A rude welcome for Odisha’s migrants as villages lack basic facilities

They say social distancing is not being followed at official centres.

Updated - June 02, 2020 08:57 am IST

Published - June 01, 2020 02:29 pm IST - BIRIPALI (ODISHA)

Migrants labourers, who returned to Biripali village in Balangiri district, Odisha, opt to undergo qurantine under a culvert instead of of in government quarantine centres.

Migrants labourers, who returned to Biripali village in Balangiri district, Odisha, opt to undergo qurantine under a culvert instead of of in government quarantine centres.

After a back-breaking 1,300-km cycle ride from COVID-19 hotspot Mumbai to his village in Odisha’s Balangir district, Kishore Behera thought he had escaped hell but little did the 31-year-old mason anticipate the shock and horror waiting for him in his Biripali village. 

With 12 positive cases reported in the village with a population of 3,000, Mr. Behera went neither to a quarantine centre, as is the norm, nor to his house. He, instead, found refuge in a road culvert.

Also read: Migrant labourers are the most disenfranchised invisible citizens: political scientist Ashwani Kumar

“I opted to cycle all the way from Mumbai on May 7 and did not seek pickup from passing trucks fearing I could contract coronavirus. On reaching my village, I found no social distance being adhered to in quarantine centres. I, along with my friends, took shelter in a half-constructed Indira Awas Yojna house,” he said.

As there was no water connection in the house, he and his seven migrant labourer friends decided to stay in culverts that offered some respite from the scorching temperature soaring past 45 degrees Celsius and unseasonal rain.

“My neighbours won’t definitely feel happy to find me staying near them. Moreover, my family members will be in trouble if I get into my house,” said the mason, who admits to being scared of snakebites.

Watch | How can migrant workers be protected?

His struggle has already spilled over from May to June but he does not foresee any feasible solution on the horizon.

Barely 200 metres away from the culvert lives Thabir Behera, another Mumbai returnee, in a small toilet built under Swachh Bharat Mission. “I cannot go home. The toilet is too small but will be my home for next two weeks,” he said.

Like them, more than 150 migrant labourers, who have returned from other States, have quarantined themselves at half-constructed temples, makeshift agricultural watchtowers, riverbeds and village forests as they dread staying in official centres. They are also facing resistance from fellow villagers who do not want them enter their houses at this point of time. 

Facing stigma

Despite the unusual steps and risks that the migrant labourers have put themselves in, there is a sense of apprehension as well as stigma surrounding them. Wary of getting infected, their own family members are keeping a distance from them while supplying food.

Also read: Coronavirus package | Will migrant workers benefit from the Centre’s measures?

“For the sake of a few, a whole village cannot be put in jeopardy. People are of the view that these returnees should not be allowed to go back to their homes until they test negative,” said Lingaraj Saraf, a Biripali native.

Situated on the border of neighbouring Nuapada district, Biripali seems to have fallen off the development map of the district. For the past two decades, people have been waiting for irrigation water from Nuapada’s Tikhali dam to cover the village cropland. At any given time, 500 able-bodied men and women of the village can be found doing menial work in the construction sector, brick kilns and industrial projects.

Now, in the time of pandemic, the poor families are bewildered, as they stay indoors and are not venturing out to work in their fields during the important phase of Kharif crop season.

Full coverage: Lockdown displaces lakhs of migrants

With 12 cases, the administration should have continued containment zones as is the Standard Operating Procedure. On May 1, Balangir reported its first COVID-19 positive case. Now, the district’s tally has touched 80.

Balangir Collector Arindam Dakua does not seem to have time for the poverty-stricken village. His office said he could not be contacted over his phone as he did not want to be disturbed at odd hours. The village sarpanch thinks the migrant workers staying in culverts and forests are a ploy to defame her.

“We have set up three quarantine centres in our village. Only 16 people are staying there. Why are rooms lying vacant?” asked Mahana Jal, Biripali’s Sarpanch.

Ms Jal, however, had no convincing answers as to why the village did not continue as a containment zone and returnees were allowed to spread out all over village. According to her, 80 tests were conducted in Biripali and 12 were positive.

With fear of the pandemic in the air, the migrant labourers say that till they are tested negative, they will not return home. The steady stream of returning migrants from Mumbai and Hyderabad is already adding to the woes.

“It is just the beginning, but the administration is nowhere to be seen. People are arriving from all corners of the country. Had Biripali been an urban area, containment measures would have been enforced by now. The administration should not have left villagers to fend for themselves,” said Prashant Kumar Nayak, who heads Palli Alok Pathagar, a Balangir-based social organization.

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