It took a nuanced decision by the Congress to make the Central government clear its position on paying for migrant workers’ train journeys back home.
Ending its ambivalence on transporting them on Shramik Special trains during the lockdown, the Union government on Monday said their travel was free and the cost for it would be shared by the Centre and the states.
This was after the government came under political pressure, with Congress President Sonia Gandhi instructing the state units of the party to bear the cost of such rail travel.
Gandhi criticised the railways’ move to donate to the PM’s corona fund, while continuing to charge the migrants.
“When our government can recognise its responsibility by arranging free air travel for our citizens stranded abroad, when the Government can spend nearly Rs 100 crore on transport and food etc. for just one public programme in Gujarat, when the Rail Ministry has the largesse to donate Rs 151 crore to the PM’s Corona fund, then why can’t these essential members of our nation’s fabric be given a fraction of the same courtesy, especially free rail travel, at this hour of acute distress?” she said in her letter.
Starting May 1, labourers were being charged sleeper-class fares of superfast trains and an additional Rs 50 to send them to their destination.
While the Congress scored political points, the government by evening stated it was not charging the stranded. Addressing a conference, a government spokesperson said: “Neither the government, nor the Railways had indicated charging the workers.
Of the transportation cost, 85 per cent the Railways will bear, and the states the remaining 15 per cent.” BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra also said the Indian Railways and the states had paid for the journeys and no one was being charged. BJP leader Subramanian Swamy tweeted that he had a word with the office of Railways Minister Piyush Goyal and the government would waive the charges for migrants.
A former financial commissioner of the Railways said the finance ministry should compensate the railways for the expenses because the national transporter had been losing business due to the lockdown. Since March 25, the railways’ passenger earnings have been nil while its freight earnings dropped 42 per cent in the first 20 days of April over the same period last financial year. In March, passenger earnings had dropped 62 per cent, while freight earnings dipped by 38 per cent over the same month last year.
On May 1, the Indian Railways had said in a notification that passengers would pay the fares of sleeper class in mail/express trains. This came with an additional charge of Rs 20 and superfast charge of Rs 30.
Following this, some state governments were paying the national transporter the fares, while others were charging the migrants.