Political Slugfest Over ‘Homecoming’ Of Migrants: Congress Offers To Pay, Government Says Railways Bearing 85% Of Fares
Migrant workers congregate at a ground waiting for transport to return to their home states. (Source: PTI)

Political Slugfest Over ‘Homecoming’ Of Migrants: Congress Offers To Pay, Government Says Railways Bearing 85% Of Fares

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A political slugfest broke out on Monday over the “homecoming” of stranded migrants after the Congress accused the Bharatiya Janata Party government of charging money from stranded workers and offered to pay for their travel to native places.

The criticism drew a sharp retort from the BJP which said the Indian Railways was already bearing 85 percent of the travel cost and charging only 15 percent from the state governments.

The BJP also accused the Congress of promoting the indiscriminate movement of people which, it said, would lead to “faster spread” of coronavirus infection “just like we saw in Italy”, and asked if this is what Congress Chief Sonia Gandhi wants.

Apart from the Congress, other opposition parties, including the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the National Conference and the Loktantrik Janata Dal have criticised the Centre amidst reports that migrant workers are not able to afford to travel back to their native places.

Accusing the Central government of ignoring the demands made by the Congress for safe and free travel of migrant workers, Sonia Gandhi on Monday announced that party’s state units will bear the cost of rail travel of needy migrants. This, she said, would be the party’s “humble contribution” to show solidarity with these workers who are the backbone of the economy.

Also read: Congress To Bear Cost Of Rail Travel Of Every Needy Migrant Worker: Sonia Gandhi

Other Congress leaders also joined Gandhi to attack the government, saying it brought back those stranded abroad free of cost while making these poor people pay. They also demanded that the PM Cares fund should be used for migrants.

“On one hand, the railways is charging ticket fares from labourers stranded in other states while on the other, the railway ministry is donating Rs 151 crore to the PM-Cares Fund. Just resolve this puzzle,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted.

The BJP hit back saying the railways has subsidised 85 percent of ticket fare for Shramik special trains being run to ferry migrant workers and the state government has to pay the remaining 15 percent.

“Rahul Gandhiji, I have attached guidelines of MHA which clearly states that ‘no tickets to be sold at any station’. The railways has subsidised 85 percent and state governments have to pay 15 percent. The state government can pay for the tickets (Madhya Pradesh's BJP govt is paying). Ask Congress state governments to follow suit," BJP Spokesperson Sambit Patra tweeted.

Patra further said that for each ‘Shramik Express’, about 1,200 tickets are given by the railways to the state government concerned. The state governments are supposed to clear the ticket price and hand over the tickets to workers, he said.

Hitting out at Sonia Gandhi, BJP leader Amit Malviya tweeted, “the Congress is obviously upset at how well India has handled Covid. They would have ideally wanted a lot more people to suffer and die. Promoting indiscriminate movement of people would lead to faster spread of infection, just like we saw in Italy. Is this what Sonia Gandhi wants?”

Also read: Railways Announces Six Special Trains To Ferry Stranded Workers, Students

Mounting a counter-attack on the opposition party, BJP general secretary (organisation) BL Santhosh claimed only Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Kerala governments made migrant labourers pay Rs 1,000 for journey.

In a series of tweets, Santhosh said, “the Congress which runs the first (government), is partner in second, is promoter of the third wakes up early in the morning and issues a statement telling the party will pay for it”. Santhosh claimed that Tripura, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand governments have paid train fare either for their state residents or for trains starting from their state.

“Do states, where these migrant labourers have toiled hard for days, months and years, have no responsibility,” he said.

Meanwhile, at a press conference, joint secretary in the Union health ministry Lav Agarwal said permission has been given to run special trains for stranded people, based on the request of some states.

“The Centre has not ever talked of charging train fare from workers. 85 percent of fare will be borne by Indian Railways, 15 percent by the state government (concerned),” he said.

There was no official reaction from the Indian Railways on the issue, while, off the record, sources dubbed the controversy as “political”. Sources also said that payments for 45 Shramik Special trains that have been run so far have been made by the originating state governments, barring Maharashtra, Kerala and Karnataka.

According to railway sources, states like Rajasthan, Telangana and Gujarat -- from where Shramik Special trains have originated -- are paying on behalf of the the migrant workers, while Jharkhand, which has only received such trains, has also paid for the travel of workers.

The Gujarat government has roped in an NGO to pay part of the travel cost, sources said.

Also read: Work Under MGNREGA Falls To Lowest In Five Years

States like Maharashtra, Kerala and Karnataka -- from where some trains originated -- are charging the labourers for the trips, the sources said.

“Never forget, this is the government which announced a 21-day lockdown with four hours notice. Read the railway guidelines. They clearly say that the sending state has to collect the money. So, basically it means collecting the money from the migrant workers. Sad. This is a classic example of uncooperative federalism. The government has a simple theory --when things are good, the centre takes credit, when things get tough, pass the burden to states,” Trinamool Congress leader Derek O'Brien said.

Urging the government to make meaningful use of the PM-CARES fund and use it for the migrants travelling on Shramik special trains, CPI general secretary D Raja said, “the migrants should go home free of charge and the central government should pay for not only their travel but also other essential facilities (for them).”

Criticising the government, CPI-M leader Sitaram Yechury said, “as the name shows, the new fund is exclusively for those whom Modi cares for. The poor and the vulnerable, the value creators, he clearly doesn't care for. Callous. Cruel. Criminal,”

Also read: How Vulnerable Is India’s Workforce To Lockdown? Crisil Estimates

National Conference president Omar Abdullah also tweeted on Sunday, “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?”.

Opposition leader Sharad Yadav said all sections of society are paying a price for the government's apathy, adding this would not have happened if the lockdown had been imposed in a planned manner.

Yadav also urged the railways to pay the fare for migrants, saying the revenue of states has already fallen down a lot.

The railways rolled out the Shramikspecial trains on Friday to ferry migrants, stranded due to the Covid-19 lockdown, to their respective states.

The government came in for criticism after a circular from the railways said, “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 the railways.”

Terming the Congress president's decision as “historic”, All India Congress Committee general secretary KC Venugopal and chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to shed “false prestige” and come forward in paying for travel of migrants seeking to return home.

Congress leader P Chidambaram said the party’s decision puts the government to shame.

Also read: Coronavirus Lockdown: Government Is Being Tardy And Hesitant On Economic Relief, Says P Chidambaram

On BJP’s criticism, Venugopal said, “we do not want to play politics in this. This is not the time to play politics. Those who are having no money are unable to travel in these trains, that is why our Karnataka PCC has paid for them. This is there in Kerala, where migrants do not have money to pay.”

Earlier in the day, two special trains carrying over 2,000 migrant workers stranded in Maharashtra reached Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, officials said.

The railways is charging the fare of sleeper class tickets in mail/express trains, plus a super-fast charge of Rs 30 and an additional charge of Rs 20 for the Shramik special trains.

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