Covid-19 update: Row over migrants’ rail fare as Congress offers to foot the bill
A fierce political war broke out over the issue of train fare for the migrant workers returning home, with the Congress declaring that the party and its state committees would pay the fare to enable workers to return and accusing the Centre of being insensitive to their plight. The Union government and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for their part, claimed that railways was bearing 85% of the fare cost, and state governments had to pay 15%, thus allowing migrants to go back home free of cost.
While the government also claimed it had never spoken of charging stranded migrants, and said the onus rested on state governments, the Opposition rebutted the assertion, citing government orders which asked state governments to collect fares from migrants and hand them over to railways. Experts pointed out that Indian Railways does provide an in-built subsidy for train journeys, which is the highest in sleeper class, the mode of travel in special trains, but also underlined that the government had to incur higher expenditure because of additional costs currently.
The controversy involves an estimated 10 million migrant workers stranded after the sudden imposition of a lockdown on March 25. Many of them lost their jobs because of the lockdown and the suspension of all economic activities aimed at halting the spread of the deadly coronavirus disease (Covid-19). In the absence of public transport, many tried to walk back home but were turned back at state borders and housed in shelters run by the government and non governmental organisations. Last week, the union government finally released a protocol for their movement by bus. Soon after, Indian Railways announced it would run special trains for them.
When the special trains first began operating on Friday, stranded migrants travelling from Maharashtra, Kerala, Gujarat, Karnataka and some other states were charged rail fares for their journey back home. On Monday, officials said states including Rajasthan, Telangana and Gujarat were paying for the tickets, even as the BJP said that its government in Madhya Pradesh was also bearing the expense.
On Monday morning, Congress president Sonia Gandhi led the charge against the government, saying the current plight of migrant workers and their desperate attempts to return home was the biggest human tragedy since the Partition. Gandhi said that even today, as workers were languishing in different parts of the country, wishing to return, there was neither enough money nor provisions for free transport. “What is particularly disturbing is that the Central government and the rail ministry are charging them for train tickets in this hour of crisis.” Gandhi asked why was it that when the government could spend Rs 100 crore on a single event – in what appeared to be a reference to the Namaste Trump event to honour United States President Donald Trump during his India visit in February – and the railways could donate Rs 151 crore to the PM-Cares fund, “essential members of the nation’s fabric” were not offered the basic courtesy of free rail travel?
The Congress president said that in this backdrop, the party had decided every state committee would “bear the cost of rail travel of every needy worker and migrant labourer”. This would be its “humble contribution”. The decision came in the wake of Karnataka Congress chief DK Shivakumar, on Sunday, offering Rs 1 crore to the state-run transport service as the cost towards sending the stranded workers back home from Bengaluru and other parts of the state.
The government, however, rejected the allegations. At a regular press briefing, health ministry joint secretary Lav Agrawal, said that based on the request given from states for particular cases, permission was given to run special trains. “Be it government of India or the railways, we have not talked about charging from workers. 85% of the transportation cost is borne by the railways, while states have to bear 15 of the cost,” he told reporters.
The BJP also countered the Congress. Party spokesperson Sambit Patra, in a tweet to Congress Member of Parliament, Rahul Gandhi, said, “I have attached guidelines of MHA which clearly state that ‘No tickets to be sold at any station’. Railways has subsidised 85% & state govt to pay 15%. The state govt can pay for the tickets (Madhya Pradesh’s BJP govt is paying). Ask Cong state govts to follow suit.” The party’s information technology cell chief Amit Malviya claimed that the Congress was “obviously upset” at how well India had handled Covid. “They would have ideally wanted a lot more people to suffer and die. Promoting indiscriminate movement of people would lead to faster spread of infection, just like we saw in Italy. Is this what Sonia Gandhi wants?” he asked.
Congress leaders KC Venugopal and Randeep Singh Surjewala, however, read out a May 2 circular by the railways ministry stating that state governments will pay the entire amount to the railways after collecting the ticket fares from migrant workers.
