Following an outcry over its move to force migrant laborers seeking to return to their home states to pay their own train fares, the Indian government said on Monday that it was not the intention.
Millions of migrants, including daily-wage laborers, were stranded in the cities with no means of income after India went into lockdown on March 25 to curb the spread of coronavirus.
While thousands of them fled to their home villages on foot when the lockdown was announced, many others still remain stuck in the cities.
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After the first 40-day long lockdown was over, the government launched new “Shramik Special” trains which started operation from "Labour Day" on Friday to move the migrant workers to their home states.
But there have been several reports about migrants workers being charged for their train fares.
The special train tickets that can cost about 800 rupees ($11) was a burden on most of the daily-wage earners who have been surviving on state handouts after their income plummeted as a result of the lockdown.
According to a report by the Stranded Workers Action Network (Swan) 50 percent of them only had rations left for less than a day. And almost half of them have no food or money and around 80 percent of them had not received any sort of income since the lockdown began.
Therefore, the government’s move to force migrant laborers to pay their train fares has prompted derision.
The government officials initially defended the decision, saying it was necessary to ensure that only those who were "really stranded" would use the train services.
A government circular on Friday asked local officials to collect the ticket fare and hand over the total amount to the railways.
“Making the service free would make it difficult to screen people, and that the service was only intended for migrant workers and stranded students,” Railway Board chairman VK Yadav told a local newspaper.
Opposition politicians reacted with incredulity to the decision. Several political parties and civil society members criticized the decision calling it "inhuman" and the main opposition Congress party even offered to pay the fares.
The party president Sonia Gandhi said the Congress would make arrangements to pay the fares as a gesture of "solidarity".
The National Conference leader, Omar Abdullah, tweeted: “If you are stuck abroad … the government will fly you back for free, but if you are a migrant worker stranded in another state, be prepared to cough up the money for the cost of travel.”
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
The Samajwadi party leader, Akhilesh Yadav, called the decision “highly shameful”.
This pushed the government into the defensive. Government sources on Monday clarified that most of the states are paying for their travel.
The ruling BJP said on Monday the railways subsidized 85 percent of ticket fare for the special trains and the state government had to pay the remaining 15 percent.
As per sources, the government has listed the payment mode as per which most of the states are paying for operations of the special Shramik Special trains to ferry stranded migrants.
In a tweet, BJP MP Subramanian Swamy said that migrant workers would not have to pay money as the rail travel will be free from now onwards.
Swamy, in a tweet, said, “Talked to Piyush Goel office. Govt will pay 85 percent and State Govt 15 percent. Migrant labor 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
Health Ministry Joint Secretary Lav Agarwal told reporters the government “never asked states to charge money from the stranded laborers,“ instead asking them to split the cost between themselves and the train operators, NDTV reported.
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