The imposition of travel fare on migrant workers going home on special trains has been criticised by several Opposition leaders and chief ministers, who have urged the Centre to completely waive the rail fare of homebound migrants.
Taking a cue, the BJP said on Monday (May 4) that the Indian Railways had slashed the fare by 85 per cent and the state government had to pay the remaining 15 per cent.
The flak comes in the backdrop of the Indian Railways, on Sunday (May 3), issuing a set of guidelines for Shramik Special trains being run to ferry migrants stranded across the country. The railways had said trains would ply only on 90 per cent occupancy and the ‘states should collect the ticket fare,’ inviting fierce criticism.
In a statement issued by the Congress, party president Sonia Gandhi, extended a helping hand and announced that its state units would bear the cost of rail travel for the needy migrant workers.
Statement Of Congress President Smt. Sonia Gandhi
The Indian National Congress has
taken a decision that every Pradesh
Congress Committee shall bear the cost for the rail travel of every needy worker and migrant labourer and shall take necessary steps in this regard pic.twitter.com/kxruKa0xgI
— Congress (@INCIndia) May 4, 2020
She said this would be the Congress’ humble contribution in standing shoulder to shoulder with these workers.
Concurring with Gandhi’s statement, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray on Sunday (May 3) requested the Centre not to charge any amount from migrant labourers for travelling by train to their native places during the coronavirus-enforced lockdown.
“These people had no income in the past weeks. Hence, on humanitarian ground, the Centre should not charge them for travelling,” the chief minister said.
Meanwhile, Rajasthan Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot demanded the Railways bear the travel cost on humanitarian grounds since the workers were already facing economic hardships due to job loss amid the COVID-19 lockdown.
However, commenting on the issue, Railway Board Chairman VK Yadav told The Indian Express that it was a conscious decision to charge the migrants so as to keep track of who is boarding the special trains.
“Problem is once you make services free, everyone is eligible to travel. Then who is coming to the stations; who all are travelling would become a problem to track. This service is for stranded migrant workers, students etc only and they are allowed to travel only after thorough screening. These trains are not for the general public. So we are charging just nominal fare,” he said.
Responding to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s attack on the railways for charging poor migrant labourers ticket fare, even as it donated over ₹151 crore to the PM-CARES Fund, BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra tweeted, “Rahul Gandhi ji, I have attached guidelines of MHA which clearly states that No tickets to be sold at any station. Railways has subsidised 85% & state govt to pay 15%. The state govt can pay for the tickets (Madhya Pradesh’s BJP govt is paying). Ask Cong state govts to follow suit.”
Rahul Gandhi ji,
I have attached guidelines of MHA which clearly states that “No tickets to be sold at any station”
Railways has subsidised 85% & State govt to pay 15%
The State govt can pay for the tickets(Madhya Pradesh’s BJP govt is paying)
Ask Cong state govts to follow suit https://t.co/Hc9pQzy8kQ pic.twitter.com/2RIAMyQyjs
— Sambit Patra (@sambitswaraj) May 4, 2020
In a tweet, BJP MP Subramanian Swamy urged the Centre to use funds from PM-CARES to pay for the migrants.
“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?” he tweeted.
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
Earlier in the day, Swamy claimed that migrant workers returning home will not have to pay money as the travel would be free from now onwards. Swamy, in a tweet, said, “Talked to Piyush Goel office. Govt will pay 85% and State Govt 15%. Migrant labour will go free. Ministry will clarify with an official statement.”
Talked Piyush Goel office. Govt will pay 85% and State Govt 15% . Migrant labour will go free. Ministry will clarify with an official statement
— Subramanian Swamy (@Swamy39) May 4, 2020
Earlier, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel called the Centre’s move of making the state governments pay the fare “ridiculous,” since “the railways belong to the central government and these migrant workers are Indian citizens.”
“It is unfair to ask states to bear the cost of their travel,” Baghel said during Aaj Tak’s special programme e-Agenda.
A provision in the SOP, which drew a good deal of flak from the opposition party leaders, said the “local state government shall handover the tickets for these passengers cleared by them and collect the ticket fare and hand over the total amount to Railways.”
Targetting the Centre’s move of sending free of cost rescue flights to other countries, NC leader 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? Like I said earlier you were better off getting stranded overseas & flown back home!”
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
In the SOP, the railways said the responsibility for food, security, health scanning, providing tickets to the stranded will be with the state from which the train is originating. It has however taken the burden of providing one meal to passengers whose journey will be of 12 hours or more.
While railways has refused to comment on the issue of payments, stating it is a state matter, sources said Jharkhand, which has received two trains till now, has paid its dues.
Originating states like Rajasthan and Telangana are also paying for the travel of workers in their states. Gujarat, the sources said, has roped in an NGO to pay for part of the services. However, they said, Maharashtra is making the migrants pay some amount of the fare.
In fact, Maharashtra Minister Nitin Raut wrote to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, requesting him to bear the cost of tickets.
Railways is charging the fare of sleeper class tickets, plus a super-fast charge of ₹30 and an additional charge of ₹20 for the Shramik Specials.
Hitting out at the Union government for burdening the states, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury said the situation with migrant workers was a result of the Centre’s abrupt announcement of a lockdown.
“It is very unfair that the entire responsibility has been shifted to state governments. This problem was not caused by states. In Parliament, the government said it bore the entire cost of repatriating Indians stuck abroad. In the same manner the migrants should have been sent back.
“Anyway, thousands of crores have been directed to PM-CARES,” Yechury said.
Railways rolled out the special trains on Friday. Normally, it said in the guidelines, the trains will be run for distances more than 500 km and will not stop at any station before the destination. Each train with full-length composition with social distancing (not counting the middle berths) can carry about 1,200 passengers.
“The originating state shall plan the group of travellers accordingly. The occupancy of train should not be less than 90 per cent. Railways shall print train tickets to the specified destination, as per number of passengers indicated by originating state and hand them over to the local state government authority.
— ANI UP (@ANINewsUP) May 4, 2020
“The local state government authority shall handover tickets to passengers cleared by them and collect the ticket fare and hand over the total amount to Railways,” the guidelines added.
The state government shall issue food packets and drinking water at the originating points, it said. It will be mandatory for all passengers to wear face covers.
“The originating state will encourage all passengers to download and use Aarogya Setu App,” it said.
At the destination, passengers will be received by state government authorities, who would arrange for their screening, quarantine, if necessary, and further travel.
“Railways reserves the right to discontinue Shramik Special train operations if safety, security and hygiene protocols are flouted at any stage,” the guidelines issued to all zonal general managers said.
Railways has denied charging the migrants and said they are dealing only with state governments. And officials said it was not possible to waive these charges as the national transporter was incurring running charges as well as cost of meals.
Our trains are coming back empty. The charges we have levied are nominal, an official said.
However, criticising the decision to charge for the travels, SP leader Akhilesh Yadav said exploiting the poor during a disaster is the “job of money lenders, not the government”.
“The news of the BJP government taking money from the poor, helpless labourers going back home by train is very shameful. It has become clear that the BJP, which pardons billions to capitalists, is with the rich and against the poor. Exploiting during a disaster is the job of money lenders, not the government,” he tweeted in Hindi.
ट्रेन से वापस घर ले जाए जा रहे गरीब, बेबस मज़दूरों से भाजपा सरकार द्वारा पैसे लिए जाने की ख़बर बेहद शर्मनाक है. आज साफ़ हो गया है कि पूँजीपतियों का अरबों माफ़ करनेवाली भाजपा अमीरों के साथ है और गरीबों के ख़िलाफ़.
विपत्ति के समय शोषण करना सूदखोरों का काम होता है, सरकार का नहीं.
— Akhilesh Yadav (@yadavakhilesh) May 3, 2020
Karnataka Congress president D K Shivakumar said his party was ready to provide aid to the state government for payment of the train fare.
“Giving ₹1 crore cheque to KSRTC from the KPCC for ensuring Free Transport to our working class & labour people who are suffering to reach home because of the rates being charged by the Karnataka Govt. Govt should let us know if they need more, the KPCC will fulfil that as well,” he tweeted.
Giving ₹1 crore cheque to KSRTC from the KPCC for ensuring Free Transport to our working class & labour people who are suffering to reach home because of the rates being charged by the Karnataka Govt.
Govt should let us know if they need more, the KPCC will fulfill that as well pic.twitter.com/rMIofvMLRY
— DK Shivakumar (@DKShivakumar) May 3, 2020
Railways ran five trains on Friday, the first day of operations of the Shramik Specials, followed by 10 on Saturday. For Sunday, it had planned 25 trains, but ran around 10 including two each to Bihar and Jharkhand, one each to Bhubaneshwar and Lucknow.
On Monday, it will run its first train to West Bengal.
(With inputs from agencies)