Bihar and the Looming Corona Crisis

By Poorva Awasthi | Jun 2, 2020

Shocking images of poor migrants being held like prisoners in detention centres across India and reports of their starvation are rampant on social media. Despite this, the state government has refused to acknowledge the tragedy and continues to claim that it is handling the crisis well.

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On March 22, Bihar registered its first two cases of the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19), one of who died the same day. Since then, the number of cases has increased steadily. As of May 12, Bihar has 761 confirmed cases of COVID-19, of which 378 are active and 377 have recovered. Given the highly contagious nature of the disease, on March 22, the Government of Bihar announced a state-wide lockdown till March 31. This was followed by a nationwide lockdown enforced by the Central Government between March 25 and April 14 (later extended to May 17, 2020). During the lockdown, severe restrictions have been placed on the movement of individuals. Establishments have remained closed, except those providing essential goods and services. Restrictions have been lifted in less affected districts or the Orange and Green zones since May 3.

The handling of the coronavirus pandemic in Bihar is an acid test for the Bihar Government in this state assembly election year. Bihar will be the first state that will go to polls after the outbreak of the pandemic in the country.

Stakes are higher for Bihar Government as handling of this calamity will definitely have a direct bearing on the poll prospects of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Bihar. Whether the government performed well or not in its current term will not be a deciding factor for forming the next government but what will matter the most is how the government was able to contain the spread of the pandemic and limit the number of casualties. The Bihar government has already been facing flak from the opposition over the evacuation of students from Kota, the surge of migrant labourers towards Bihar from different parts of the country and alleged inept handling of the pandemic leading to an unprecedented swell in the number of positive cases from 69 to nearly 350 in ten days and then to 761 in another 20 days. The issues raised by the opposition are significant, considering the paucity of testing kits, masks, ventilators, paramedical staff and poor health infrastructure in Bihar. Their apprehensions are apparent now with the substantial rise in the number of positive cases in the last week.

On its part, the Bihar government is leaving no stone unturned to ensure that there are no lapses in setting up quarantine centres, providing testing kits and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to doctors and preventing the spread of the deadly disease by strictly enforcing social distancing norms.

However, tackling the health hazard is proving to be a tough task, given the high population density in the identified hotspot and inadequate medical infrastructural facilities. Bihar has altogether six testing centres approved by the Indian Council of Medical Research and three dedicated hospitals for COVID-19.

The government has also been trying to alleviate the suffering of the migrant population stranded in other parts of the country and those rendered jobless within the state. It has transferred Rs 1,000 /- each to over 1.30 lakh migrant labourers.

Till last week, 84 lakh ration card holders in Bihar were given Rs 1,000/- each taking the financial assistance to a whopping Rs 840 crores. Efforts are on to regularise another 38 lakh suspended ration cards and pay three months’ pension to 87 lakh pensioners. The government’s financial support is estimated to reach about 8 crore people which is nearly 70 percent of the estimated population.

In addition, the state government has initiated steps to revive economic activities, especially in the rural areas, to deal with the crisis of burgeoning unemployment arising due to the en masse return of skilled and unskilled labourers from different parts of the country. It was imperative because these workers needed jobs to survive on their own in Bihar as they would not move out again in search of employment for at least three to four months before the crisis ends and normal economic activities resume throughout the country. Migrants play an important role in state elections as a majority of them are still voters in Bihar and return to their villages during the time of elections.

In order to understand the response of the Bihar Government in detail, let us first look at the timeline of the actions taken by the government.

Initial response 

The initial response of the state government was aimed towards:

Before the lockdown, the government had started taking various steps as precautionary measures including the closure of schools, Anganwadis, colleges, shopping malls, cinema halls, parks etc. Government staff was directed to come to the office on alternate days and gatherings of more than 50 persons were restricted. Apart from this, all public and private transport was restricted.

Healthcare measures

The government took several measures to strengthen healthcare facilities. The government issued directions to:

  • Ensure availability of 100 extra ventilators in government hospitals
  • Arrange for testing of COVID-19 in AIIMS, Patna and PMCH, Patna hospitals
  • Cancel leaves of all employees of the Health Department
  • Strengthen screening of travellers entering through the Bihar-Nepal border.

On March 17, the Health Department issued The Bihar Epidemic Diseases, COVID-19 Regulation 2020 under The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. The Act provides for better prevention of the spread of dangerous epidemic diseases. These regulations specify the protocol to be followed in both private and government hospitals for screening and treatment of COVID-19 patients. It also empowers the district administration to take containment measures, including sealing specific areas and conducting surveillance for COVID-19 cases. It makes spreading of rumours or unauthenticated information with mala fide intent a punishable offence.

