Abner Manzar

23rd June 2020

The village environment in Hesatu was very pleasant. As I followed Pankaj Munda into his home compound with a camera his whole family came out and looked suspiciously. They asked why I am making a video and as I explained that we’re documenting the lives of migrants and doing a research on them they understood and said “yes, he has come from very far. Please sit, we will tell you everything.” The conversation started with Pankaj Munda but as he was hesitating everyone joined in.

His aunt came to talk when he was hesitant. She said that his mother had passed away when he was only 6 years old. His father also doesn’t keep well and his grandmother has now grown very old. So he had to leave his house at the age of 16 to earn money for the family.

This extended family lives together. The grandmother, her two kids, their wives and her grandkids. He used to earn about 10,000₹ per month in Tamilnadu. His expense was on food (2,000₹) and he used to send the rest of the money back home.

His aunt knows this about Corona “the person falls sick and then dies. There are some symptoms like dizziness, fever and cough but in the end the person dies.” She however, added that the solution is not to live in fear. The solution is to work as usual, take precautions and continue our lives. She said if that is not done there won’t be enough money to eat.

He found it very hard to speak. He kept hesitating. His aunt came to the rescue again “he hasn’t gone out so much so he’s hesitating, we’ll call his companions who had taken him. They will speak well.”

Deepak and Govind joined in. They had all come back together. They had all filled in a form at the local police station to go back to Jharkhand. While work had restarted they still decided to leave because the employers weren’t paying them even after work had restarted.

A few days after work had restarted they got a call from the police station, their tickets and passes were ready. They walked to the police station and got their passes and tickets and then a bus was provided for them to go to the railway station. The journey was peaceful; they reached Ranchi and were tested there. Then they organised a bus to Angada. When they came to the outskirts of the village they were stopped by the Mukhiya (village headman) and asked to quarantine at the Panchayat Bhawan. There was no bathroom or toilet there so they had to go outside for it.

After meeting a few more people in the village we returned to Ranchi and planned our visit to some administrative departments of the district to get an understanding of what they had planned in view of the crisis.

Ravi Guria

24th June 2020

I was surprised that the Deputy Commissioner of Ranchi agreed to give us an interview in official capacity. When I customarily complimented him on his article, he sheepishly confessed that he didn’t seek the permission of the state government to publish it. He escaped CM’s reprimand only because it was not a very critical article. CMO may have thought it worked to present the state in good light.

DC also optimistically suggested that we should also speak to the CM and put us through to his communication officer. We were also more than eager to meet the CM to get his perspective of the situation. However, CM’s communication officer was tad circumspect. He kept responding with a message ‘I’ll call back in 10 min”, but that call never came. It’s a strategy to avoid without saying ‘No’.

DC and his team sang eloquent about the great work Jharkhand government carried in the crisis. Tatpar Helpline, which had 10 dedicated phone lines ringing off the hook 24 hours a day for the last three months to record grievances of the migrants; 17 shelter homes in Ranchi district (some of which have closed down now); a dedicated bus for every block to ferry arriving migrant labourers; 525 Didi Kitchens across the state that fed more than 12 lakh beneficiaries etc. etc. However, I could also sense a disclaimer in their tone to be excused for not living up to expectations on certain occasions for the unprecedented nature of the crisis.

DC steered clear of being compared to infrastructurally stronger states like Tamil Nadu. “Tsunami prepared them well to deal with large scale disasters, unlike Jharkhand”, he remarked off the record. Anyway, commenting on other states wasn’t allowed in his official protocol. We also didn’t get a clear answer on the budget. “It was provided to us”, was the equivocal response.

However, DC expressed his unofficial desperation of coordinating with Indian Railways. They wouldn’t budge until the funds were released. The trains would invariably run late without coordinated communication, so it was extremely difficult to provide essentials to the passengers at the station. Consequently, many migrants went hungry and thirsty. The SDM who was directly coordinating with the railways declined to come on record.

Where Jharkhand government really scored was in decentralising the efforts. They enlisted 63 NGOs and a strong force of 1000 volunteers of students, professionals and social workers—who came together to achieve efficiency and effectiveness.

Also, the administration didn’t have a choice. The state just didn’t have the logistical and human capacity to address the situation. They needed active participation of other stakeholders like NGOs that have strong reach and capacity to mobilise the communities; youth who can really provide a fillip to the efforts; and other professionals who can contribute with specific knowledge, skills and expertise. And the fact that Jharkhand government realised this early on, they have been able to execute much of their goals well and achieve positive outcomes.

Even though official and unofficial government representatives wouldn’t express much, we could sense the crisis has been an extremely challenging experience for all and they have worked hard to keep their heads just above water—and on many occasions also had to surrender to the circumstances. None of them have a clear assessment of the future course, neither in official nor personal capacity, but exasperation in their eyes says more than their words.

An intern with the DC office, who is an IAS aspirant and a core member of the crisis management team, summarised it well. She was herself following and coordinating with other states. In her opinion Odisha bureaucracy has set an example in crisis management. They had prepared a robust preemptive plan much in advance, with complete data of all the migrants from their state across India. The principle secretary was personally overlooking the tasks. He demanded weekly reports, which kept all the officers involved on their toes. There was a dedicated officer to coordinate with every state and extract the migrants with minimal response time. The officer who was responsible for coordinating with Jharkhand—she would call her constantly, irrespective of the time of the day, informing her of the exact location of the stranded migrants from their state. She would keep in constant touch with the migrants and would take thorough updates on whether they have been provided food, shelter home and check on their health condition. And she would constantly barrage the team in Ranchi with calls until she would have satisfactory answer from the administration and victims.

The intern is so impressed by the bureaucracy of Odisha that she herself dreams of serving in the state as a bureaucrat. “This is how you should handle a crisis. Every arm of the government has to take responsibility, be accountable and deliver with utmost efficiency. And the leadership has to come from the top, only then officers in the peking order respond,” she idealistically opined.