. They had gone for a routine checkup on a bus after de-boarding a train at Dankuni in Hoogly.
“Oii je coronaviruser bus jachey (Look there goes the bus carrying coronavirus),” Majhi quoted the group as saying. He said most taunters were not even wearing masks, violating the basic safety norms to prevent the spread of the virus.
In fact, people have been flouting safety regulations during violent protests that are erupting in various parts of the state to prevent the setting up of quarantine centres in their respective localities. In the last three days, residents staged demonstrations in at least two places against setting up of quarantine facilities.
The protest is putting a spanner in the government’s effort to increase the number of centres as it has adopted a protocol making it mandatory to place workers returning from Maharashtra, Gujarat, Delhi, Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh under institutional quarantine.
So far, the state has only 582 government-run quarantine centres, accommodating 17,804 people. As per the government’s own estimate, nearly 17 lakh people from the state are stranded in other states, of them over 6 lakhs are from these five hot-spot states. More than 5 lakh migrants have already returned from other states.