The PM Modi led Central government faced a lot of condemnation and criticism for charging migrant workers a fare to transport them back to their respective states amid the ongoing nationwide lockdown.
As the heat from the Opposition began to upscale and the news became a focal point of media discussions, the Union Health Ministry’s Joint Secretary Lav Agarwal was compelled to give an explanation on the matter. During an interaction with reporters he stated, “Be it the government of India or the Railways, we have not talked about charging from the workers. Eighty-five percent of the transportation cost is borne by the Railways, while states have to bear 15% of the cost.”
Agarwal’s statement was used as a tool by the PM Narendra Modi led BJP government to make its defence against the accusations from the Opposition sound loud and clear.
Many from the ruling establishment had earlier circulated the untruth that migrant workers were not being charged with a fare at all, at a time when many reports that surfaced in the media clearly showed that migrants who boarded the Shramik Special Train to ferry them back to their native states had already been made to pay for their tickets before boarding the trains.
While the Opposition went on with its attack of the Centre, the supporters and proponents of the Centre began to take the statements made by Mr. Agarwal at face value and blamed the Opposition for blowing the discussion out of proportions.
The Centre also engaged in a counter-blaming act against the Opposition and said that states like Kerala, Maharashtra and Rajasthan(all three of these states are governed by the Opposition)were charging rail fare from the migrants. What really is the truth behind this raging controversy? Where the migrants charged? Who paid for the rail fare for these special Shramik trains?
The Context: Plight of Migrant Workers Stranded Without Livelihood
We are aware of the plight of lakhs of migrant workers who have been stranded in different corners of the country amid the lockdown. These migrant workers are primarily dependent on daily wages for survival and as all major factories/industrial units/construction sites and other avenues of employment are closed at this moment, they are clearly left without any source of income. They are not among a section of the population that has enough savings to bank upon and in the absence of social security nets, they are worried and exceedingly anxious about their survival. These stranded migrant workers have no access to proper food or shelter amid the lockdown.
In fact we have continuously been seeing streams of visuals of desperate workers walking towards their homes.
The Central government faced enough criticism for not making adequate arrangements for transporting these migrant workers to their native villages and towns and for imposing the lockdown without ensuring that adequate strategies are in place to take care of the sustenance of these workers and their respective families when the informal sector(that is the major employer for the migrant class) faces a gigantic blow in the phase of the lockdown.
It was on May 1 that the government finally paid heed to the criticism being flared at it and decided to allow the movement of migrant workers by organising special trains for transporting them to their native hometowns/states . But after this when the Indian Railways made public its guidelines for travel, the government received further criticism.
The guidelines issued by the Indian Railways said-
“ Railways shall print tickets to the specified destination, as per number of passengers indicated by the originating state and hand them over to the local state government authority. The local state government authority shall handover the tickets to the passengers cleared by them and collect the ticket fare and hand over the total amount to the Railways.”
The government brought back to India many stranded tourists from abroad in special planes for free but the fact that the Centre could not arrange for free travel of migrant workers has generated much controversy. The Opposition parties went on to call the government “insensitive” and “inhuman” because it was making the poorest of the poor pay and at a time when the economic hardship had hit them the worst of all and they had no money on them to sustain them through the lockdown.
Centre’s Damage Control Amid Public Flak
The government was totally at a loss of words because the allegations made by the Opposition and the guidelines issued by the Indian Railways had clearly highlighted the issue.
Caught on the back foot, the Centre engaged in some sort of a damage control.
But despite claiming that the Centre is going to bear 85% of the unsubsidised ticket fare, the government has not been taking out even a single extra penny from its reserves. It has not issued any statement on paying anything right away at the present.
The Centre has given the entire burden to the state governments, who in the first place had been pleading the Centre for arranging transport for ferrying the migrant workers.
A spokesperson of the ruling party even went on to say that the state governments were free to charge the migrant workers or dig up their own reserves to pay back the railways. The spokesperson also said that many BJP ruled states such as UP, Tripura had already agreed to pay for the transportation of the migrants and that it was only the Congress-ruled states that were blowing a small matter out of proportion. However, it is interesting to note that even the decision of the BJP ruled state governments to pay for the travel of the migrants came only a day after the Congress launched an attack on the ruling party and said that the state units of the Congress would pay for the tickets of the migrant workers.
Even before the states ruled by BJP announced their decision, many non-BJP states such as Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand had articulated their decision of not charging from the migrants and that they were ready to reimburse the railways from their respective state budgets. Thus contrary to popular claims, so far the travel of migrant workers from one state to another is anything but free.
The Centre’s apathy and indecisiveness over the last many weeks has been extremely damaging for the Indian working class which is already at a complete loss in the face of the nationwide lockdown.
The sufferings of the migrant class have been largely looked over and their sense of abject poverty and loss have seldom been responded to with decisive clarity and an action oriented remedial strategy.
The issue of charging a fare for transportation from already impoverished and helpless migrants is nothing but another reflection of administrative indifference and the lack of welfarist will.
Wasim Mirza is a contributing writer to The New Leam. She is also a Culture Historian – based in Hyderabad, India.
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