What the Punjab Covid-19 Crisis teaches us about mass migration during a pandemic

The 25th. On 3 March the Union government imposed a national blockade to stop the rapid spread of the coronavirus. In Hazur Sahib Gurdwara more than 3000 pilgrims, like the KP, were in trouble because flights, buses and trains were suspended. The Gourdvara authorities quickly allocated each family a separate room and provided three meals a day free of charge. But the prospect of a long stay begins to make the pilgrims nervous. Most of them belonged to Punjab. They wanted to return to their families and farms in time for the wheat harvest.

The 25th. On 1 March, the first day of national isolation, the Punjab Chief Minister Amarinda Singh twittered that he had written during the pilgrimage to the Union Minister of the Interior Amit Shah and the Prime Minister Maharashtra Uddhav Tekkeray. But the permission to send them back from Nenda only arrived at the end of April.

From the 23rd to the 28th. On 4 April the pilgrims arrived in private cars, taxis and temporary staff, and in buses rented from the Hazoor Sahib Gurdwar Trust and sent by the government of Punjab. The KP arrived on the 26th. April, after four days on the bus home. But their relief didn’t last long.

Two days later they came to our house and took us to a public hospital, she says. At that time many returnees from Nenda had already started testing the Covid-19 with positive results. The PC is also made to perform a smear test. She tested positive, as did three other members of her family.

Since the 29th. April PK works at the state quarantine company in Amritsar. I don’t understand how this happened. She’s on the phone. I still don’t have any symptoms, and no one in my family does. But some were positive and some were not.

Pilgrims pass the inspection in Gurdaspur, Punjab, on their return from Nand. Pilgrims pass the inspection in Gurdaspur, Punjab, on their return from Nandda. (Photo: Hindustan Times)

The 10th. In May, 1205 of the 1,780 pilgrims came from Nenda to Punjab. Fifty-one people, almost all with Gurdwara connections, were also infected in Nendet. Before leaving Nenda, each pilgrim was examined for the obvious symptoms of Covid-19 – fever, cough and cold. However, the infection appeared in Punjab.

Without a patient index, a game of guilt has begun between the governments of Punjab and Maharashtra, accusing each other of lack of diligence. Some draw parallels with the Tabligh Jamaat, a religious community held in New Delhi in March, which reportedly caused more than 4,000 infections across the country.

The pilgrims mentioned differ from the Tabligi Jamaat on one important point: The first ones were transferred to a detention centre a few weeks ago at the expense of the state. At a time when migrant workers trying to reach their country of origin on foot were beaten, arrested and quarantined throughout the country. The Centre, like many state governments, has made their return possible.

This has always been a risky exercise. The fight to contain the fallout revealed a bad planning that seems to have become a feature of the exercise.

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In the second week of May I visited Nand to see how the pilgrims were allowed to return. The answer I have found seems to lie in the politics of the electoral banks and the efforts of political and religious groups. None of the pilgrims I contacted about this story had any complaints about life in Gourdvard. But the cleanliness and uncertainty around the castle, they said, was too great.

The Gurdwara Hazur Sahib, located on the Godawari coastline, is a large white marble structure with graceful floors and a golden dome. It marks the place where Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th and last Sikh Guru, gave his gaddi to the holy book of Guru Grant Sahib. More than 5000 pilgrims from all over the world visit the Gurdwara every day. Many stop for a few weeks and spend time praying and volunteering in the nearby Langar Sahib Gurdwara, which feeds almost 100,000 poor people in Nend.

With a population of just over 11,000 Sikhs in Nannda, it is the largest voice bank in a region dominated by Hindu marathas. The Gurdwara is an emotional problem. This became clearer in 2007, on the eve of the company’s 300th anniversary. It was on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of Guruant Sahib, when development projects worth 500 crores were sanctioned by the then Congressional regime in the city, ₹1.

Kenda’s relative prosperity is noticeable in Maratwad, a region known for its drought, peasant suicides and sun-drenched landscapes.

At our first meeting, Ravinder Singh Bungai, the secretary of the government of Khazur Sahib Gurdwara, tries to clarify matters. The infection didn’t come from his staff or pilgrims, he says. I talked to them every day for a few weeks. If they were infected, I’d get sick too. He hasn’t been tested yet, he has no symptoms.

The Gurdwara Council provided masks and disinfectants and carried out regular medical check-ups for the pilgrims during their five-week stay. After the first tweet from Punjab’s main minister, calls for evacuation were supported in the following weeks by Shiromani Akali Dal, Punjab’s main opposition party, Akal Taht, an influential religious body, and parliamentarians such as Solnyshko Deol from Gurdaspur and Prataprao Chikalkar from Nenda. It’s raised their hopes, Mr. Bungai says. Every day they came to ask me for news, they asked to be sent home.

It was hard to keep track of them all. Groups travel the Gourdvard and its surroundings without worrying about the social distance. Nand’s police even filed a police report against commissioner Gurdwara for not obeying the rules. But when it comes to religious issues, such rules are difficult to follow, Bungai said.

