Coronavirus Lockdown: Congress paying for stranded migrants' return train fare is humanitarianism wrapped in deft politics
The Centre’s decision to charge fares from migrants, which include a surcharge of Rs 50 — one a ‘superfast’ levy of Rs 30 and the additional charge of Rs 20 — has attracted, not surprisingly, condemnation across the board.
The Congress on Monday ‘has taken a decision that every Pradesh Congress Committee [PCC] will bear the cost of the rail travel of every needy worker and migrant labourer’. This is a very apposite humanitarian gesture and politically clued move.
As we all know, millions of migrant workers had been stuck in their places of work, almost universally without jobs and wages, for close to five weeks: from 25 March to 1 May, when the first trains started rolling to transport them back to their homes. Many are awaiting their turn, but unforeseen circumstances may yet ambush them.
After the lockdown was announced, many migrants managed to make the perilous journey back home usually on foot, but when luck favoured on assorted modes of transport, including buses, trucks and, in one case, on a goods train, which took them farther away from home, following some miscommunication. Most never made it out of their ‘host’ states and many others were intercepted en route and sheltered in transit camps set up for that very purpose.
Those in the camps got food and shelter, though not always of the kind that would be deemed ideal, while those who couldn’t, or didn’t, leave have not only had to feed themselves from steadily diminishing funds, but have also had to pay rents or face eviction. Their families deprived of financial support, too, suffered. It was reported on 4 May that some migrant workers from West Bengal, stuck in Noida and Secunderabad were not being able to leave because they owed rents they did not have the wherewithal to pay.
The decision to pay the fares of migrant workers taken by Congress is a big gesture. It was presaged by the Karnataka PCC’s decision to give a Rs 1 crore cheque on Sunday to the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) to foot the bill for bus rides within the state for returning migrants. The provocation for this gesture was the Karnataka’s decision to charge migrants double the normal fare, one presumes to budget for a two-way passage one of which would not have passengers.
On Saturday, the Karnataka government had countermanded this decision after a barrage of all-round criticism. On Sunday, it announced that all intra-state rides would be free. Though the government claims this decision was announced before the Congress delegation reached the KSRTC office with the cheque, which was refused, the near simultaneity was remarkable. A Karnataka minister described Congress’ gesture as ‘condemnable’, though he did not quite make clear why he thought so.
The Centre’s decision to charge fares from migrants, which include a surcharge of Rs 50 — one a ‘superfast’ levy of Rs 30 and the additional charge of Rs 20 — has attracted, not surprisingly, condemnation across the board. National Conference leader Omar Abdullah’s response was particularly apropos. He 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?"
Senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Subramanian Swamy echoed Abdullah’s sentiments, in a more scathing vein. "How moronic of the Government of India to charge steep rail fares from the half-starved migrant labourers! Indians stranded abroad were brought back free by Air India. If Railways refuse to budge then why not make PM CARES pay instead?" he tweeted.
An Indian Railways official has been quoted in The Times of India (‘Special trains’ fare burden on states, oppn slams govt’, 4 May 2020) as saying that it was up to the ‘sending’ states to decide how to pay the fares due and the two state governments involved could work out the modalities.
Like Swamy and Abdullah, a host of Opposition has condemned the decision to charge already indigent people who have already suffered the worst of the rigours of the hastily announced lockdown. On Monday, Congress MP Rahul Gandhi expressed bewilderment in a tweet: "On the one hand, the Railways is charging ticket fare from migrant workers stranded in various states of the country, on the other hand, the Ministry of Railways is donating Rs 151 crore in PM-CARES Fund. Solve this puzzle!" For the record, media reports have pointed out that the railways had, indeed, given this sum to the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM CARES Fund).
Whether or not the Indian Railways did make such a donation is strictly speaking irrelevant in the current situation. It was, surely, incumbent on the Central government to allow the migrant workers free passage, given that many of them, and their families, are on the brink of endemic hunger, if not starvation.
The fact that state governments moved to bring back students from Kota in Rajasthan, to their home states, across the board, with many state governments footing the bill for these trips, while migrant workers languished, has not exactly burnished India’s credentials as a democracy committed to the welfare of its most vulnerable citizens.
As for the matter at hand, there can be little to quibble at over the criticism that money from the PM CARES Fund, or elsewhere, has not been, or is not being used, to finance the fairly trifling cost of ferrying migrant labourers back home. The finances of many states are already parlous, given the additional burdens, they are facing, combined with precipitate losses of revenue.
Imposing costs upon them, including the onus of ‘bilateral’ negotiations to work out cost-sharing formulae, is unfair on them and the migrants, who might find themselves stuck while negotiations proceed between ‘sending’ and ‘receiving’ states. It is also unclear at the moment, notwithstanding the Congress’ decision, who will pay the fare at the time of entrainment. If this is not a fit case for citizens’ ‘assistance and relief in emergency situations’ it is truly difficult to imagine what would fit the bill.
Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.
Arsenal's head of football Raul Sanllehi and managing director Vinai Venkatesham assured supporters in their statement that investment into the team will continue, despite the loss of jobs
The 36 clubs in Bundesliga's top two men's divisions held a virtual meeting on Tuesday to define a broad outline for the leagues. The exact number of fans allowed could vary by club.
Coronavirus Updates: Assam reports 1,123 new cases in 24 hrs; positivity rate at 4.58%, says health minister
Coronavirus Updates: Assam has 18,098 active COVID-19 cases at present while 145 persons have succumbed to the infection, said state health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma