Stories of suffering and state response: How Bihar’s newspapers are covering the migrant crisis
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Stories of suffering and state response: How Bihar’s newspapers are covering the migrant crisis

Coverage is comprehensive, from quarantine facilities to state efforts, though some papers seemed to blame the migrants for the rise in Covid-19 cases.

By Anand Vardhan

Published on :

Bihar finds itself at the receiving end of one of the largest mass movements of people in recent memory. Its scale looks like one of the quirks of time that no one can claim to have foreseen anytime soon.

Consider this: By the morning of Thursday, May 14, 2.72 lakh migrant workers had returned to Bihar by 195 Shramik Special trains. Seventy-six more trains were scheduled for the next two days, even as the state government asked for more. Each train carries, on an average, 1,200-1,500 passengers. And these numbers do not include the people returning by other means: buses, cycles, smaller vehicles, and even on foot.

According to a report in Hindustan, the state’s most circulated newspaper, the Bihar government expects a further 20 lakh migrants to return. The estimate is based on inputs provided by the district administration of 38 districts in Bihar. Various newspapers published from Bihar, or those with Patna editions, have been trying to cover various aspects of this unprecedented movement.

In the coverage of the exodus by Bihar’s leading dailies, some facets of the crisis can be identified. These are related to how the nature of the crisis is viewed, its scale, the response to it at various levels, and future implications.

First, despites arguments to not link the spread of Covid-19 to the migrant workers, newspapers cited numbers to link their return to a recent rise in positive cases. The scientific reasoning for this was unclear, or was traced to some migrants reportedly escaping quarantine, or even the scaled-up testing of migrants — not just the numbers alone.

However, Bihar’s leading newspapers — Hindustan, Dainik Jagran, Prabhat Khabar, Dainik Bhaskar, the Times of India, and Hindustan Times — all reported on a significant increase in positive cases, as assessed by the state government, following the large-scale return of migrant workers.

On May 15, the state health department issued a district-wise break up of 416 migrant workers who tested positive. That’s a high proportion for a large state where the total number of positive cases currently stands only at 1,284, with nine deaths. Hindustan’s headline on the news announced that there had been a “45 percent jump” in the number of positive cases with the return of the migrant workers.

The Patna edition of Hindustan Times placed the percentage at 40 in its May 17 report. Prabhat Khabar, a regional daily whose core readership is confined to Bihar and Jharkhand, also put it at 40 percent. More significantly, the rising trend was evident: on May 14, migrant workers were reported to account for 36 percent of the total cases in Bihar.

This has since increased to 651 migrant workers testing positive, according to data provided by the state health secretary.

Dainik Jagran, Dainik Bhaskar and the Times of India also carried chief minister Nitish Kumar’s statement emphasising that migrant workers should return early to minimise transmission dangers. Kumar was also quoted as saying that since a large number of the workers are coming from red zone areas, there are high risks of transmission.

Identifying the share of migrant workers in the daily updates about positive cases is also visible in the dailies. Early last week, for instance, Hindustan reported that eight out of nine positive cases in Patna were migrants. Such a high percentage of the migrant workers’ share in positive cases has triggered its own set of anxieties, not all of which is unreasonable. In an editorial piece on May 18, headlined “The disease travels east”, Hindustan Times said: “Now that they are returning, the cases in their home states are rising. In Bihar, there is now a surge of cases.”

In many villages, a form of civic vigilantism can be seen. Dainik Jagran, for instance, had a report on two villages in Patna district where villagers were alert in not letting migrants enter their villages without completing their mandatory quarantine stay. However, there are also rising incidents of such vigilantism going too far. A dispatch from Bihar in the Statesman said that many workers are facing discriminatory treatment and even social ostracism as “corona spreaders”.

There are also reports in newspapers about diversifying the means to bring back migrants. Perhaps aware of the logistical constraints in using only trains to transport a large number of migrants, the chief minister asked officials to use buses and even smaller buses to bring home migrant workers from neighbouring states.

Prabhat Khabar carried a statement by labour minister Vijay Kumar Sinha in which he slammed other states for being insensitive in not taking care of migrant workers from the state, and forcing some of them to return on foot. On May 18, all the Patna-based dailies reported the chief minister’s statement that any Bihari migrant willing to return would be brought back by the state government.

