If a train bound for Gorakhpur reaches Raurkela in Odisha and another one going to Patna reaches Purulia, there must be something very ‘special’ about these Shramik Specials. And if jobless labourers are reaching their hometowns on wheels, instead of walking hundreds of kilometers, is being considered something special in 21st century India, then indeed, railway minister Piyush Goyal must be felicitated for this grand feat.
Piyush Goyal has justified these ‘stray’ trains stating “route rationalisation” to avoid congestion on select routes, since most of these trains are bound for Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. But let’s be honest. What’s happening with the Shramik Specials could easily be called a hot mess. It is also a PR nightmare for the Narendra Modi government.
It is not for the first time that the Railways and a railway minister are facing flak for their poor management of the national transporter. But what’s different this time is the response from those who are responsible.
Railway ministers in the past used to be the accountable ones. Some even resigned or offered to vacate the post in light of accidents, taking moral responsibility. Now, you have this cantankerous minister who spars on Twitter but can’t say a sympathetic word for those who are dying on the train.
The one cliche about Emergency was that the trains ran on time. But in this lockdown, the trains are getting lost, people are arriving dead and bodies are lying unclaimed on platforms.
Junking a good idea
Goyal is partially responsible for this hot mess. The railway minister had junked some of the policy initiatives introduced by his predecessor Suresh Prabhu that could have helped the national transporter overcome the distress it is going through now.
By scrapping Prabhu’s proposal of giving a brand new IT infrastructure to the Railways, Goyal denied the national carrier a chance to streamline the operations related to management of goods, passengers, assets and management functions that would have come under one digital dashboard.
Prabhu had increased the IT budget of Railways by 50 per cent. But Goyal’s assumption that the Railways could function well on existing IT infrastructure has come back to haunt him. His abysmal handling of the transportation of jobless workers has led to utter chaos and the Railways is being rightly criticised for its shoddiness.
Ordinary response to extraordinary demand
And what’s the Railways’ defence? The national transporter has blamed the mess on extraordinary circumstances. Alright. But how does it plan to justify the deaths on trains and platforms due to dehydration and hunger? How hard was it for Piyush Goyal and the Railways to ensure food and water on these ‘special trains’? What has he got to tell those waiting outside railway stations for hours at a stretch in sweltering heat? In fact, the reasoning for route congestion too is hard to understand as the Railways is currently not running at its full operational capacity.
Railways can’t shift the blame of these deaths on old-age and existing illnesses. By that logic, every natural calamity can be blamed on God and all infrastructure failure on public misuse. The reason governments exists is to ensure that during dire straits, the citizens remain protected.
Not realising the role of railway
Where Piyush Goyal has failed the most is in his late realisation of the role railways had to play in mitigating the migrant workers’ crisis.
He is sending out tweets to tell migrants not to travel if they are above 65 or below 10 years of age, or if they have any serious ailments. He says that people should travel “only when necessary”. With the sick having nowhere to go since hospitals are already running on reserve and the migrants’ rents not being footed by the government, the railway minister should know that people are travelling because they have no choice. Those with pre-existing ailments can’t lie on the road, and those who are out of work can’t beg in streets.
Before tweeting out such advisories from the comfort of his home or office, he should ask his government how these people will be taken care of. And with over two months of lockdown, how can any citizen be told to stay away from their homes when they lack basic amenities like food, water and shelter in the cities they work in?
The clarity on who is paying for the migrant workers’ train fare also makes clear Piyush Goyal and the Modi government’s seriousness towards the crisis. BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra had said that 85 per cent of the train fare was being borne by the Railways while 15 per cent was coming from states. It has now come to light that it is the state governments who are paying for these journeys.
But politics is on track
Politics over the migrant workers’ crisis has made the entire exercise appear sordid and inhuman. Goyal indulged in a Twitter war with Maharashtra and has accused some of the non-BJP ruled states like Rajasthan, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh of not co-operating with the Centre.
In an FB Live with Sambit Patra, Goyal vehemently criticised the non-BJP states for non-cooperation with the Railways. Perhaps, the railway minister forgot to see the Centre’s fresh directive allowing the Railways to run Shramik Specials without seeking permission from the states.
Ashok Gehlot and Hemant Soren were quick to rebut Goyal’s claim and confirm that they had given all NOCs for the trains to bring migrant workers home.
It looks like election season is still on. Mamata Banerjee has to be proved mercurial because she is refusing to accept trains into Bengal (even if it is due to cyclone Amphan). And also because elections are due in the state? Or Uddhav Thackeray has to be accused of being too slow in his planning because while Goyal was ready with over 145 trains from Maharashtra, Thackeray only managed to fill 27. But no one’s blind to the fact that BJP’s trying a little too hard to destabilise the Maharashtra government.
It’s time for some serious introspection for the Modi government. Some of their cabinet ministers are failing to do their job. Face-saving is not that job.
The author is a political observer and writer. Views are personal.