Orissa HC Says Migrants Can Only Return if They Test COVID -ve

The interim order does not direct the Odisha government to conduct the tests, leaving the onus on the migrants.

3 min read
Exhausted migrant labourers who shuttle weekly between Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh and Kochi in Kerala - image used for representational purposes

In a controversial decision, the Orissa High Court passed an interim order on Thursday, 7 May, in which it said that the state government “should ensure that all the migrants who are in queue to come to Odisha should be tested negative of COVID-19 before boarding the conveyance.”

The order was passed by the judges in a petition filed by one Narayan Chandra Jena, in which he had asked the high court to prevent the entry of anyone into the state because of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

The judges have said they will pass a more detailed interim order on the next date of hearing, but till then, Odia migrant workers looking to return home will have to get a test showing they do not have the coronavirus before getting on any trains or buses back to the state.

Lawyer and constitutional scholar Gautam Bhatia pointed out on Twitter that this order by the high court effectively bars migrants from returning home as the ICMR’s testing guidelines will mean most of them – and especially those who are asymptomatic – will not be eligible for free government tests. They are also unlikely to have the finances to pay for private tests.

The only possible way to prevent this from becoming an effective bar on migrants to return is if the Odisha government undertakes to test all Odia migrants who apply to come home on the special trains or other forms of transport organised by the state.

However, the order does not stipulate that the Naveen Patnaik government will need to arrange for the tests, and there has been no statement to this effect from the administration; this means the onus remains on the migrant workers themselves.

Senior advocate Budhadev Routray – who was not representing either the state government or the petitioner but was still heard by the court during the video conferencing hearing – told the Economic Times that he had suggested to the judges that the migrants should only be allowed to return by trains after testing.

This suggestion, according to him, was in accordance with the Ministry of Home Affairs circular for those returning to India from abroad.

However, The Quint can confirm that the MHA circular dated 5 May, which sets out the SOPs to be followed for the return of Indians from abroad, does not contain any express requirement that these people have to have tested negative for COVID-19.

The circular notes that information is to be collected on any RT-PCR tests done by those who had registered to return to India, as well as the results of these tests, but this is not specified as a pre-requisite to board the flights. A screening of such persons for symptoms is required before being allowed to board and to get through the border upon landing, with only asymptomatic passengers allowed – but not a test.

The only requirement for testing negative for COVID-19 is for the crew and staff of any aircraft or ships being used to bring such people home. All returnees from abroad will have to undergo institutional quarantine, and download the Aarogya Setu app – these measures could have also been specified for the Odia migrants returning home but were not specified by the high court order.

As of 7 May, 39,765 people from outside Odisha have returned to the state, including 4,225 on Thursday. There were 34 new COVID-19 positive cases on Thursday, of which 33 were migrants who recently returned from Surat, according to ET.

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