COVID-19: Panic in Surat triggers flashbacks for migrants from Ganjam

COVID-19: Panic in Surat triggers flashbacks for migrants from Ganjam

COVID-19: Panic in Surat triggers flashbacks for migrants from Ganjam

In Odisha's migrant hotspot of Ganjam, the second wave brings back memories of last year's exodus from Surat. 

Ganjam: When the second COVID-19 wave started to emerge in Gujarat’s textile hub Surat in early April, mill worker Ashok Behera was among the Odia migrants who panicked and returned home to the coastal district of Ganjam. 

The 35-year-old man from Bishnuchakra village feared a repeat of last April's lockdown, when he was left jobless for a month and could find a bus to come back home only in May. “This time, I returned to my village on April 14. My family and I didn’t want to suffer like last year. There are several others who have returned like me, but many have also stayed back as industries are still operational,” he says.

On April 29, the Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC) started imposing curbs on shops, malls and other outlets in the wake of the threat from COVID 19. Curbs on textile workers in the city were also imposed. The business associations from the city claim that 25 per cent of the textile workforce has migrated. The Gujarat city meanwhile has crossed the mark of 81,000 cases of COVID 19. Any long term lockdown and shutdown in the city is likely to trigger a massive influx of migrants back to Ganjam akin to 2020, experts opine.

Behera is not unlike the lakhs of Odia migrants who head to work in Surat’s textile mills in the hope of a better future but end up living and working in squalor. “Working in the mills of Surat has become a traditional occupation of sorts now for migrants there,” says Debraj Jena, a skilled worker in Surat who hails from Ganjam’s Beljhari village

Behera has been working in a textile mill in Surat for more than a decade. His job is a tough one. He works from 7 am to 7 pm daily, but his pay is based on the day’s output, rather than the number of hours worked or a fixed monthly salary. Jena says they can make up to Rs 700 a day, depending on the length of cloth they produce.

Archive photo of migrants taking the bus in Ganjam district to reach their final destination. (Photo credit: Ganjam DM Twitter)

Same time last year

The district administration of Ganjam claims that reverse migration this time has not been as bad as last year, when the return of migrants from Surat led to a spike in COVID-19 cases and political backlash. “Till April 25, only 11,000 migrants have returned,” Ganjam collector Vijay Amruta Kulange tells 101ReportersLast year, the number of returnees was 20 times higher. State labour minister Sushanta Singh, in a reply in the Odisha legislative assembly in November 2020, said 10.07 lakh migrants came back to the state during the 2020 lockdown. Around 2.25 lakh of them returned to Ganjam, he stated.

In May 2020, when lockdown curbs were eased and inter-state movement allowed, Ganjam saw an influx of migrants from Surat. This spurred COVID cases too. The first case was reported on May 2, when an 18-year-old tested positive. This number rose to 307 by May 18. Within no time, the district accounted for one-third of Odisha’s 876 cases. Ganjam, which had not reported a single case till May 1, had surpassed the state capital of Bhubaneswar.

This spike in COVID cases created a stigma around Surat returnees and their families. Congress leader and Jatani MLA Suresh Routray threatened to organise protests if migrant workers were allowed to get down at Khurda Road railway station, around 22 kms away from Bhubaneshwar. 

Archive photo of the administration's sanitisation drive in a railway station in Ganjam. (Photo credit: Ganjam DM Twitter)

Many fear that this influx of workers, and a subsequent rise in cases, could happen again this year. The collector acknowledged that Ganjam is home to around 4 lakh migrant workers, many of whom had returned to Surat to work after the first Covid wave eased. The actual numbers of Ganjam migrants could be around 7-8 lakhs, according to activists.

The status quo remains

Umi Daniel, the director of migration and education thematic unit at non-profit charity Aide et Action South Asia, points out why a repeat of last year is very likely. “These migrants are most vulnerable in the event of a pandemic or an emergency situation. Their jobs are not regular and they have to rely on daily wages. Implementation of labour laws is minimal.”

Many of the young Odia workers who work in the textile sectors in Surat talked about the harsh working conditions and lack of social security for the marginalized workers. This despite the fact that mill workers from Ganjam who work in the Gujarati city earn considerable wealth for the state. Daniel calls them the “backbone of the economies of Odisha and Gujarat”. “By a moderate estimate, their annual remittance to the state is close to Rs 5,000 crore,” he says.

According to Bibhu Prasad Sahu, the secretary of Ganjam-based Youth for Social Development (YSD), a group that works for the welfare of such migrant workers, several Odias employed in Surat’s textile units work on multiple machines at a given time to earn as much as possible. “Most of them send money to their families in Ganjam. To minimise the cost of living, 20 of them live together in a one-room house which could otherwise accommodate just 10 persons. They manage as they work in shifts,” he says.

Archive photo of returning migrants given dry food during their arrival at a railway station in Ganjam. (Photo credit: Ganjam DM Twitter)

Sahu says this is the very reason why many migrants could not stay in Surat during the lockdown last year. “Many of them did not have any space to stay. Living in such congested places also put them at a greater risk of contracting the virus,” he adds.

Even apart from the spectre of lockdown, Loknath Mishra from ARUNA (Association for Rural Uplift and National Allegiance) says many migrants also come back to the district in April each year for the 21-day festival of Dandamatch. “Families also celebrate or observe other auspicious occasions, like marriages and mundans, during April and May,” he says.

In 2020, the Odisha government tried to engage Surat returnees in the rural employment scheme, MGNREGA. However, the attempt was a failure. Families here have seen migration for the last 3-4 generations and it was tough to engage them in farming activities. "Most are used to the financial security of working in the textile mills of Surat," says Mishra. They chose to return when the lockdown eased.

While it would take decades for the government to be able to boost jobs and industries here in order to curb migration, MGNREGA could have at least provided a temporary respite. But in February this year, allegations of misappropriation of wages were levelled in Khallikote block of Ganjam —  a charge rubbished by the district administration. “The administration has failed to generate enough job cards. There are several bogus cards issued against migrant workers who do not live in their villages. A probe is needed,” said a development agency partner who works with the government on the scheme, but did not wish to be named.

In any case, the district administration is ramping up infrastructure to handle more COVID patients. Ganjam Collector has said that right now the district has two COVID-19 hospitals but within a week it is likely to host a total of six COVID-19 hospitals with a total capacity of 6000 beds. As per the COVID dashboard of the Odisha government, Ganjam till now has seen a total of 24,177 cases of the pandemic and witnessed 258 deaths till now since 2020. Currently, it has a total of 1,149 active cases.

Archive photo of the Ganjam administration undertaking thermal screening of returning migrants at Berhampur railway station. (Photo credit: Ganjam DM Twitter)


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