After weeks of confusion, the central government finally announced on Friday that it has approved special trains to ferry stranded migrant workers back to their home states. However, now a controversy has broken out over who is actually paying for the expenses of the journey.
While opposition parties, especially the Congress, lashed out over initial guidelines that said migrants themselves had to pay for their way home, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Monday said the Railways has subsidised 85% of ticket fare and the state government has to pay the remaining 15%.
BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra tweeted what he claimed was Home Ministry guidelines that stated “no tickets to be sold at any station”. He also said that the state government concerned can also pay for the tickets and Madhya Pradesh government is doing so.
He was responding to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s tweet about how the Railways was charging ticket fare from migrant workers—most of whom have been out of work during the lockdown—even as it donated over Rs 151 crore to the PM-CARES Fund.
However, journalists have pointed out that Patra had tweeted a press release, not official guidelines, and that the guidelines were to be framed by the Indian Railways.
Many key decisions made by the Narendra Modi government concerning the lockdown have been characterised by similar confusion and subsequent clarifications.
On Monday, BJP MP Subramanian Swamy, who had initially tweeted outrage at workers being forced to pay rail fares, later claimed that they would not have to pay for their tickets. “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,” he tweeted.
In the daily press briefing on Monday, Lav Agarwal, Joint Secretary in the Health Ministry, also repeated the BJP’s claims and said the centre never mentioned it would charge fares from migrant workers. “Railways is bearing 85% of the cost of transportation of migrants while states have to pay 15%,” he added. Journalists, however, have asked for further clarification from the Centre and requested a copy of the order where it clearly stated that Railways will bear 85% of the cost.
While the centre is yet to clarify, reports indicate that state governments—which have anyway been struggling to manage the healthcare costs from Covid-19 and economic impact of the lockdown—had been left to figure out how to reimburse the centre for the tickets.
Who will ‘clear the ticket price’?
Patra also tweeted that for each ‘Shramik Express’—the special trains being run for migrants—about 1,200 tickets to the destination are being handed by the railways to the state government concerned.
State governments are supposed to “clear the ticket price” and hand over the tickets to workers, he said.
The centre had received severe flak over a provision in the guidelines on Sunday that 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.”
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, according to PTI. It will, however, provide one meal to passengers whose journey will be of 12 hours or more.
Railway Board Chairman VK Yadav told The Indian Express that states were trying out different ways of financing the services. “We see three-four models emerging. In many places, employers of labourers have given them the money to go home while in some places, NGOs have sponsored. There are originating states which are paying, and then there are destination states paying to originating states. The services have just started, so the process will get established slowly,” he said.
Another railways official told Business Standard that as per the guidelines issued, the home state 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. It is purely their prerogative. Without a ticket, passengers cannot go, so we are issuing tickets to each passenger,” the official said.
What states said
Some states have requested the centre to not charge the migrants for the travel. Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, in a communication to the centre late on Sunday night, said “these people have no source of income since last some weeks. Hence, on humanitarian ground, the Centre should not charge them for travelling.”
Many NGOs, social workers and individuals have come forward to bear the cost of train tickets for migrant labourers, he said, according to PTI.
Talking to NDTV, Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren had echoed the same view. “We should not be asking migrants to pay for the tickets. They are in any case distressed. If the Centre does not, then the Jharkhand government will look for ways to make this payment but we will certainly not ask the migrants to pay,” he had said.
Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel termed it “ridiculous” for the Centre to ask states to pay the fare. “This is ridiculous to ask states to pay for bringing stranded migrant workers home. 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 at E-Agenda Aaj Tak event.
A senior functionary in the Chhattisgarh government was quoted as saying by NDTV that the Centre seems to be passing on financial stress to the states at a time when the collection of GST is at an all-time low. “What else is PM Cares for?” he asked.
Hitting out at the Union government, 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 told PTI.
In its editorial on Monday, Hindustan Times also said that there is little clarity over whether states need to book trains and pay upfront, or pay later. “Left on their devices, different states are trying out different mechanisms for payments: Either raising money or charging it from poor migrant workers.”
This is because, it said, states are already facing huge funds crunch due to the high expenses incurred for tackling the coronavirus. The editorial suggested that the controversy could have been avoided if the Centre and the states had formulated a cost-sharing plan. The Centre should have taken the lead in formulating a plan and better still, it should have taken care of the entire cost, the editorial added.
Congress offers to pay
Congress president Sonia Gandhi on Monday announced the party’s decision to bear the cost of the train fare of migrant workers. She said Congress’s state units will work out the modalities of paying the Railways after coordinating with chief secretaries, according to PTI.
Congress general secretary (organisation) KC Venugopal said the state PCC in Karnataka has already made a beginning by depositing Rs 1 crore with the state chief secretary and would provide more in case required.
(With PTI inputs)