Depending on the cyclone’s impact, Odisha and West Bengal state governments could find themselves stretched for resources to deal with incoming migrant workers.

Migrant workers walking on the side of the road PTI
news Cyclone Amphan Tuesday, May 19, 2020 - 20:11

As Odisha and West Bengal brace for Cyclone Amphan’s impact by evacuating vulnerable people and having disaster management teams on standby, the extremely severe cyclone could mean more bad news for migrant workers from these states who have been waiting to come back home.

For one, it could mean delay in trains to their home states. The East Coast Railway on Monday decided to suspend all special trains along some routes and divert others in Odisha. Speaking to TNM, Vijaya, the South Western Railways PRO, said that while no trains are scheduled for Odisha, the last one for West Bengal departed on Tuesday from Karnataka. Shiby, Railway Public Relations Officer Thiruvananthapuram said the same thing for trains departing from Kerala to Odisha and West Bengal. The trains that have left for West Bengal will not be arriving at the coastal areas in the state. While no trains have been scheduled for the next two days from Karnataka and Kerala, others that left for West Bengal on Tuesday or before have been diverted.

Further delays, if at all, will depend on the impact of the cyclone.

Potential delay in trains

This does not bode well for migrants, who have already been waiting for weeks to get their tickets and go home. Bengaluru-based Zia Nomani, Youth President of Swaraj Abhiyan, a socio-political organisation, who has been working with migrant workers in the city, points out that an average of five trains for migrant workers depart from Bengaluru on a daily basis, or a maximum of eight.

Out of a total of five lakh workers who have registered to take the trains back to their home states, around 80,000 are from West Bengal, estimates Zia.

“Each train carries about 1200 people because of physical distancing restrictions. If you calculate, you can imagine how long it will take for all five lakh people to go back home,” Zia says.

The cyclone could also push procedural delays. For instance, Zia says, the West Bengal government has not followed up with the railways or other state governments after saying that it will cover the costs of the migrant workers wanting to come back. This announcement was made by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee three days ago.

If the cyclone results in a natural calamity, then this could delay trains and bureaucratic procedures required for workers to make their journey home.

Lack of resources to care for returning migrants

Gram Vikas, an Odisha-based organisation, had compiled a report recently on the conditions of workers from Odisha in southern states. Out of a total of 392 workers surveyed, almost 46% were in Kerala; 10% were in Karnataka, 12.8% in Tamil Nadu and 11.7% in Andhra Pradesh.

Liby Johnson, Executive Director of Gram Vikas, says that the cyclone, depending on the damage it does, could exacerbate the migrant workers’ crisis.

“Apart from the delay in getting home, it could also affect the state’s resources in taking care of the incoming migrant workers if their hands are too full in the aftermath of the cyclone. For example, many of the residents of coastal areas in West Bengal and Odisha are being moved to storm shelters. Some of these could be functioning partly as COVID-19 quarantine centres also, which makes the situation a tricky one,” he explains.

Moreover, the workers coming in will also have to go through quarantine in the home state before they are allowed to go home. This will put further pressure on the state’s resources if the cyclone causes anything other than heavy rain, Liby says. “The long term resources for rebuilding – whether from the cyclone or the pandemic – will also get stretched,” he adds.

Despite cyclone, workers prefer to go back home

K Alleya, the General Secretary of Orissa Traditional Fish Workers’ Union, tells TNM that there are several Odia fisherfolk stranded in Karnataka’s Mangaluru and Malpe. “Many of them do not even have a place to sleep at night. All of them have registered for the trains and are waiting to come back home. The Karnataka authorities have stopped fishing over there, so there is no work. That is not the case here in Odisha. Once they come back here, they could have gone local work, and been with their families.”

“You see, whether we stay there or come back to Odisha, things will not be easy for us… there is the coronavirus, unemployment, hunger. So, we would rather come back home, where we can find some local work, and be with our families,” Alleya says.

This is something that Liby also found when he went to visit around 150 women from Odisha working in a garment factory in Ernakulam, Kerala, on Monday. They have resigned from KITEX Garments, but continue to remain stranded, and alleged that they were facing issues in even getting food.

“They are desperate to go back home,” observes Liby. “There is of course the threat of the cyclone. But they come from Odisha, which has seen cyclones and have some idea of the aftermath and the state government’s response. They prefer that over not being in their home state, being without income, fearing a pandemic, and over the feeling of uncertainty. Their patience is also running out – their trauma has been going on for two months now.”

Alleya, who is in Odisha, says that they are hopeful. “We are not expecting widespread damage from the cyclone. Once it passes in two days, the rest of the fisherfolk and workers should be facilitated to return home, and the central government should announce some relief for the fishing community.”

Cyclone Amphan is expected to make a landfall on the West Bengal coast on Wednesday afternoon between Digha in the state and Hatia Islands in Bangladesh.  It has been categorized as an ‘extremely severe cyclonic storm’ and lakhs of people in both Odisha and West Bengal have been evacuated. 

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