The Indian Railways mounted a sudden and secret operation to transport lakhs of stranded migrants back to their home states by launching ‘Shramik Special’ trains on Friday (May 1). Prior to that, several rounds of discussions had already taken place within the government to allow trains to ferry the hapless people, caught off-guard by a lockdown announced with a four-hour notice.
During these discussions, states had said the option of transporting such large numbers by buses was not practical and some had insisted on getting the Railways to do the job. The Centre ultimately gave in to the growing clamour, but was worried about any such publicity forcing migrants to rush to railway stations and create an administrative and social distancing nightmare.
So finally, when these point-to-point ‘Shramik Special’ trains, carrying at most 1,200 people, left the stations from May 1, the Centre was clear that these were at the sole request of states. States which wished to send the migrants and states which would receive them were involved. The modalities of the entire operation were to be worked out between the concerned states and an order, signed by the principal executive director (coaching), laid down norms on May 2 under which the trains would operate.
Apart from defining how migrants will qualify to be on these trains, how they should be transported to and from the designated railway stations and other details, these norms also included details of how payment for the journey was to be collected.
“Railways shall print train tickets to the specified destination, as per number of passengers indicated by the originating state, and hand them over to the local state government authority. The local state government authority shall hand over the tickets to the passengers cleared by them and collect the ticket fare, and hand over the total amount to the Railways,” the norms stated.
This was a clear indication that the passengers – in this case the migrants, many penniless and at the end of their resources – were to pay their fare. As expected, this insistence on charging the migrants sparked a political row, landing the Railways right in the middle of an ugly war of words.
The Centre, state governments, the Opposition and the aam aadmi have all been flinging allegations at each other through the morning over the need to charge the migrants for their journey home. But it can safely be said that Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s orders to her party to foot the bill of the migrants was what set the cat among the pigeons. Some other Opposition leaders also threw barbs at the central government for its insensitivity.
If you are stuck abroad during this COVID crisis this government will fly you back for free but if you are a migrant worker stranded in another state be prepared to cough up the cost of travel (with social distancing cost added). Where did “PM Cares” go?
— Omar Abdullah (@OmarAbdullah) May 3, 2020
Omar Abdullah tweeted, “If you are stuck abroad during this COVID crisis this government will fly you back for free but if you are a migrant worker stranded in another state be prepared to cough up the cost of travel (with social distancing cost added). Where did “PM Cares” go?”
BJP’s own Subramanian Swamy was critical of the move.
How moronic of the Government of India to charge steep rail fares from the half starved migrant labourers! Indians stranded abroad were brought back free by Air India. If Railways refuse to budge then why not make PM CARES pay instead?
— Subramanian Swamy (@Swamy39) May 4, 2020
So is the Railways actually charging fare from the migrants? This question has had a different answer all through the morning, depending on whom it has been put to. Some migrants say they have been already made to pay the fare for their journey. Some state governments say they have paid for sending the migrants to their home states. Some other state governments say they have paid the fare to receive residents of their state.
But some states want the Centre and the Railways to bear the cost of journey on these ‘Shramik Special’ trains. Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray had on Sunday requested the Centre not to charge any fare from the migrants. The state is taking care of around five lakh migrants and is reluctant to foot the bill of their journey.
Following in the footsteps of ally Congress, RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav offered to bear the expenses of transporting Bihari migrants home.
राष्ट्रीय जनता दल शुरुआती तौर पर बिहार सरकार को अपनी तरफ़ से 50 ट्रेन देने को तैयार है।
हम मज़दूरों की तरफ़ से इन 50 रेलगाड़ियों का किराया असमर्थ बिहार सरकार को देंगे। सरकार आगामी 5 दिनों में ट्रेनों का बंदोबस्त करें, पार्टी इसका किराया तुरंत सरकार के खाते में ट्रांसफ़र करेगी।
— Tejashwi Yadav (@yadavtejashwi) May 4, 2020
After hours of being criticised for its insensitivity in charging the “penniless” migrants, the BJP asserted that the Centre will bear 85 per cent of the cost of their journey. Whatever be the way forward for the migrants and their fraught journey home, till now there seems to have been a convoluted model for charging the fare since Friday morning.
There have been reports about passengers being made to pay for the ‘Shramik Special’ trains leaving the central zone of the Railways; some NGOs are believed to have picked up the tab for trains from the western railway zone. But the Railways has neither confirmed nor denied these reports.
A Railways spokesperson said on Monday morning that “as per the guidelines issued, sending states will pay the consolidated fare to Railways. Sending state may decide to bear this cost or take it from passengers or take it from receiving state after mutual consultation or may charge it to any fund.” He added that the fare being sought is for the sleeper class. Today, four trains were operated from Bengaluru, two from Surat (Gujarat) and three from Kota (Rajasthan).
Further muddying the waters, a senior journalist working for a leading Punjab daily told The Federal that the Punjab government wanted the receiving states to pay the fare for the over six lakh migrants who had registered to leave on the ‘Shramik Special’ trains till Sunday evening.
“But there has been no response from the state governments of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, etc, the receiving states. And there has been no communication till now from the Centre either about bearing any part of the fare burden,” said the journalist, adding that the migrants’ journey from Punjab is slated to begin on Tuesday and the bill comes to about ₹10 crore.
It is apparent from the happening all of today that instead of being patted on the back for the massive operation it mounted to transport lakhs of migrants from host states, the Centre has instead been facing brickbats over the ill-conceived idea of charging these poor people for their journey. The Opposition, led by Sonia Gandhi, seems to have won the battle of perception in this instance.