Being the pioneer state in recalling migrant workers in distress in other states(Fleeing migrant workers upset Odisha’s Corona control equilibrium), Odisha drew accolades and inspired peers to follow suit. But the latest episode of 150 migrant returnees fleeing two quarantine centres in Ganjam district has stolen sleep of top state mandarins.
The migrants who had reached their native place from Surat, fled the centres, alleging lack of basic amenities. They broke open the gates and scooted from the centres.
Visuals of migrant workers taking to streets and dumping empty leaf plates beamed on prime time 24×7 news channels, forcing the state bureaucracy to take notice before the situation could spin out of control.
Taking a stern view of the incidents, Chief Secretary Asit Tripathy said, “Quarantine violators will be shifted to different quarantine centres and quarantine period will be extended. Besides, they will be arrested and incentives would be denied. The returnees who are creating a nuisance and escaping from quarantine centres would be kept at quarantine centres away from their respective districts”.
The state government has commenced a unique initiative– a helpline portal to bring back all willing migrant workers stranded in other states. The portal has received a resounding response with over 700,000 non-resident Odia workers.
However, the lack of ample facilities to accommodate such immense inbound workforce has piled up worries especially for the local administration.
The combined capacity of all quarantine centres concentrated in gram panchayats is only a fraction of the envisaged requirement. In more than 60 gram panchayats, the estimated capacity to accommodate is less than 20 per cent of the workers registered to return.
Besides food and accommodation, drinking water availability and sanitation management have also stuck out like a sore thumb. That apart, the state government lacks a clear roadmap to engage these workers who are out of employment.
Government officials claim the recommencement of works under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Act (MGNREGA) has offered solace. But given the patchy record in the scheme implementation, the returnee workers have little to console themselves for reengagement.
More than 1500 Gram Panchayats (one-third GPs) are yet to make any expenditure under MGNREGA. The condition is grim in Angul, Jagatsinghpur, Deogarh and Nayagarh, where more than two-thirds of the GPs are at zero expenditure level.
While employment provision remains low in most districts, it is extremely disturbing that Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, who are the most vulnerable wage workers in the COVID situation are receiving less than their proportionate share in the employment and much less than what would be their equitable share.