The Bihar state government has, at the last moment, refused permission to Indian Railways to transport an estimated 4,500 laborers staying at relief camps in Kerala.
These workers are among the tens of thousands of migrant laborers staying at special relief camps set up by the Kerala government for the last 40 days. Besides those from Bihar, the camps also house tens of thousands of workers from West Bengal, Assam, Odisha, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
The Kerala government had sought the Indian Railways’ assistance as most of these workers want to go back to their home state instead of staying in camps. Most of the industries and sectors where these migrant workers were employed continue to remain shut in Kerala, rendering them jobless.
So far, Odisha and Rajasthan have been the most responsive as far as taking back the laborers from their states has been concerned. Several thousand people from these two states have already left the South Indian state on special trains over the last two days.
Today’s four trains to Bihar, with around 4,500 migrant workers, were scheduled to leave from three cities of Kerala — Tirur, Kozhikode, Alappuzha.
District administrations had made all arrangements to send back these laborers, including selecting the candidates, conducting medical check-ups and arranging buses for their transportation to the railway stations today.
However, with just a few hours remaining, the Nitish Kumar government reportedly told Indian Railways that it was not ready to welcome the laborers yet, and they have to remain in Kerala for a few more days.
According to Kerala government sources, Bihar government wants at least three more days to finish preparations to receive the workers.
The move has disappointed many migrant laborers in the camps.
Some laborers had even taken out a protest in the early days of the lockdown, seeking permission to back to their state, but were firmly refused by the Kerala government.
Nevertheless, Kerala authorities have reportedly promised these workers that they would be able to go back ‘latest by May 8’.
The Kerala government has found itself under financial strain due to the Coronavirus lock-down, which has reduced its revenues to a trickle.
At the same time, with lakhs of migrant workers present in the state, the Left Front government has been keen to keep the workers well fed and sheltered to prevent any social disturbance. Moreover, being led by a communist party, the government can ill-afford to be seen as neglecting the welfare of workers, whether local or migrant.
As a result, out of a total of 22,567 government-run relief camps for migrant workers in India as of early April, 15,541 were in Kerala.
In addition, the state government is also giving free rice, atta, pulses and other essentials to those migrant workers who are staying outside the camps at their own accommodations.
However, there have been reports of some individuals misusing the helpline, with relief workers transporting rice and atta to rooms to find that they are already well-stocked with provisions.
In addition, Kerala also offers free, home-delivered cooked meals to anyone, including locals and migrants, via thousands of community kitchens run by panchayat and municipal authorities.
These facilities too have been subjected to misuse by well-off locals, prompting the government to clarify that they should not use the community kitchen helpline as if it was a ‘free version’ of Swiggy or Zomato, nor should they call on the number just because they don’t feel like cooking that day.
Meanwhile, the lock-down induced cash crunch has forced the government to pass an ordinance to hold back up to a fourth of the salaries of government employees during times of disasters.