Coronavirus: Ground Situation In Bihar Behind Nitish Kumar's Stance On Migrants

Nitish Kumar and his government maintain that the move is completely against the principles of social distancing and lockdown, which alone can contain coronavirus at the moment.

Coronavirus: Ground Situation In Bihar Behind Nitish Kumar's Stance On Migrants

Nitish Kumar has refused to bring back students and migrant labourers (File photo)

Patna:

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has refused to bring back students and migrant labourers, sticking to his stand that puts lockdown rules first. While it has ensured that the COVID-19 figures in the state remain low - below 375, of whom two persons died - it has also placed the Chief Minister at the centre of a storm of criticism.

The disapproval spiraled after Yogi Adityanath, Chief Minister of neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, made it a point not only to bring back migrant labourers but also the state's stranded students.

Mr Kumar and his government maintain that the move is completely against the principles of social distancing and lockdown, which alone can contain coronavirus at the moment.

Many of his party's leaders are also unhappy about what they have called the "double standards" of the central government.

"A desire to get back home is normal but one has to understand that in view of the pandemic, it has been made cognizable offense. We can't coerce our people to break the law, even though some states are indulging in match-fixing in the name of felicitating the return of those stranded," a close aide of Nitish Kumar and a senior leader of his Janata Dal United said.

The aide's reference was to the Union Home Ministry, which issued the lockdown directive, but gave a clearance to Uttar Pradesh for bringing back its migrant labourers from Haryana.

The Chief Minister has made it clear that unless the Centre brings an amendment to the Disaster Management Act, which in its current form bans inter-state movement, there will be no question of allowing the return of students or migrant labourers.

While pointing to the law allows the Chief Minister to take a moral high ground, his other concern is urgent and based on ground reality.

Like Punjab, which has been wary of its returning NRI population, Nitish Kumar, Chief Minister of a state with a huge number of migrants, was apprehensive of infected people returning and spreading the disease in the stats.

His fears proved correct. Of the first 150 cases of coronavirus in Bihar, 60 per cent contracted the disease from three persons who returned from Dubai and Kuwait. The first patient of the disease in Patna was also a person who had a travel history.

Another reason why Nitish Kumar does not want the entry of migrants in such large numbers is protests by residents. When about two lakh migrants returned to the state in the last week of March there was hardly any positive case among them. But in several areas, residents protested and blocked their entry fearing the spread of the virus.

Over the last few days, nearly 30 patients were sent back to Bihar from different parts of the country. In four instances, relatives accompanying the patients tested positive. Some migrant labourers, who also somehow made their way back to the state, have tested positive.

Health experts say the situation in Bihar has so far been under control. But if there is a surge in transmission, there would be very little to do by way of medical help.

The supply of medical kits in the state is far from satisfactory. Even officials of the Union health ministry have conceded that against Mr Kumar's demand of 5 lakh PPE kits, the Centre has just been able to provide 7,000. Against his demand of 10 lakh N95 masks, the Centre has provided around 60,000.

Close aides of the Chief Minister maintain that what really damaged Mr Kumar is his decision to stay away from the media. His last interaction with reporters was on March 16, when the state assembly session was adjourned on account of the coronavirus. This lack of communication, they say, has created the impression that he had abandoned his people.