Flashpoints: Return of migrants, no implementation of guidelines, no involvement of local leaders in response
Debi Mohanty | July 16, 2020
(Update: The state government has announced a lockdown in Ganjam, Khordha, Cuttack and Jaipur districts and Rourkela municipal corporation from 9pm of July 17 till July 31.)
Every year, Babula Behera, a 45-year-old construction helper in Bhubaneswar, takes off from his work from July to October, and cultivates paddy on his half-acre land in his village in Chikiti block under Odisha’s Ganjam district. The harvest, he says, provides rice to his family of five for the entire year. He also sells a few quintals.
This year, though Babula’s brother has sown the land, he has decided to give his ‘monsoon occupation’ of cultivation a miss. Reason: A surge in Covid-19 cases.
“Even after sitting idle for three months, today it’s difficult to find work regularly. And now, a year’s food is gone,” Babula says in Bhubaneswar. “I don’t know how I will feed my family. But, given the situation back home, I am scared to go now.”
The rapid spiraling of Covid positive cases in this district has put the Odisha government in a spot of bother. Ganjam, the home district of chief minister Naveen Patnaik, is the most Covid affected among the thirty districts of Odisha.
As on July 16, total Covid cases in Odisha stood at 15,392 with 4,813 active cases. While 10,476 had recovered, casualties were 79. With 4,867 cases, Ganjam alone accounted for over 30 percent of the state’s Covid cases. It has suffered 48 fatalities.
However, Ganjam district collector Vijay Amruta Kulange tweeted a couple of days ago saying “81% of rural Ganjam is Green” and “it’s improving since last week”.
“Situation is bad, but it’s under control,” a senior officer engaged in Covid management in Ganjam, told Governance Now.
Meanwhile, the state administration has been trying proactively to meet the challenge. An additional 130 doctors including 30 medical officers and 100 Ayush doctors along with five OAS officers and 32 ORS officers besides 33 laboratory technicians have been deputed to the district. The 100 Ayush doctors comprise 100 ayurvedic and homeopathic medical officers. They have been instructed to report in person to Ganjam’s chief district medical and public health officer by July 16.
Earlier this month, two IAS officers were posted as special ADMs in charge of Chhatrapur and Bhanjanagar sub-divisions. Six senior state-service (OAS) officers were also deputed to assist the district administration in managing the Covid crisis.
Also, bolstering the infrastructure of Covid-19 treatment further, as many as 104 ambulances were dedicated to the people of Ganjam district; 22 more ambulances will be deployed in the second phase.
Chief minister Patnaik, in a high-level meeting on July 14, reviewed Covid management in the state and directed officials to strengthen monitoring in the focus districts such as Ganjam, Cuttack, Jajpur, Sundargarh and Khurda. The government was to initiate plasma therapy to treat Covid patients at three dedicated Covid hospitals in the state from July, 15, according to an official statement.
Amid the rising number of Covid-19 cases, the government has set up four more Covid hospitals with over 1,400 beds. There are 5,577 beds in 35 Covid hospitals across the state. Ganjam administration has decided to provide 1,150 more beds in five Covid care centres (CCCs) and three dedicated COVID health centres (DCHCs).
Incidentally, the politically sensitive district, from where the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) has 12 of the 13 MLAs including the chief minister, remained a ‘green zone’ till May 1 without any Novel Coronavirus patient. However, it reported a rise in the number of cases with the influx of migrant workers, mostly from Gujarat and also from Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Migrant workers started arriving in Odisha from April 28, and they were placed under quarantine in temporary medical centers (TMC) and then in home isolation.
Considering the large number of returnees to the district – some put the figure at over 4 lakh – the Odisha government had set up the maximum number of Covid screening centres in Ganjam and deployed a number of senior officers in charge of Covid management in the district.
In order to check local transmission, the roads leading to Ganjam district through Khurda and Nayagarh districts had been sealed for some days. The district administration too had requested the railways to withdraw all train stoppages in the district. However, cases continued to rise unabated.
“This town has been shut down for the last ten days and will remain so till July 20,” Santosh Digal, a resident of Bhanjanagar, says. “We are okay with lockdowns and shutdowns. All we pray is how to get respite from the Covid threat. Life was never so scary,” the government servant and father of three adds. Berhampur, the main city and the biggest business hub of the district, has also been sealed from all directions from July 14.
Meanwhile, the opposition has blamed “poor management” by government for Ganjam’s worsening Covid situation. The rising cases and deaths in Ganjam district are reflective of the poor policies of the government, a BJP leader said. The BJP demanded at least 5,000 sample tests a day in the district.
Bhokali Sethi, a Congress leader from Ganjam, thinks there were many reasons why Ganjam’s condition has moved from bad to worse. However, he cites three primary ones: gross mismanagement of the migrant workers issue, complete sidelining of the elected representatives in Covid response and lesser number of tracing and testing.
According to Sethi, the migrant workers were not allowed to return early. They suffered unimaginable distress before reaching home. At many places, the quarantine facilities lacked basic facilities and most importantly, tracing and testing’s negligible.
“What is surprising is the sidelining of the elected representatives; not only they know the people, the locals listen to them,” Sethi says. “Perhaps the state government didn’t trust its own leaders, or had doubts in their efficiency,” he adds.
Incidentally in May, senior BJD leader and Gopalpur MLA Pradeep Kumar Panigrahi, in his letter to Patnaik suggesting a series of measures, had urged him to involve the local MLAs in Covid management. “For the quarantine accommodation of the migrant workers, necessary planning may kindly be made to keep them in their own gram panchayats/blocks so that better attention, service can be provided to them. The district administration may kindly be instructed to take the local MLA into confidence on dealing with such issues,” he had stated.
However, many observers believe both the administration and the people, particularly many of the returnees to the district, are to share the blame for Ganjam’s Covid plight. In many places, the returnees flouted the guidelines. On the other hand, despite its Covid announcements, the administration at the lowest level failed to implement them properly.
Citing the case of a quarantine centre from where over 100 migrant workers had fled before being taken back, a journalist notes, “The local elected representatives including MLAs could have managed the post return of workers situation more effectively. Given the enormity of Covid challenge every key stakeholder should have been taken into confidence. The sarpanches are like the respective MLA’s team members. While the government has assigned the powers of a collector to the sarpanches, it has kept away the MLAs. That’s baffling.”
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