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What Punjab’s covid-19 crisis teaches us about mass migration during a pandemic

Punjab’s initiative to facilitate return of 3,000 pilgrims from Nanded gurudwara has led to its steepest spike in covid-19 cases. Officials warn of similar community transmission as migrants return to their hometowns

The Hazur Sahib gurdwara in Nanded, one of the five holy ‘takhts’ of Sikhism
The Hazur Sahib gurdwara in Nanded, one of the five holy ‘takhts’ of Sikhism (Photo: Getty Images)

In the third week of March, PK, a homemaker from Amritsar, Punjab, boarded a train with six members of her family to visit the Hazur Sahib gurdwara in Nanded, Maharashtra. It was her first time at the shrine, counted among the five holy takhts (spiritual centres) of Sikhism. PK had planned on staying for a week. She had no idea she would end up staying a month longer.

From 25 March, the Union government imposed a nationwide lockdown to stem the rapid spread of the coronavirus. At the Hazur Sahib gurdwara, over 3,000 pilgrims like PK found themselves stranded as flights, buses and trains were suspended. The gurdwara authorities were quick to ensure that each family was allotted a separate room and given free meals three times a day. But the prospect of an extended stay was starting to make the pilgrims nervous. Most belonged to Punjab. They wanted to return to their families and farms, in time for the wheat harvest.

On 25 March, the first day of the nationwide lockdown, Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh tweeted that he had written to Union home minister Amit Shah and Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray on the pilgrim issue. But permissions for their return from Nanded came only towards the end of April.

Between 23-28 April, the pilgrims went back in private cars, taxis and tempos, and in buses hired by the Hazur Sahib gurdwara trust and sent by the Punjab government. PK reached home on 26 April after a four-day bus ride. But her relief was short-lived.

“Two days later, they came to our house and took us to a government hospital," she says. By then, many returnees from Nanded had started testing positive for covid-19. PK too was made to undergo the swab test. She tested positive, as did three other members of her family.

PK has been at a state-quarantine facility in Amritsar since 29 April. “I don’t understand how it happened," she says over the phone. “I have no symptoms still, nor does anyone in my family. But some have tested positive, some not."

A pilgrim being screened in Gurdaspur, Punjab, after returning from Nanded.
A pilgrim being screened in Gurdaspur, Punjab, after returning from Nanded. (Photo: Hindustan Times)

As of 10 May, pilgrims from Nanded accounted for 1,205 of Punjab’s covid caseload of 1,780. Fifty-one people, nearly all of them with links to the gurdwara, were also found infected in Nanded. Before leaving Nanded, each pilgrim had been screened for obvious covid-19 symptoms—fever, cough and cold. The infection surfaced, however, in Punjab.

With no index patient, a blame game has begun between the Punjab and Maharashtra governments, each accusing the other of lack of diligence. Some are drawing parallels to the Tablighi Jamaat, a religious congregation held in March in Delhi that is believed to have resulted in over 4,000 infections across the country.

The Nanded pilgrims differ from the Tablighi Jamaat in one crucial aspect: The former were ferried back home weeks into the lockdown, at state expense. This, at a time when migrant workers trying to head to their home states on foot were being beaten, detained and quarantined across the country. The Centre, as well as multiple state governments, enabled their return.

It was always going to be a risky exercise. The struggle to contain the fallout has exposed the poor planning that seems to have marked the exercise.


In the second week of May, I visited Nanded to find out how the pilgrims had been allowed to return. The answer, I found, seemed to lie in vote-bank politics and the efforts of political and religious groups. None of the pilgrims I contacted for this story had any complaints about the living arrangements at the gurdwara. But the abruptness and uncertainty around the lockdown, they say, was too much to bear.

Set on the banks of the Godavari, the Hazur Sahib gurdwara is a sprawling structure made of white marble, with ornate floors and a golden dome. It marks the place where Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th and last guru of the Sikhs, passed on his gaddi to the holy book Guru Granth Sahib. Over 5,000 pilgrims visit the gurdwara every day from around the world. Many stay on for weeks, spending time praying and volunteering at the adjoining Langar Sahib gurdwara, which provides meals for nearly 100,000 underprivileged residents of Nanded.

Nanded’s Sikh population is a little over 11,000, a crucial vote bank in a region dominated by Hindu Marathas. The gurdwara is an emotive issue. This was most evident in 2007, ahead of the 300th anniversary of the consecration of Guru Granth Sahib, when developmental projects worth 1,500 crore were sanctioned in the city by the then Congress regime.

Nanded’s relative prosperity stands out in Marathwada, a region infamous for droughts, farmer suicides and a sun-baked countryside.

In our first meeting, Ravinder Singh Bungai, secretary of the Hazur Sahib gurdwara board, is keen to set the record straight. The infection didn’t come from his staff or the pilgrims, he says. “I had interacted with them every day for weeks. If they were infected, I would be sick too." He hasn’t been tested yet; he doesn’t have symptoms.

The gurdwara board had provided masks, sanitizers and carried out regular health check-ups of the pilgrims throughout their five-week stay. After the Punjab chief minister’s initial tweet, the weeks that followed saw the Shiromani Akali Dal, the main opposition party in Punjab, the Akal Takht, the influential religious body, and MPs like Sunny Deol from Gurdaspur and Prataprao Chikalkar from Nanded supporting calls for evacuation.“It raised their hopes," says Bungai. “Every day, they would come to me asking for updates, demanding they be sent back home."

