The government is charging train fare from the migrants, who are stranded in their state of work and returning home by special trains — Shramik Special — run by the Indian Railways. This has created a row among opposition parties and activists.
According to the standard operating protocol, issued by the Indian Railways, the state, where trains originate, has to identify the migrants who are stranded. The state government has to issue train ticket and collect fare, which it will hand over to the railways.
Now, here is the problem and origin of controversy.
Most of the stranded migrants are low-wage earners. A volunteer group, Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) has said it interviewed stranded workers across states and 64 per cent of them had less than Rs 100 with them. This was their monetary status as on April 26. This means that most of the migrant workers would not be in a position to pay for their travel fare. Tourists, students and pilgrims can be assumed to be better off.
The railways also said if the journey is over 12-hour long, the passengers will be provided one meal. The originating state has also to provide food. That is, they have to bear the cost of food for people (one may read voters) from other states. Some state governments have objected to the railways direction that they have to pay for food.
Contrast this situation, as many politicians such as Omar Abdullah and activists have alleged, with those stranded abroad due to coronavirus crisis. Beginning from air-lifting Indians from China in January 31, the government evacuated hundreds of Indians stranded in other countries till March 22. Special flights were operated and those flown in were quarantined at ITBP facilities.
The evacuees were not charged for their travel. As per protocol, the Air India sent the bill to the external affairs ministry. In response to a question about two special flights from Wuhan on January 31 and February 1, Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan told the Lok Sabha, “Air India has raised a bill of Rs 5,98,90,352 [almost Rs 6 crore] for operating two special flights to China.”
Later, special flights were operated to bring Indians stranded in other countries. The Air India sent bills to the external affairs ministry. Simply put, the central government paid for the air travel of Indians stranded abroad.
However, in the case of travel of migrants – most of them are labourers – they have been asked to pay for their journey. It is the basic fare charged by the railways. For example, Kerala government which sent special train to Jharkhand last week charged Rs 875 per passenger.
Making low-wage earning internal migrants to pay for their travel by railways enraged many for an additional reason. In March, Railways Minister Piyush Goyal announced that Indian Railways would donate Rs 151 crore to the PM Cares Fund, a purse that has already generated controversy since its creation in the wake of coronavirus outbreak.
There is, however, a different maths related to air-traveling migrants and their train-faring cousins: of numbers, both in humans and money.
According to a 2019 UN report, India is the largest source of international migration. It said around 1.8 crore Indians live abroad. The external affairs ministry puts the number at 3.21 crore including 1.86 crore people of Indian origin. There are 1.34 crore non-resident Indians living abroad, MEA says.
Not all of them wanted to come back to India when novel coronavirus outbreak spread across the globe. And, despite the growing number of people registering with authorities for a home-bound flight, their number is not small compared to the size of population. For example, there are about 34.20 lakh Indians in UAE. Of them, 1.5 lakh have registered for a home-bound flight.
The picture is completely different within India. The country has a huge problem of internal migration or inter-state and inter-district migration. The number of internal migrants is estimated to be around 10 crore. Most of them are the builders of rising India. They build cities, their multiplexes, highways, metro rail networks, deliver food, pull rickshaw and drive empowered Indians home after work.
India is the top recipient of international remittances – money sent home by migrants. In 2018, India got about $80 billion. India’s domestic remittances – money sent from urban to rural — are estimated at $26 billion.
The controversy has, however, benefitted the internal migrants. Congress president Sonia Gandhi announced that her party will foot the bill for travel fare of the migrants. Next came the announcement that the railways would subsidise travel fare by 95 per cent.