Why Were Migrant Workers Charged Train Fare if the Govt Was Planning “Free Travel”?


Why Were Migrant Workers Charged Train Fare if the Govt Was Planning “Free Travel”?

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

On May 1, thousands of migrant workers stranded in states across India due to the nationwide lockdown finally got an opportunity to return home as special trains were announced for their transport. However, barely a few days since the first of these trains began running, a controversy has emerged after Congress’s Sonia Gandhi called out the Centre for charging migrant workers a railway fare, and announcing that her party would pay for their travel.

The government responded to Gandhi’s statement by clarifying through BJP party leader Subramanian Swamy that the Centre would be paying 85 per cent of the fare, while state governments were expected to pay the remaining 15 per cent.

However, this clarification only came after Gandhi’s statement ended up portraying the government in a poor light. Also, the clarification contradicts an official circular, released on May 2, from the Railway Board that clearly states, “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”.

Even the BJP’s stance that the Centre is “paying” 85 per cent of the fare is not what it appears on the surface. A report published on The News Minute states that the Railways are giving tickets to state governments and asking them to pay the fares for the full train in advance. Meanwhile, since trains usually run on a 57 per cent subsidy, the BJP is taking this figure, plus adding a little to compensate for the trains running under capacity to ensure social distancing, and claiming it as an 85 per cent subsidy granted by the central government. BJP leader BL Santhosh made this clear in a tweet explaining how the Centre arrived at its 85 per cent subsidy figure.

While state governments and the Centre are involved in this back-and-forth over the train tickets, the migrant workers themselves have come forward to say that they have been charged for their transport. Reports have emerged from Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, where journalists have met with the passengers of these special trains who testified that they had to pay the ticket fare before boarding. A police officer from Bhiwandi said that workers were charged ₹800 per ticket.

According to a report in Ahmedabad Mirror, of the 20 migrants they spoke to, everyone except those heading for Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand had to pay for their tickets. The others were travelling to UP, Odisha, and Madhya Pradesh.

However, conflicting reports emerged through the day, with Times Now claiming that Kerala, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan were making labourers pay for their tickets. Interestingly, these are the states in which the BJP is not in power.

In Bihar, Chief Minister Nitesh Kumar said that the workers will be reimbursed for their tickets and will get an additional 50 rupees for their journey home. Kumar’s decision comes hours after Tejashwi Yadav, the 30-year-old leader of Bihar’s opposition party RJD, offered to pay for all the passengers of 50 trains.

Even as the issue gets politicised, it looks like there is no end to the woes of India’s migrant labourers who have been worst-hit by the lockdown.