New Delhi, April 27: Days before state governments led by Uttar Pradesh arranged buses to bring migrants back, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) informed the Supreme Court that “so far rural India has largely remained safe from this disease” and if migrants returning on foot are permitted to conclude their journey “there is a serious and imminent potential of the disease penetrating in rural India also,” The Hindu reported.

In a status report filed in the Supreme Court on April 12, Union Home Secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla said in case of movement of large group of persons travelling together, “the epidemic, which has already taken the form of a pandemic would manifest itself in its still most severe form making it unmanageable to contain”.

The country was initially placed under a lockdown on March 24 in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that was extended till May 3. With all forms of public transport including railways suspended and State borders sealed, lakhs of migrant workers in urban areas started walking hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes. On March 28, MHA issued guidelines and asked States to organise relief camps for migrants and arrange food and other amenities for them.

“There is no necessity for migration of workers to shift from place of occupation to the place of their residence and rush back to their villages. Their daily needs are being taken care of wherever they are working and the daily needs of their family members were being taken care of at their respective villages…. It is submitted that migrant workers travelling barefoot or otherwise in large numbers inevitably and unknowingly defy the social distancing norms which is one of the globally accepted norm for preventing COVID and put their lives and others lives in danger,” the MHA’s status report said.

BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh was one of the first States to announce that it would arrange for migrant workers stuck across the country to return to their homes. On Sunday, a batch of workers in Haryana were brought back to Etah in Uttar Pradesh on buses arranged by the State government and were sent to quarantine centres.

The April 19 guidelines issued by MHA asserted that there will be no inter-State movement of labourers. Following U.P, other States like Punjab, Odisha, West Bengal, Maharashtra were also coordinating for inter-State movement of labourers and workers who want to return home. Bihar has been requesting the Centre to change its guidelines and allow students and workers living outside the State to return home.

A senior Home Ministry official said there were no fresh guidelines allowing such movement and States were coordinating among themselves.

On March 29, two Delhi government officers were suspended and a showcause was slapped against two other officers for dereliction of duty as thousands of migrants congregated at the Delhi-U.P. border in buses, in a bid to go home.

On March 28, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath tweeted that a 1,000 buses were being arranged to help the migrants reach home.

The MHA’s status report, without specifically mentioning the Delhi incident, said, “with a view to initially disperse gathering of such migrant workers at the State borders, some State governments did make arrangement for their travel by bus but eventually a final decision was taken not to permit further movement of such migrant workers and required them to stay wherever they have reached while providing for food, shelter and medical facilities.”

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