It was difficult to monitor all of them. Groups would roam in and around the gurdwara, with little regard for social distancing. The Nanded police even filed an FIR against the gurdwara superintendent for not keeping them in check. “But when it comes to matters of religion, such rules are difficult to enforce," says Bungai.

On 19 April, Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal tweeted that those stranded at Hazur Sahib would soon return to Punjab. A letter issued by Satish Chandra, additional chief secretary of the Punjab government, on 23 April asked the governments of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan to allow them passage. The pilgrims, it assured, would be screened and home-quarantined upon return.

The very first day, cracks in the planning began to show. “The Punjab government hadn’t asked us for a list of pilgrims," says Vijaykumar Magar, Nanded’s superintendent of police. “Many who boarded the buses were migrant labour who lived in the premises or had come from neighbouring Telangana." During the three-day journey, buses stopped for food and rest at the gurdwaras en route, including in the red-zone districts of Indore in Madhya Pradesh and Bhilwara in Rajasthan. This only enhanced the risk of infection.

On 27 April, 11 pilgrims in Punjab’s Tarn Taran district were isolated after their driver tested positive for covid-19. Over the next few days, more returnees started testing positive across the state. On 30 April, Punjab’s health and family welfare department asked the district authorities to quarantine all returnees in government facilities instead of their homes.

Simultaneously, the Nanded administration too started quarantining the drivers and helpers who had ferried the pilgrims. Some were detained at the district border on their return and moved to isolation wards. But some, says Magar, sneaked in. “We had sealed 25 entry and exit points to Nanded but there are many kuchcha roads as well," says Magar. “I don’t have enough force to seal them all."

Punjab health minister Balbir Sidhu faulted Maharashtra for not testing pilgrims before sending them to Punjab. Ashok Chavan, the Maharashtra minister who is from the area and heads the public works department, said the infection likely came from the drivers of buses sent by the Punjab government. “Earlier, everyone was fighting for credit for evacuation of pilgrims," says Bungai. “But when the bad news started coming in, they started blaming each other."


The Nanded gurdwara complex and its neighbourhood have now been turned into a containment zone. Some 200 pilgrims from other parts of the country are still there. A mesh of bamboo barricades line the gurdwara’s 2km periphery. They restrict the movement of vehicles but can’t stop people from going in and out, often under police watch. “A lot of them work as domestic helps or daily-wage labourers," a constable manning one such barricade tells me. “If they don’t work, they will starve."

Punjab Bhavan, a three-storeyed guest house turned covid-19 quarantine centre, is located near one such barricade. Twenty-one patients infected by covid-19 had been quarantined here. The drivers who had ferried the pilgrims to Punjab are upset, says Baliram Bhurke, a doctor and the Bhavan’s nodal officer. “They say, ‘We only stepped out to help the pilgrims return in Punjab. Now we come back and you lock us up.’"

“It was an emotional reaction from the Punjab government," says Vipin Itankar, the collector of Nanded district. “They shouldn’t have been sent back home. We still haven’t found the index patient yet. I won’t be surprised if it (the number of infections) crosses 300-400 in the coming days."

Was there anything that could have been done differently?

“Not as per existing protocol," says Itankar. The protocol calls for swab tests only of those who display symptoms or have been in close contact with known virus carriers. Countrywide, however, a bulk of the people infected now are believed to be asymptomatic. “The only solution then is if you test everyone. But it’s not a practical (solution)."

On 14 May, 25 pilgrims who had tested positive in Amritsar last month were discharged. So were Nanded’s Punjab Bhavan occupants, after they completed a 14-day quarantine. But during precautionary testing of the 200 pilgrims still in Nanded, 10 tested positive. They have been admitted to isolation facilities.

As both Punjab and Nanded struggle to contain the virus, a bigger challenge from the countrywide movement of migrant workers awaits. One person who had walked from Mumbai to Nanded tested positive for the virus earlier this week. Officials say many more are likely to have entered undetected. “We have caught over 80,000 people entering Nanded since the lockdown," says Itankar. “I am sure if we test them, many will be found positive."

In accordance with protocol, the migrant workers who return are kept in home quarantine for seven days. The efficacy of this, Itankar agrees, is debatable. “But between negligence and idealism is pragmatism," he says. “We have to do what we can."



24 March

Over 3,000 Sikh pilgrims from various parts of north India are stranded at the Hazur Sahib gurdwara in Nanded, Maharashtra, after a nationwide lockdown is announced with 4-hour notice.

25 March

Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh writes to Union home minister Amit Shah to evacuate the pilgrims through special trains or flights. The opposition Shiromani Akali Dal also starts lobbying for the pilgrims’ return.

23-28 April

The evacuation begins. The Punjab government sends 79 buses to carry pilgrims home. Many pilgrims hire private buses and taxis.

30 April

Eighty-two out of 105 new cases recorded over the previous week in Punjab are traced back to the Nanded pilgrims. Sections of the media start calling the pilgrims’ return a “super-spreader" event like the Tablighi Jamaat one. Meanwhile, 20 gurdwara staffers and bus drivers test positive for covid-19 in Nanded.

1 May

A blame game begins. Punjab health minister Balbir Sidhu claims Maharashtra didn’t test pilgrims before sending them to Punjab. Ashok Chavan, the Maharashtra minister who heads the public works department, says the infection likely came from the drivers of buses sent to Nanded by the Punjab government.

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