After the announcement of the lockdown on March 25, state- and district-level coordination committees were set up. During the lockdown, the state government’s measures have been aimed towards:

  • Strengthening the medical response in the state
  • Providing relief to various sections of society from issues being faced during the lockdown
  • Addressing difficulties in the supply of essential goods and services

Welfare Measures

  • The government had announced early on that the treatment cost for COVID-19 patients of Bihar will be borne by the Chief Minister’s Medical Assistance Fund. The state also promised to provide assistance of four lakh rupees to the family of a person dead due to COVID-19.
  • The government issued directions to provide direct cash transfers in place of the food provided under the Mid-day Meal scheme in schools, and at Anganwadi centres.
  • The state government announced a relief package for people affected due to the lockdown. Key features of the relief package are:
    • One month ration to all ration cardholders for free
    • One-time cash transfer of Rs 1,000 per family to ration cardholders
    • Payment of pensions for three months in advance to all pensioners, including pensions to aged, widows, and physically challenged
    • Release of pending scholarships to all students.
  • Various departments issued guidelines to the district administration to facilitate operational continuity of essential goods and services, including food items, seeds, fertilisers, and other agriculture-related items, livestock fodder, and petroleum products.

Welfare measures for migrants

Bihar is one of the states where the out-migration population is very high (745 out of 1000 households report out-migration as compared to the national average of 365). In order to cater to the migrant crisis in the state, Rs 100 crore was allocated from the Chief Minister Relief Fund to provide aid to the migrants from Bihar stuck in other parts of the country due to the lockdown.

State-wise nodal officers have been appointed for the coordination of relief efforts for migrants. The state government is running 10 food centres in Delhi to help migrants from Bihar.

On March 28, the state government decided to start relief camps along the border (including the Nepal border) offering food, shelter, and medical help to persons coming in the state. Community kitchens and relief camps have been started in government school campuses to provide food and shelter.

The State Cabinet approved the proposals for: (i) reducing the electricity tariff for domestic and agricultural consumers by 10 paise per unit and (ii) waiving the monthly meter fee.

Migrants and the looming corona crisis

Bihar has an estimated 40 – 45-lakh migrant population working across several states, though there is no definite statistics on it. More than 29 lakh migrants had registered with the Bihar government app to avail Rs 1000/- assistance, though the number is expected to be much higher.

With such a huge population ready to come back to the state, the state awaits a social and health emergency. The returning migrants pose a huge threat of being carriers of COVID-19 infection as they are coming from highly infected cities, including Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Delhi. An alarmed Bihar government is gearing up to face the rising number of cases of COVID-19 in the state, especially after trainloads of mostly asymptomatic migrant labourers came back and many of them tested positive.

Bihar has seen the number of COVID-19 cases rise steadily and this has picked up in the last 10 – 12 days, coinciding with the return of migrants. There were just 66 cases of the coronavirus disease in the state on April 14 and it has reached 761 (as of 12th May), with 119 cases added from May 5 – 10, mostly from amongst the migrant workers. The Principal Secretary, Department of Health, said that out of the 49 people who tested positive on Saturday (May 9) 44 are migrants and had come back from different parts of the country.

The focus has now shifted to the panchayat and block levels, as it is where the migrants will spend their mandatory 21 days at the isolation centres. The figures say that Bihar will need to move more cautiously now with migrants, including those from foreign countries, returning in large numbers.

The Bihar government has set up over 3,000 quarantine centres in different blocks of the districts. The State Disaster Management Department also runs over 200 relief camps for them.

The government is mulling the formation of a local-level committee under Circle Officers (COs) to look after the quarantine centres set up at block levels. Panchayat members too will be engaged in the committee. Earlier, the Chief Minister had announced that he had instructed officials to provide food, drinking water, soap and other required facilities for migrants at every quarantine centre. However, the videos sent by the quarantined migrants on social media, tell a different tale. The ground realities are quite different from what the Chief Minister and the officials have been announcing in Patna. The reports in several media houses claim that the situation at block-level quarantine centres is deplorable and not fit for stay.

There have been several instances when migrants have fled from the quarantine centres alleging a lack of food and facilities. This poses a much bigger risk for the state as tracking them down and then tracing their contacts is an impossible task in itself for the administration which is already overburdened by the corona crisis.

