The conversation as India continues to battle the Coronavirus pandemic has been revolving around the sorry state of migrant workers who are stranded in different states, waiting to go back home. With no mode of transportation as a lockdown was imposed to battle the pandemic, stranded migrant workers had taken to the streets several times in several states demanding that the government facilitate their travel back home. Keeping in view the grim situation, the central government started ‘Shramik’ trains. These are special trains that are meant to ferry migrant workers back to their home states during the Coronavirus lockdown.
The controversy started with the Congress party President, Sonia Gandhi, claiming that the central government is charging passengers for their return back home. Several media houses too peddled this blatant lie. In reality, 85% of the cost is borne by the Central Government (Railways) and 15% was to be borne by the state government. The state govt could choose to cough up the money from their own coffers, take help of some NGO or collect the money through other means. The central government and the railways were not charging the passengers directly at all and the mode of collection of that 15% was left to the state. Considering the Congress was extremely outraged at the through (though a lie of their own making) of money being charged to stranded migrant workers, one would have expected that the Congress-ruled states would ensure that the 15% was drawn from the state coffers and not the migrant workers.
However, that is not what happened.
According to some reports, while most state governments have paid for the travel of migrant workers from the state exchequer, Kerala, Rajasthan and Maharashtra remain the only three states to have charged the migrant workers for their travel back to their native place.
As per PTI, Maharashtra state minister Nitin Raut has written a letter to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray urging him to bear the travel cost of migrants leaving the state. He also wrote to Railway Minister Piyush Goyal on Sunday, requesting that the railways bear the cost of transportation of migrants from the state. In addition to this, a report by Times Now claims that besides Maharashtra, Kerala and Rajasthan have also asked the migrants to pay for the railway tickets.
If one recalls, protests had erupted in Maharashtra and Rajasthan earlier were migrant workers had demanded to go home. There are several protests that have been reported from several other states where migrants from Maharashtra, Rajasthan and other states are also demanded to be sent back home.
New Indian Express reported today (emphasis added):
“Just days after migrant labourers protested at IIT-Hyderabad wanting to back home, several migrant labourers staged a protest on Saturday in Tellapur at the construction site of a well-known real estate developer. Their demand was similar. They wanted to be sent back home by train or bus. Police officials swung into action to pacify an estimated 3,000 labourers at the site. These included migrants from West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha”.
Over the last three days, the Gujarat government has facilitated the return of over 4,600 migrant workers to their native states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh over the past three days.
However, the numbers are not nearly sufficient. According to a report in the Times of India, 2.84 Lakh migrant workers have registered from various states to go back home to Rajasthan. Bengal too has thousands of labourers stuck in various parts of the country, waiting to go back home, seeing a glimmer of hope as Sharmik trains start ferrying workers back.
But, with thousands and lakhs of workers waiting to return to their home states and the central government running shramik trains, there seems to be a discrepancy in the numbers emerging from central railways.
Till today morning at 9 AM, 69 trains have been operated by the central government and railways. However, when one sees, the number of trains that have left from states like Rajasthan and Maharashtra are far more than the number of incoming trains to these states (that carried their own migrant labours from other states). In fact, for West Bengal, only two trains have been operated that have carried their own migrant labours back to the state from other states like Rajasthan.
The obvious conclusion drawn from this is that states like Maharashtra and Rajasthan specifically and sending our more migrant labourers to their own home states than accepting their own migrant labours back from other states.
According to sources in the Railways Ministry, West Bengal, Rajasthan and Maharashtra are not giving permission for the trains carrying their own migrants back from various states.
Let us analyse what is happening is different states.
Rajasthan and migrant workers
On the 26th of April, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot said that migrant workers from other states who were stuck in Rajasthan would be allowed to go back to their home states. However, talking about the migrant labours from Rajasthan stuck in other states, he said that they would be allowed to come back in a ‘phased manner’. The same Hindustan Times report also mentioned that “Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana have already initiated the process to bring back migrant labourers stranded in other states after the lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus pandemic was imposed in March till April 14 and then extended till May 3”.
