Jharkhand facilitates return of 60 workers from Ladakh

Coronavirus lockdown: Jharkhand facilitates return of 60 migrant workers from Ladakh by air, gives hope to many stranded migrants

Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren (L) interacts with a migrant worker as he arrives at Birsa Munda International Airport, during the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, in Ranchi. (PTI Photo)

Amid heartrending stories of migrants longing to return home, the Jharkhand government on Friday gave a ray of hope to many such stranded workers by facilitating return of 60 of its natives, stuck in the snow-clad fringes of the Himalayan mountains in Ladakh, by air, in a first-of-its-kind initiative by a state.

After two months of anxiety and uncertainty, the group of 60, involved in a Border Roads Organisation project in Ladakh, finally landed in Ranchi on Friday evening and were welcomed by Chief Minister Hemant Soren.

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While many stories of employers and organisations sponsoring the return of workers have emerged after the resumption of domestic passenger flights on Monday, this is perhaps the first time a state government has facilitated the return of so many migrant labourers via commercial flights.

After the first leg of the journey, Saul Tudu, one of the labourers, said he always thought that there were roads in the clouds on which plane runs.

"It was my first time on a plane (Leh to Delhi) and I think my flight to Ranchi would be the last experience, as I can never afford this," he told PTI from the Delhi airport.

"When stuck in Ladakh, I would often think that I will never be able to see my children -- three sons and a daughter -- and it is a dream come true to return like this to my family, to my village," the 35-year-old labourer added.

The workers, who are from Jharkhand's Dumka district, were stuck in Gorgodoh Village of Batalik in Kargil district and were medically checked and transported by BRO to Leh on Thursday and kept in a transit camp, officials said.

"We are committed to ensure our migrant workers return home safe. Our government is flying back 60 workers, who were stranded in Batalik-Kargil, Leh, to Ranchi. Special thanks to Divisional Commissioner/Secretary UT Ladakh, DG- BRO and local BRO Officers, SpiceJet and Indigo teams for their able support," Soren tweeted.

Soren had also written to Union Home Minister Amit Shah for permission to bring back migrant workers stranded in Andaman & Nicobar, Ladakh and North- Eastern states by chartered planes as there were no other means to transport the workers.

"However, when there was no positive response from the Centre, the chief minister moved ahead to bring back migrants on commercial flights," a source in the CM's Office said, adding the state spent an estimated Rs 8 lakh for the workers' return.

The workers flew out of Leh airport by a SpiceJet flight for the national capital. From Delhi airport, they flew to Ranchi by an Indigo flight, they said.

"Some of us were losing hope of seeing our families again, but I told the workers that we will return to our villages. I contacted the Jharkhand government which gave a prompt response and arranged for our return. It was a difficult period we endured," John Paulus Hansda, a migrant labourer, told PTI from Leh airport.

"Almost all of us going home are boarding an aircraft for the first time in our lives. I am an orphan but was thrilled to watch my friends call home and tell their families excitedly that they will travel in a plane for the first time," said the 25-year-old who led the efforts to facilitate his co-workers and his own return to their native villages.

"We had come here for work around September and our work finished by March, but we got stranded due to the lockdown. Anxiety about our families and also the fear of that we won't be able to return before the agricultural season was very high, but the Jharkhand government came to our rescue," Hansda said.

Thakur Soren, another worker, said he is the sole bread earner of his family and he was worried as he had to return home to work on his family land as his brothers and sisters are small.

The 25-year-old labourer said they would not like to leave home again and would request the Jharkhand government to arrange for a livelihood in the village itself.

Colonel Kaushik Mitra, the commander of a border road task force under BRO's 'Project Vijayak' who worked closely with the 60 workers, said, "We are responsible for road infrastructure in Ladakh, connecting far flung areas. We induct labour for the working season from April-November. Around 6,000-7,000 of our labour force comes from Jharkhand."

"But there are a few winter workers. These 60 workers are winter workers. They were employed with us throughout and their plan was to return when the Zoji La pass opens around March, but could not do so due to the lockdown," he told PTI.

"They were with us and were getting their pay and all facilities were provided to them by the BRO which had assured them that they will be sent back to Jharkhand when the situation normalises," Col. Mitra said.

The migrant workers had reached out to the Jharkhand CM on Twitter for help after which the Jharkhand government made efforts to facilitate their return.

Soren interacted with the migrants and also enquired about their well-being.

This is the first initiative by the state government to bring migrants by flight on its expenses, Soren told reporters.

He said a large number of labourers are also in Andaman and Nicobar Islands and efforts were on to bring them back.

Over 4 lakh of the nearly 7 lakh migrant workers from Jharkhand stuck in other states have returned, and the state is working at all fronts to ensure no one is left behind, officials said.

Two flights are being operationalised to get back around 320 workers from the Andamans very soon, a close aide of the CM said.

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