Congress' barbs over migrant workers only partly justified, but Indian Railways lost chance to earn goodwill
Could the Centre or the Railways have borne the full expenses of the tickets? In these critical times, they surely should have done so.
In the context of the Shramik Special trains, the Indian Railways said on Monday that the 'sending state' should pay the fare to it, and the state could decide whether to bear the cost or take it from passengers.
In principle, there is nothing wrong with this stand. After all, state governments had demanded special trains so that lakhs of migrants workers stranded due to the lockdown could go back home. These migrants were stuck in difficult situations and were desperate to go back to their natives states. This issue was raised on many occasions, including during meetings of chief ministers with the prime minister.
Earlier, the governments of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh had borne the cost of the travel of students who returned home from Rajasthan's Kota. Possibly, this may have led the Railways to believe that states would have no objection to paying for the transportation of migrant workers.
Indeed, if passengers are not to be charged, then either the Centre or the states have to bear the expenses.
The payment mechanism can serve to ensure that only those who registered with the appropriate authorities can board the train. It can also help create a useful database on the origin points and destination points of the trains, and the number of migrants who travelled on them. On the basis of this, other facilities such as health checkups and quarantine facilities near the homes of the returning migrants can be set up.
The payment mechanism was also meant to avoid chaos at railway stations and inside trains.
In this context, let us consider the allegations that Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have made against the Centre. The Congress leaders have claimed that migrant workers were asked to pay for their journey back home at a time when they have been reduced to penury. Their allegations are party correct and partly wrong.
The first Shramik Special train travelled from Lingampally in Telangana to Hatia in Jharkhand on the morning of 1 May. At the time, the K Chandrashekar Rao government in Telangana paid the expenses of the journey to the Railways. In fact, sources say that the state government also insisted on paying for for food and water, although the Railways had earlier promised to do that.
The process that was to be followed was that the Railways would give tickets in bulk to the local administration and receive the fare from the administration as well. Although the tickets would mention the fare, it would not be chargeable to individual passengers. As per the Railways, either the sending or the receiving state could pay the fare directly, or the sending state could pay the fare through NGOs.
The problem began when the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Aghadi government in Maharashtra and the CPM-led Kerala government recovered the ticket fares from migrant workers. According to sources, in Mumbai, the problem arose only with respect to trains which were run by the Central Railway. Meanwhile, some states that are receiving migrants in large numbers — such as Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand — have announced that they would pay the fare directly to the Railways. In states where the Congress is in power, Sonia Gandhi has asked Pradesh Congress committees to pay the amount.
Meanwhile, this issue is being milked for political gains. The Congress’ strident attack has put the Narendra Modi government on the defensive, something that has not happened in a long time. Nevertheless, Rahul Gandhi was not justified in pointing out that the Railways contributed Rs 151 crore to the PM-CARES fund, as the contribution was made by employees who took a one-day pay cut. However, his other charges carried more weight and forced the BJP to carry out fire-fighting efforts. The saffron party took pains to claims that the Centre was paying for 85 percent of the cost and the states were asked to pay 15 percent. Later, several BJP-ruled states that they would pay for migrants' journeys.
Could the Centre and the Railways have avoided this controversy? Yes, certainly. Could they have avoided printing the fare on the ticket? Perhaps yes, because they were seeking payment from the states, not directly from the passenger. Also, could the Centre or the Railways have borne the full expenses of the tickets? In these critical times, they surely should have done so.
In recent times, the Railways had earned laurels for its initiatives to fight coronavirus, including using trains to create quarantine facilities, making masks, PPEs, etc. However, it could have avoided the controversy over the ticket fares of migrants. It had an opportunity to earn public goodwill, but squandered it.
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