With the return of labours to their native states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, there awaits another crisis for the country once the lockdown ends and economic activities resume. The labour shortage which is going to be faced by the capitalists in the prosperous western and southern states will be immense. The main reason why the labourers have been so desperate to go back home is that their employers have stopped paying them wages during the lockdown and this is the reason why migrant labourers across the country have reportedly said that they will never go back to their jobs to face such humiliation again.

Another health crisis awaits the state

In the midst of the fight against COVID-19, Bihar has been hit by another health crisis – Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES), locally known as chamki bukhar’, which inflames the brain cells and targets children in particular. Five children have so far died of the disease this year, while the number of cases reported until 13 May is 49, which is a matter of concern for the authorities because the AES is believed to peak in June and July.

All these factors along with the inept governance and medical infrastructure in Bihar, make it one of the worst affected states not in terms of the number of coronavirus cases, but as a social crisis for the government. Its low levels of employment, lack of basic infrastructure and unusually high migration rate exemplify this crisis that has gone beyond being just a public health disaster. This pandemic has brought to the fore the complete apathy of Bihar’s government in addressing the humanitarian crisis borne out of the panic caused by the coronavirus and the extended lockdown.

With over 33 percent of the state’s population living below the poverty line, Bihar is one of the poorest states in India. The lack of job opportunities in Bihar has forced out a large part of the state’s young population. It is this poor and vulnerable population that the government has chosen to ignore by consistently overlooking their plight. When the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh sent buses to ferry back the state’s migrants stuck on the Delhi-UP border or brought back stranded students from Kota, all the Bihar Government could do was criticise these actions. It categorically rejected suggestions for helping migrants, as well as students from Bihar, who are stuck in other states; yet the government did not hesitate to give permission to a Bihar BJP MLA to bring back his son from Kota.

Such discrimination against the poor and vulnerable, while extending support to the privileged has been the hallmark of Bihar’s governance model and this does not seem to have changed even during this crisis. Shocking images of poor migrants being held like prisoners in detention centres across India and reports of their starvation are rampant on social media. Despite this, the state government has refused to acknowledge the tragedy and continues to claim that it is handling the crisis well. Even if the government of India failed to anticipate this crisis in time, surely the government of Bihar, aware of all the facts, should have been more proactive in tackling the impending crisis once it was visibly obvious.

Talking about the economic situation of the state, it was reported that between 2011-12 and 2017 – 18, unemployment rates in Bihar almost tripled, from 2.5 percent to 7.2 percent. In a bigger indictment of Bihar’s ruling dispensation, an analysis by IndiaSpend (an initiative of The Spending & Policy Research Foundation) showed that the more educated one is in Bihar, the greater the chances that one will be unemployed. Close to half of Bihar’s young population is forced to depend on agriculture for a living owing to the lack of industries and formal employment opportunities. This has made Bihar the poorest state in India with a per capita GDP three times lower than the national average, standing at Rs 47,541 against the all-India average of Rs 1,42,719. The second poorest state by per capita GDP (also the most populated state), Uttar Pradesh, stood at Rs 68,792 demonstrating just how far behind Bihar is, economically.

The fact that the government of Bihar has made no real progress in transforming Bihar into a more prosperous state is demonstrated by the near collapse of educational infrastructure in the state. After 15 years of purported good governance under Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, Bihar has only seven colleges per lakh of population against the national average of 28. The state has failed to address the issue of the quality of education. It has the worst teacher-student ratio in the country. Even that does not capture the true failures of the government on the human development front. In the state, vacancies for teachers have been filled up with unqualified candidates under political pressure. So, there is little surprise that students with any enterprise and resources migrate outside to seek their future. Even in this period of coronavirus crisis when it is not clear when schools and colleges might reopen, there have been no clear guidelines from the state government regarding online classes and training for teachers unlike other states like Uttar Pradesh, where soon after the announcement of lockdown, online classes and education models had been laid down by the government.

Therefore, the state is headed for an unprecedented crisis which includes not only a healthcare crisis but an economic and social crisis caused by the lack of foresight of the government. The state government, therefore, must, on the one hand, take immediate steps to improve the healthcare infrastructure as the number of cases in the state is increasing rapidly and with more migrants testing positive for COVID-19, the health scare is about to grow bigger. Resources should not be a constraint now that the RBI has allowed a bigger headroom as ways and means for the states. But the matter does not end here. The state government should look beyond just the current crisis, realise its failure in providing livelihood and education to the people of Bihar and start taking corrective steps to find long-term solutions.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/​s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Azim Premji University or Foundation. 

Author

Poorva Awasthi, alumnus, Azim Premji University, Batch of 2013 – 15, MA Development.
Currently works as Vice President Operations, BBD Group Hospitality.