Congress’ move to sponsor rail fare for migrants sparks political tussle

NEW DELHI :
Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s decision on Monday to sponsor the rail journeys of migrants going home has led other political parties and some state governments to make similar contributions.

The Congress would take care of the rail travel costs of migrants and the needy, starting next week, as part of a “humble contribution” to help these people, Gandhi said.

“There needs to be provisions for safe and free rail travel of migrant workers and labourers to their home-towns. However, despite our repeated demands, the central government and the rail ministry have chosen to completely ignore this,” Gandhi said. State units of the party will take care of the expenses “in service of our compatriots and to stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with them”, she said.

This comes in the wake of railway officials saying that states would have to bear the travel costs of migrants.

Several Congress state units pledged monetary help and, later in the day, Gandhi issued a video statement addressing migrants.

The Congress and key opposition parties, including the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, and the Trinamool Congress have been raising the issue of migrants and the need for ensuring their safe return to their home states.

“I want to thank the Centre for considering the suggestion to run special trains to send the people of Bihar who are stranded in other states back. Nobody will have to pay for the tickets. A quarantine centre has been set up here for them. All of them will be staying at quarantine centres for 21 days, after which they will be given a minimum of 1,000 each by the Bihar government. Under this scheme, 1,000 has been already given to 1.9 million people in the state,” Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar said on Monday.

Three Congress-ruled states, including Chhattisgarh, Punjab, and Rajasthan, have also announced that the state governments will bear the travel expenses of stranded labourers.

The Railways is charging sleeper class ticket fares, plus a super-fast charge of 30 and an additional charge of 20 for the Shramik Special (migrants special) trains. Guidelines issued by the Indian Railways said that “local state governments shall handover the tickets for these passengers cleared by them and collect the ticket fare and hand over the total amount to Railways”.

“As the central government barely gave a four-hour notice before the lockdown, workers and migrant labourers were denied the opportunity to go home. Post the 1947 Partition, this is the first time India has witnessed a tragedy with such a massive human cost,” Gandhi said.

“What is the responsibility of our government? Even today, lakhs of workers and migrant labourers are languishing in different parts of the country and wish to return to their families. However, there is neither adequate money nor provision for free transport,” she said.

The union government has money for arranging travel of those stranded abroad, but not for free rail travel in this scenario, she pointed out.

However, the Union government on Monday said that passengers travelling on the Shramik Special trains are not being charged at all. “As far as the travel cost is concerned, the Railways is bearing 85% of the cost, with the rest being borne by respective state governments. This is what was agreed upon,” a senior official said, adding that only Kerala and Maharashtra have been charging passengers, while other states are not.

anuja@livemint.com

Shreya Nandi contributed to this story.

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