So, while Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Bihar are ready to accept their migrants back, Rajasthan is emphasising that they will accept their own labourers back in a “phased manner”. Interestingly, only 3 Shramik trains have are ‘on-run’ so far that are getting Rajasthani migrants back to the state. On the other hand, 10 trains carrying migrant labours back to other home states have already been terminated and 4 are in the pipeline.
Essentially, while 2.84 lakh migrant workers are waiting to go back to their home state, Rajasthan, from various other states, the Rajasthan government is solely focussing on sending labourers of other states back from Rajasthan but not on accepting their own labourers from other states. While the Rajasthan government is grandstanding and stating that it will bear the cost of migrant workers leaving the state, it has not said anything about accepting its own labourers back, who are stranded in different states.
This could potentially cause a crisis in other states which are accepting their own migrants and also tending to migrants from states like Rajasthan which are not focused on getting their own people back to the state.
Maharashtra and migrant workers
For the state of Maharashtra, the numbers are not very different. Only one train has got its own labourers back from various states while 8 trains have ferried labourers back from Maharashtra to their home states.
For example, labourers from Maharashtra were protesting in MP demanding that be sent back home as recently as April 30th. In Hyderabad too, migrant labours including those from Maharashtra staged a protest demanding to go back home.
The conduct of the Maharashtra government has been the worst, so far. While news emerged that they are charging migrant labourers for a health check-up before allowing them to return to their home states, as a measure of hollow grandstanding, Uddhav Thackeray had urged the central government not to charge migrants, hiding the fact that it is the state that is supposed to cough up the 15% and thus, that migrant labourers are being charged is solely the doing of the Maharashtra government.
While Maharashtra itself seems slow in accepting their own migrants back, Maharashtra minister and NCP leader Nawab Malik went ahead and alleged that the Uttar Pradesh government was purposefully putting stringent conditions for the repatriation of migrants staying in Maharashtra in a bid to avoid accepting them even though a total of 16 trains (either terminated, running or in the pipeline) are scheduled to bring migrants back to UP.
West Bengal and migrant workers
The West Bengal government has itself said that they are going slow in accepting their own migrant labours back.
It was reported that the state feels the return of so many people without Covid-19 tests needs to be planned with utmost care so that the infection does not spread to new areas through those coming back. West Bengal chief secretary Rajiva Sinha said no one coming from other states would be allowed to enter containment zones. “So, if someone taking a train for Bengal hails from a containment zone, he or she cannot be sent home. Some other arrangement needs to be made and these require time,” Sinha said.
“It won’t be proper to allow lakhs of stranded migrants labourers all in one go. They need to be brought back in phases because detailed planning has to be made. Else every effort made till date will go down the drain,” Sinha added.
With this stand, it is no surprise that only two trains have carried Bengal labours back to the state from other states.
Madhya Pradesh and migrant workers
Though the trains that ferried migrant labours back to Madhya Pradesh is only one, Shivraj Singh Chouhan has expressly stated that all migrant workers who belong to MP will be brought back. In fact, due to the distance not being much, the State Government arranged several busses for the migrants to come back to MP from various other states, especially from Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Gujarat.
On Saturday, Mr. Chouhan had announced the State government was making arrangements to bring back its native labourers stuck in different States in buses.
“We will not let them walk,” he said. “We have seen them walk back home on roads and rail tracks in the heat. They must be a worried lot. So, we will make all arrangements for their travel, send them back to their villages in buses.”
Before boarding buses, the labourers would be screened for illnesses. “I request all villagers to behave in a humane way with them. The returnees will be home quarantined,” he said.
“I have received several phone calls from individuals in different States wanting to come back. We have arranged for e-passes for them so that they could return using their own transport,” he said.
Thus, the MP government does not seem to be shrugging its responsibility as far as accepting its own people back is concerned.
While the Congress rule states and opposition ruled states like Rajasthan, Maharashtra and West Bengal seem to uncaring about their own workers stranded in various states, they seem eager to send labourers back from their own state to other states like MP, UP, Bihar and Jharkhand. Potentially, this could cause another crisis for the destination states since several would not only be tending to their workers who are coming back but also workers from these states who are not being accepted by their states.
While this politics played out, these states have been trying to deflect attention by wrongly blaming the central government for charging migrant labourers for the Shramik trains while it was explicit that the 15% has to be coughed up by the state while 85% cost is being borne by the Railways.