Second, the response of the state government, and its relief measures and policy for the migrant workers, has also occupied pages. As an immediate relief, it was widely reported that Nitish Kumar instructed officials to make advance arrangements for the transfer of at least Rs 1,000 to the bank accounts of all migrant workers. The state government asked district administrations to identify and obtain bank details of all workers returning to Bihar. This was prominently covered by all the dailies.

Along with other dailies, Dainik Bhaskar carried the chief minister's statement asking migrant workers to avoid sneaking in or travelling on foot as there are adequate arrangements to bring them to their destination from railway stations or state borders. The papers reported that the chief minister asked them to call the nearest police station or the block office.

Another part of the immediate response is the expansion in the number of quarantine centres and their conditions. The latest figures say that 2.72 lakh migrant workers are now staying at 5,162 block quarantine centres in the state. Sporadic news reports on mismanagement, ill-treatment and shoddy facilities at some the quarantine centres have already acquired political colour. There have also been reports of migrant workers fleeing quarantine centres.

On May 14, for example, Hindustan Times reported that 102 migrant workers ran away from quarantine centres in Nalanda, Jehanabad and Aurangabad districts, alleging mismanagement, poor food quality, and dirty toilets. There are also regular reports of migrants trying their best to avoid quarantine. On Sunday, May 17, Hindustan Times had a report on 13 migrants jumping off a train in Sitamarhi district in a bid to escape quarantine.

The Opposition seized the issue: Rashtriya Janata Dal leader and former chief minister Rabri Devi and leader of the Opposition in the state Assembly Tejashwi Yadav have been attacking the state government on poor management of quarantine facilities. Hindustan reported that Rabri Devi also slammed the government’s insensitive approach to quarantine centres and asked it to improve conditions within 24 hours.

However, Sushil Kumar Modi, Bihar’s deputy chief minister, cited the Centre’s praise for the state government’s block-level quarantine facilities. Newspapers carried the Centre’s praise as a new experiment in disaster mitigation. However, in the wake of incidents of unrest and unruly behaviour at some quarantine facilities, newspapers like Dainik Jagran reported that Nitish Kumar has asked migrant workers to maintain discipline while in quarantine and cooperate with the local administration.

Third, newspapers showed interest in how the state is planning to absorb the migrant workers in gainful employment. Beyond the immediacy of the current crisis, this is an important question that the state must grapple with. The papers reported on the state government’s plan to skill-map the skilled labour and implement Kumar’s direction to employ them in Bihar’s industrial units, or provide them with jobs commensurate with their skill-sets. The chief minister exhorted his government to turn this adversity into an opportunity to engage the skills of the state's workforce. This story made it to Hindustan’s front page on May 14.

On May 15, Dainik Jagran had a detailed story on the professional profile of workers who have returned, ranging from skilled workers in manufacturing and construction sectors, to those in the hospitality industry and with niche service sector jobs. It also had a story on how groups of workers in a quarantine facility in Bihta (near Patna) are interested in a diamond-cutting start-up. If they succeed, it would revive an industry which once had its presence in the Patliputra region.

On the same day, Hindustan Times reported that the industry department of the state government has already profiled 77,000 workers based on their skills, work experience, and former places of work.

Fourth, the newspapers hosted some commentary in their reporting of the migrant exodus. Prabhat Khabar, for instance, had a front-page piece by political commentator Surendr Kishor in which he called for the drafting of a national migrant labour policy. He argued that its need has been felt again in the wake of different states in India looking away from their responsibility towards migrant workers, despite benefiting from their productive labour. A day later, the paper also had Shaibal Gupta, noted economist and member-secretary of the Patna-based Asian Development’s Research Institute, sharing his views on the current crisis on its front page.

Gupta’s views also found space in the Patna edition of the Times of India in the form of an interview. He was of the view that the Centre should offer a Bihar-specific package, and even special status to Bihar, to shield it from the massive economic impact of this crisis. However, what was interesting was his take on the social dynamics of migration, which might not be addressed in the short term.

Far from seeing it only as a crisis of a lack of job opportunities, Gupta believed the feudal set-up had also triggered migration over decades and hence, the immediate integration of migrants into the local economy will be difficult. Approaching migration as a social phenomenon in the current scene may have its limitations. Still, Gupta offered up a useful reminder about an important aspect.

In some ways, newspapers in Bihar are trying to trace the visible strands of an unfolding crisis of the mass movement back home. In such flux, the press in Bihar is doing its bit in telling the stories of the suffering of the rough-edge hit migrants and the efforts to smoothen them.

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