As coronavirus lockdown eases in Mumbai, migrant workers scramble to procure medical certificates so they can return home
On 29 April, the Ministry of Home Affairs finally issued an order allowing the movement of migrant labourers in India stuck away from home due to the lockdown in place since 25 March
Mohammad Akram arrived at a clinic in Mumbai at noon on Monday. The baking hot sun was right over his head. At around 5.30 in the evening, the heat had significantly subsided. But Akram was there. And the length of the queue in which he stood suggested he would still be there after sunset. "I will be here as long as it takes," he said, a handkerchief wrapped around his face, "I need to get a health certificate. I want to go home."
Hundreds of migrant workers braved the heat and sat on the road or leaned against dusty cars. They had skipped lunch for fear of losing their spot in the queue in front of a clinic near Kurla railway station. All in pursuit of a health certificate that would make them eligible to travel back to their villages.
On 29 April, the Ministry of Home Affairs finally issued an order allowing the movement of migrant labourers in India stuck away from home due to the lockdown in place since 25 March.
If the stranded people, the order read, "wish to move" from one state to another, "the sending and receiving states may consult each other and mutually agree to the movement by road".
Following the order, the state government of Maharashtra started preparing to send the migrants back home, especially from Mumbai and Pune, where lakhs of workers come in from various states across India to work as daily wage labourers.
In order to get back home, the migrant workers are supposed to collect a form from the local police station, fill it with their details and destination state, along with a health certificate stating they do not have influenza-like symptoms. Once they submit those details, they are supposed to wait for a call from the police station.
The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), on 3 May, issued a statement noting that "all medical colleges, peripheral hospitals, municipal dispensaries working under municipal corporation" as well as "registered medical practitioners" in Mumbai can issue the health certificate.
Ever since the announcement, the migrant workers have begun scrambling to get the health certificate from a doctor, leading to more hardships upon the working class that has already suffered a lot.
The scene at Kurla station was chaotic.
In their eagerness to get hold of certificates, hundreds of workers had to be reminded to abide by social distancing norms time and again. The health workers at the clinic were polite. But the queue spilled over into the streets. In raised voices, onlookers often pointed out the proximity of workers to one another. But the people in the queue had only one thing in mind: Home.
Akram is from Ghazipur district in Uttar Pradesh. When he heard he would be able to get back home, he walked to the Bhabha Hospital first thing in the morning. It took him around 15 minutes on foot from his home in Kurla. "But the hospital told us that only 60 people would be seen today. So we came back because it was already very crowded," he said.
Additional Municipal Commissioner Suresh Kakani said that there are close to 400 such municipal institutions in Mumbai eligible to issue health certificates. "It would be free of cost. Only an admission fee of Rs 10 may be asked of the migrant workers," he clarified.
However, according to Mumbai-based RTI activist Anil Galgali, there are more than five or six lakh migrants stuck in Mumbai, and the municipal dispensaries will be inundated. "It has already led to chaos," he said.
Kakani said there would obviously be pressure, considering the number of workers wanting to go back from Mumbai, but they should be able to finish the process in two or three days. "We are doing it on first-come, first-serve basis," said Kakani, adding, "We have allotted two hours between 2 and 4 pm. The workers should reach out to nearest dispensaries and health posts instead of the big hospitals."
Soon after returning from Bhabha Hospital disappointed, Akram found out about the One Rupee Clinic in Kurla that dedicated itself to inspecting migrant workers, and issues health certificates free of cost. By the time Akram reached, people had already queued up. "It is okay," he said, "At least I do not have to run around for the certificate."
The private practitioners are also eligible to issue certificates, and share the burden with municipal dispensaries. However, there is no regulation over them when it comes to fees, said Kakani. “It is between them and their patients,” he said.
Daily wage labourers like Akram cannot afford that. He works at a tailor shop, making Rs 300 per day. "Everything virtually came to a standstill since 15 March. It got worse since the lockdown on 25 March,” he said. “There is a 20-rupee note in my pocket. That is all the money I have. Our landlord has been kind to us by not asking for this month’s rent. Otherwise, we would be sleeping on the road.”
Galgali, who first tweeted about this issue, said the workers should not be made to suffer more by asking them to run around in the city. “You could post a couple of health officers at the police station, and get them screened when they are collecting their forms,” he said. “The workers could also be screened and checked for symptoms before boarding the train or bus, just like we do it at the airports. There is no guarantee that they would be able to board the train immediately after acquiring the certificate. What if they catch virus in the meantime, and are asymptomatic? We need to make it as simple and straightforward for the workers as possible.”
Maharashtra’s transport minister Anil Parab and Labour Minister Dilip Walse Patil did not respond to repeated phone calls.
Akram said even if they had announced the lockdown with a few days notice, he would have been able to get back home and stayed there. “There is no dignity in living like this,” he said. “My family is worried. I need to see them. Once I go back, I will not return for a while. I need the health certificate at any cost.”
Had the clinic in Kurla not opened up, countless workers in the area, like Akram, would have been wandering around the city to get a health certificate. By 5 pm, the clinic had screened over 200 people. And at least 200 more had been waiting in the queue.
With municipal dispensaries deluged, some of the workers that tried private practitioners had to return with a sour taste in their mouth. When Khiru Das and his two friends approached a private practitioner in Malad, they were told they would need to pay Rs 500 for a normal health certificate. “We went to two clinics,” said the labourer from Jharkhand. “We have absolutely no money so we came back without getting the certificate.”
Das, who works at a hotel in Malad, said the labourers here have not earned anything since the lockdown. “Everything is shut, and that is why we want to go back home to our families,” he said. “We are surviving on handouts here. It gets difficult to first go to the police station for your form, then search for the government clinics, stand in queue and then get back to the police station. There is no public transport, we have no money, and we eat bare minimum food.”
Manoj Kumar from Bihar had an even worse experience. A private practitioner told him he would need to pay Rs 4,500 for the health certificate. “He said we need to take the test for typhoid, malaria and dengue as well,” said Kumar. “I said we do not need to do that. We just need a basic medical certificate so we can go home. But he told me to pay Rs 4,500. I did not have that kind of money. So I returned without the certificate.”
Dr. Manohar Kamat, a private practitioner in Mahim, said if you have given medical service, examined the person, done all the tests, then you are entitled to a fee. “But it should not be extortionist,” he said, adding that there is no ready reckoner when it comes to charging fees. “The outside market rate for a simple medical examination is Rs 300 to 400. I charge Rs 150. I am not here to exploit the situation.”
Kumar, who works as a security guard for a salary of Rs 15,000, said there are no clear instructions on when he would be able to go home. “The Bihar government issued helpline numbers,” he said. “There was a number of nodal officer and district magistrate as well. None of them are answering the phones. This announcement has raised our hopes. The wait to go home is tantalising.”
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