New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government’s decision to make stranded migrants pay for their own tickets on special trains arranged to take them to their home states triggered a massive controversy Monday, as the Congress latched on to the issue and offered to pay for their travel instead.
While the central government and the BJP sought to put an end to the controversy by stating that the Union railway ministry is bearing 85 per cent of the travel costs, and states are paying the remaining 15 per cent, railway ministry officials told ThePrint that there is no official communication stating this, or explaining the break-up of costs.
The government decided to run a total of 100 trains to ferry stranded migrants to their home states, and as of Monday, 31 trains have already run. In his daily press briefing, Joint Secretary, Health, and government spokesperson Lav Agarwal said the Government of India or the Railways had never said anything about charging migrants, and that the Centre is bearing 85 per cent of the travel costs of the special trains.
However, a letter issued by the Ministry of Railways to its general managers across the country Saturday had said: “The local state government authority shall hand over the tickets to the passengers cleared by them and collect the ticket fare and hand over the total amount to railways.”
Railway ministry sources said Saturday’s letter stands as is, and there is no change in the guidelines issued by the Centre. Even D.J. Narain, the Press Information Bureau officer for the railway ministry, confirmed to ThePrint that there has been no change in the guidelines issued by the ministry, and a press release to this effect would be issued shortly. But it hadn’t been put out by the time of publication of this report.
Justification of the break-up
A railway ministry official who spoke on the condition of anonymity explained the 15:85 split as follows: “When a migrant train runs from point A to B, the ticket fare constitutes just 15 per cent of the total expense involved. The rest, 85 per cent of the expense, involves fuel charges, personnel charges, food, water, ensuring social distancing norms, extra coaches etc., which is borne by the Railways itself…
“This breakup is being put in the public domain so that people know the Railways is anyway absorbing a large chunk of the costs.”
However, another senior railway official questioned this claim, explaining that there is hardly any ancillary cost involved, given that food is a minor component and the trains run on electricity.
“We are not using the middle berths to maintain social distancing, but that’s about it. If fares are being borne by states, this so-called 85 per cent contribution is inexplicable,” the second official said.
Neither Railway Minister Piyush Goyal nor his ministry came forth to explain Lav Agarwal’s statement, while ThePrint’s requests for comment to the office of Railway Board Chairman V.K. Yadav remained unanswered.
Why Centre insists states pay migrants’ fare
The central government has maintained that since it was the states that had requested the special trains, they should pay for the travel, with officials dismissing comparisons with Indians being flown back from abroad without charge.
“This comparison with the Indian government flying people stuck abroad is unfounded,” said the first railway official quoted above. “Trains subsidise the fare all the time, while airlines make passengers bear the full cost of travel.”
A third railway official said it was the decision of the central government to fly back people stuck abroad, so it bore the cost. But in this case, since the states requested for these trains, they should bear the cost.
“It is a very small amount that the states could have offered to pay easily,” the third official said. “Even during emergencies, when the Air Force carries out rescue operations, the states are finally billed for it.”
Migrants stuck in ‘haggling’
The issue became the subject of much political wrangling Sunday with Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi announcing that the party would pay the train fare for migrants heading home. The BJP-led government labelled the move baseless, and one that would “mess up the entire system and create chaos”.
Former Union railway minister Dinesh Trivedi of the Trinamool Congress said the “haggling” between the centre and states over the cost of transporting migrants is shameful and humiliating.
“This is not a normal situation… The Disaster Management Act is in force. That means that there is the rule of the Centre,” Rajya Sabha MP Trivedi said. “The total cost incurred to ferry migrants would be a pittance. For that small an amount, you are haggling — it is an absolute insult to the poorest of the poor.”
Amid all this, several migrants have remained unaware of the protocol required to use the special train facility.
“We have been stuck here since the lockdown started,” said Mukesh, a worker at a diamond factory in Surat, Gujarat, who is seeking to go back to his village in Bihar. “We have no idea who to go to…We have been told not to go to the railway station and buy tickets, then where do we go?”
Mukesh added: “When we go to the police station, they say, ‘go to the collector’s office’…We are struggling for food, how do we walk to the collector’s office 10 kilometres away?”
The Railways have maintained that nobody should come to stations to buy tickets, as none will be sold at counters.
Railways are not running any trains other than special trains requisitioned by State Govts.
Passengers BROUGHT and FACILITATED by State Govts. can ONLY travel
— Ministry of Railways (@RailMinIndia) May 2, 2020