At the heart of the controversy are two separate points. The first is whether the government placed the onus on state governments or migrant workers to pay the fare; the second is the government’s claim of taking care of 85% of the cost. Both these arguments come in the wake of a series of decisions and clarifications by the government over the past week.
On Wednesday, on the 36th day of the lockdown, the Centre allowed movement of stranded migrants and students through buses. Amid demands by states and in recognition of the logistical challenges involved in transporting millions of workers, the home ministry, on Friday, also allowed the movement of migrants by special trains to be deployed at the request of the state governments. The ministry of railways, on the same day, announced it had decided to charge for tickets for operating special trains for stranded migrant workers amid the coronavirus lockdown. The fare includes the price of regular sleeper class tickets plus superfast charges of Rs 30 and an additional charge of Rs 20.“This includes meals and drinking water for long-distance trains. State governments will coordinate and can pay on passengers’ behalf,” the ministry clarified.
On Saturday, the rail ministry issued a standard operating procedure on movement of passengers. The railways would print train tickets to specified destinations on the basis of the number of passengers indicated by an originating state, and give the tickets to the local government authority. It 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 the railways.” This was followed by another note on Sunday. The rail ministry said, “As per the guidelines issued, sending state will pay the consolidated fare to Railways. Sending state may decide to bear this cost or take it from passengers or take it from receiving state after mutual consultation or may charge it to any fund. It is purely their prerogative.”
It is this ambiguity that both the government and the opposition are basing their case on. The Centre is emphasising that it had placed the onus on state governments, while the Opposition is emphasising that the Centre had placed the onus on state governments to charge money from passengers. According to officials aware of the development, 45 Shramik Special trains have run till now and around 13 more are tentatively planned for Monday, and payments have been made by most states barring Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra thus far. States with originating trains such as Rajasthan, Telangana, and Gujarat are paying for the migrants, while Jharkhand, which has only received such trains, has also paid for the travel of workers. On Monday, Bihar said it would pay for the migrants. The Gujarat government has drafted an NGO to pay part of the travel cost, officials from the states said.
Mohammed Tabraq of Bihar’s Jamui, who arrived from Kerala, said he had to borrow money as he did not have even a penny left with him. Another worker from Jharkhand’s Pakur, Kamaruddin Ansari, who was working in Kerala, said he paid ~860 for the journey from Kozhikode to Dhanbad. “We were given a ticket at the entry gate and allowed at the platform after paying the ticket price,” he claimed.
The second issue is the scale of subsidy offered by the Centre, and its claim of taking care of 85% of the cost. A senior rail ministry official, familiar with the train fare structure, said that railways recover about 57% of cost of travel on an average and the remaining is given as subsidy. On an average, it pays 43 paise per rupee for each ticket as subsidy. This is not a traditional subsidy, but is instead cross-subsidised from the money railways makes from its freight operations.
Explaining the rationale of the government’s claim, the official added: “The special trains are carrying only 60% of the passenger capacity in the trains due to social distancing norms. The trains are also running along with food arrangements, security, etc. After that, empty rakes also return back to the stations, for which ministry has to incur the cost. Even in normal times, the railways give about 50% subsidy to passengers for travelling. Keeping that in mind only 15-20% cost of railways expenses is being charged from the states.” He added that it was important to have this cost structure to also regulate movement, for unregulated crowds at stations would only lead to the possibility of the spread of the coronavirus disease.
Former railway board chairman Vivek Sahai pointed out that it is the unreserved segment which accounts for the most subsided travel in railways in any case. “The unreserved segment has the maximum subsidy. In the sleeper segment the railways provides about 43-45% subsidy. A sleeper coach normally has an occupancy of 75 people. Assuming they have done away with the middle berth for social distancing, only about 54 people would be travelling. Hence their earnings are about 28% less, which would mean a subsidy of about 71% for the travel.”