The 19th. In April, Union Minister Kharsimrat Kaur Badal tweeted that those detained in Hazur Sahib would soon return to the Punjab. In a letter from the 23rd. On 4 April, Satish Chandra, the additional Chief Secretary of the Punjab Government, asked the governments of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan for permission to allow them through. Pilgrims will certainly be checked and quarantined on their return.

On the first day, cracks began to appear in the planning. The government of Punjab has not asked us for a list of pilgrims, said Vijayakumar Magar, police commissioner of Nenda. Many of those who boarded the buses were migrant workers who lived on the grounds or came from the nearby city of Telangana. During the three-day journey, buses stopped in Gurdwaras on the way for food and rest, including the red districts of Indara in Madhya Pradesh and Bhilwarah in Rajasthan. This has only increased the risk of infection.

The 27th. On 11 April the pilgrims were isolated in the Tarn Taran region of Punjab after their driver tested positive for Kovid-19. In the following days, more returnees across the state were tested for HIV. The 30th. On 4 April the Punjab Ministry of Health and Family Welfare asked the district authorities to quarantine all returnees in public institutions instead of at home.

At the same time, Nanded’s administration also began quarantining the drivers and helpers who transported the pilgrims. Some of them were arrested on their return at the district border and taken to detention centres. But some of them, according to Magar, snuck in. We have sealed 25 entrances and exits in Nandand, but there are many roads in Kucchi, Magar said. I don’t have the strength to seal them all.

The Punjab Minister of Health, Berbir Sidhu, gave Maharashtra away because he could not control the pilgrims before sending them to Punjab. Ashok Chavan, a Maharashtra minister who lives in the area and heads the Ministry of Public Works, said the infection probably came from bus drivers sent by the Punjab government. In the past, everyone fought to get a loan to evacuate pilgrims, Mr. Bungai said. But when the bad news came, they started blaming each other.

*****

The Nanded Gurdwara complex and its surroundings have now been transformed into a containment zone. About 200 pilgrims from other parts of the country are still there. A grid of bamboo barricades forms the 2 km long periphery of Gurdwarah. They restrict the movement of vehicles, but cannot prevent people from entering and leaving, often under police supervision. Many of them work as domestic workers or salaried workers, a policeman told me, standing on one of these barricades. If they don’t work, they’ll starve to death.

Next to one of these barricades is Punjab Bhavan, a three-storey guesthouse that has been converted into a Kovid-19 quarantine station. Twenty-one patients infected with Covid-19 have been quarantined here. The drivers who brought the pilgrims to Punjab are angry, said Baliram Bhurke, a doctor and lump officer from Bhavan. They say: We only came to help the pilgrims return to Punjab. Now, we go back, and you lock us up.

It was an emotional reaction from the Punjab government, said Vipin Itankar, a collector from the Nand District. They shouldn’t be sent home. We still haven’t found a patient with an index finger. I wouldn’t be surprised if (the number of infections) exceeds 300-400 in the next few days.

Is there anything else that could have been done?

Not according to existing protocol, Ethancar says. The protocol requires a smear only for persons who are symptomatic or who are in close contact with known virus carriers. However, it is assumed that the majority of people currently infected are asymptomatic at national level. The only solution then is to check them all. But this is not practical (solution).

The 14th. On 25 May the pilgrims who had tested positive in Amritsar last month were demobilized. Like the inhabitants of Punjab Bhavan Nanda, after about 14 days. But during the preventive tests, the 200 pilgrims who were still in Nändeda were tested 10 with positive results. They’ve been placed in solitary confinement.

While both Punjab and Nandi are struggling to contain the virus, a more serious problem is expected in the movement of migrant workers across the country. A person from Mumbai to Nend tested positive earlier this week. Officials say that many others probably went unnoticed. Since the lockdown, we’ve caught over 80,000 people entering the Nend, Ethancar says. I’m sure if we check them, a lot of them will be found positive.

According to the protocol, returning migrant workers are placed in quarantine for seven days. According to Ethancar, the effectiveness of this measure is controversial. But there is a pragmatism between neglect and idealism, he says. We have to do everything we can.

*************

TIMELINA

24. Mars

More than 3,000 Sikh pilgrims from various parts of northern India stranded at the Khazur Sahib Gurdwara in Nanda, Maharashtra, after a four-hour national blockade had been declared.

25. Mars

The Chief Minister of Punjab, Amarinda Singh, writes the Union’s Interior Minister, Amit Shah, to evacuate the pilgrims on special trains or flights. Shiromaniac opponent Akali Dahl also began to insist on the return of the pilgrims.

from the 23rd to the 28th of April.

The evacuation has begun. The government of Punjab sends 79 buses to bring the pilgrims home. Many pilgrims rent private buses and taxis.

April 30th

Eighty-two of the 105 new cases registered in Punjab last week concern pilgrims from Nand. The media services are beginning to describe the return of the pilgrims as super-transmitters, like in Tablig Jamaat. Meanwhile, 20 Gurdwara employees and bus drivers have tested the Covid-19 at Nanded.

1. May

The guilt begins. Punjab health minister Balbir Sidhu says Maharashtra did not check pilgrims before sending them to Punjab. Ashok Chavan, the Minister of Maharashtra and the head of the public works department, said that the infection was probably caused by bus drivers sent to Nandandand by the Punjab government.

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