New Delhi: Succumbing to mounting pressure from several states, the central government Friday allowed special trains to take lakhs of migrant workers stuck in various locations to their home states.
The Ministry of Home Affairs issued an order Friday afternoon, allowing “the movement of migrant workers, tourists, students and other persons stranded at different places, by special trains”.
The order said the Ministry of Railways will designate nodal officers to coordinate with states and UTs for the movement of these trains. “The Ministry of Railways will issue detailed guidelines for sale of tickets, and for social distancing and other safety measures to be observed at train stations, train platforms and within the trains.”
The first such train ran early Friday morning, even before the MHA’s order, to take back 1,225 migrant workers from Lingampalli in Telangana to Hatia in Jharkhand. The train left the station at 4.50 am, a senior railway ministry official said.
A senior railway ministry official told ThePrint that no schedule has been finalised for these trains as yet. But he added: “We are fully prepared.”
The Centre had Wednesday permitted states to start inter-state movement of buses to transport the migrant workers, stuck at relief camps in different states following the nationwide lockdown from 25 March. However, at least eight states had written to the Centre Thursday, demanding special trains, saying providing buses to ferry the migrant workers was “unviable”.
Currently, according to rough estimates given by the Centre, more than 1 crore migrant workers are stranded in different states across India.
The first train
To avoid overcrowding at the station, the Railways did not make any announcement about the Friday morning special train.
“The migrant labourers were brought to the railway station in 56 buses from the relief camp in Hyderabad. The station was properly barricaded and adequate RPF, GRP and local police personnel were deployed to guard the station from all sides to prevent entry of unauthorised persons,” the official quoted above said.
The migrant labourers were guided by RPF teams to the coaches and seated in a manner to maintain social distancing. “Tickets were issued to them by commercial staff. Food packets and water bottles were provided to them by state government officials,” the official added.
The move to send the train came after migrant workers living in relief camps inside the IIT Hyderabad premises indulged in violence and attacked policemen Thursday.
Another senior railway official told ThePrint: “They have kept this occasion so low key that railway officials didn’t come to know about it. Nobody wants any crowding at stations. I think all movements will be done in such an organised, closely supervised manner.”
Template for other special trains
The same protocol could be followed for all the special trains for migrants, the second official said. “Even in Kerala, the train would leave from Aluva and not Ernakulam, just like the first train started from Lingampalli and not a big station like Secunderabad. It’s easy to secure and barricade smaller stations,” he said.
“A substantial number of RPF personnel are on board to monitor social distancing and movement of these migrants across coaches and during any stoppages… The Telangana state government has made available food packets and water,” he added.
While there has been no communication yet from the railway ministry to officials on the ground, said sources in the railways, a few things are “understood” in a situation like this.
“The securing and barricading of such stations is extremely important. There shouldn’t be any scope for crowding and chaos. All the trains would have to be properly disinfected,” a third railway official said.
It also needs to be ensured that there is proper deployment of crew along the route, the third official said. “There will have to be different crews at every eight hours or so along the way… Like the crew from Lingampalli would go only up to Balharshah, and the next crew would go up to Durg or Bilaspur, and the crew after that from there to Ranchi,” he explained.
Why states opposed buses
Bihar was first state to oppose the move to transport migrant workers through buses, calling it “impractical” and “unviable”. Other states joined the chorus soon after, including Jharkhand, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab and Telangana.
Speaking to ThePrint, Ashok Choudhary, minister in the Nitish Kumar-led JD(U)-BJP government in Bihar, told ThePrint: “We have approximately 25 lakh migrant labourers from Bihar working in other states. If we follow social distancing protocols, only 15-20 people will be able to travel in a bus at a time. We will require approximately 1.7 lakh buses and several months to bring them back.”
The JD(U) leader said the state did not have that many buses. “Also, the entire operation will require huge resources. It’s a completely impractical solution,” he said, adding that Bihar had written to the Centre, requesting special trains.
Even BJP-ruled states like Uttar Pradesh had informally asked the Centre to provide special trains.
UP, approximately 15 lakh of whose migrant workers are stranded in other states, was the first to appoint nodal officers to coordinate with other states to bring back the workers.
State’s Transport Minister Ashok Kataria told ThePrint: “Currently, we have 11,500 state transport department buses. But we will require more private buses to bring back stranded labourers. It’s a mammoth exercise and our CM has said that if trains are not allowed, we are ready to bring them by buses irrespective of how much time it takes.”
UP had also prepared a quarantine centre with a capacity to accommodate 6lakh migrant workers. “This will be ramped up in the coming weeks to accommodate 15 lakh workers,” Kataria had said before the MHA’s announcement.
Another state that had vociferously demanded special trains was Kerala, which is housing 3.5 lakh migrant workers who hail from West Bengal, Odisha, Assam and Jharkhand.
Kerala Finance Minister Thomas Isaac had said: “Sending these people by bus will take five to six days. Is it practical in this weather? Also, who will provide them food during the journey?”
A state transport minister, who did not want to be named, added that the move to transport workers by bus would cost Rs 3,000-Rs 4,000 per person.
“If there are 1 crore migrant workers, the overall transportation cost would come to Rs 3,000 crore. If they are transported through train, not only will it take less time, but it will also cost far less,” the minister had said.
(With inputs from Sanya Dhingra)