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Covid and labourers

Foreign labourers work on the construction of a house in Riyadh [Credit: Getty Images]

As spring arrives in Kashmir, thousands of migrant workers are heading to the valley in search of work. Their relatively pleasant past experiences make them come here again and again. Both the daily wages and the overall working conditions are much better for such workers in Kashmir. Secondly, there seems to be more work for them here as the locals have nearly gifted away any and all labour work to these uninvited guests. While one understands their predicament and struggle to earn a living that makes them travel thousands of miles to stay and work in Kashmir, in the time of COVID, this mass movement of humans has its own risks associated with it as well. Last year, it was quite evident when hundreds of such labourers tested COVID positive proving to be challenge for the authorities to detect, and contain the cases. That year, in clear violation of the set guidelines, thousands of brick kiln labourers arrived in Kashmir and many of them did not undergo any institutional quarantine as they were transported directly to brick kilns where they began working right away. In the month of July 2020, as many as 11,000 brick kiln labourers had arrived in Kashmir with 60 to 70 buses carrying around 2,500 workers to the valley each day. All these labourers were being brought back in hoards by the brick kiln owners in Kashmir who arranged their transport and stay in poorly facilitated shacks right near the brick kilns. While as per the guidelines issued by the Jammu and Kashmir government then, all the passengers coming to J&K by train, air or road were supposed to remain under institutional quarantine for 14 days after being tested for coronavirus, they, on the contrary, were made to work right away while arranging their stay in the brick kiln areas itself. A similar situation seems to be unfolding this year too and the authorities must do everything to stop it. These days, thousands of labourers from Bihar, UP, Punjab, West Bengal, and Rajasthan have made their way to Kashmir. According to reports, the flow of migrant workers is expected to increase given the resumption of development works in the valley. According to officials, each day around 8,000 COVID tests are being done at Lakhanpur toll plaza. Majority of them are labourers heading to the valley. On Wednesday, a 30-year-old non-local labourer tested positive for novel Coronavirus infection in Sogam area of Kupwara, forcing the district administration to go for sampling of his primary contacts even as authorities directed concerned to prioritize sampling of all outside labourers engaged in different works in the north Kashmir district. The labourer was putting up at a rented room in Sogam area returned positive for the infection at a local health facility this afternoon. This forces the concerned district authorities to collect samples of all the primary contacts of the infected person on an immediate basis ‘to rule out any chances of spread of the infection’. The health authorities were also directed to prepare a list of all the non-local labourers putting up in the district and to prioritize their sampling on an immediate basis. The government must place on the ground a mechanism to control the inflow of such labourers and also ensure that their testing and isolation is done in the most fool-proof manner. Most states of India are facing the brunt of a second COVID-19 wave and many of these labourers are actually coming to J&K from the states that are among the worst affected by the pandemic. Hence, taking precautions should be the government’s priority if they need to tackle this challenge.