As the country fights the Wuhan Coronavirus pandemic, a raging controversy overtook the conversation a couple of days ago. Since the beginning of the nation-wide lockdown, the brunt of the necessary battle was borne by the migrant labourers who had no means to go back home, and a large chunk of them was also rendered jobless due to the lockdown. With railways and busses being halted due to the lockdown, several protests had broken out in several parts of the country where migrant labourers expressed their wish for the government to facilitate their return to their home states. Owing to this, the central government has now started ‘shramik’ special trains which are facilitating the return of migrant labourers back to their home states from the various states where they might be stranded due to the Coronavirus lockdown. But the burning question about the special Shramik trains is – who pays for the tickets?
Amidst the stellar step by the central government, a needless controversy overshadowed the conversation, with media playing along. The opposition parties, mainly Congress, alleged that the central government was charging the migrant workers for their railway ticket back home. The media too ran this blatant lie, creating a confusion amidst the already volatile and difficult situation. Congress president Sonia Gandhi addressed people via video conferencing and asserted that she will pay the ticket bills of all migrant labourers if the central government was not willing to do so.
This was, of course, hollow grandstanding because Sonia Gandhi, who is now a veteran politician, knows well that her assertions are wildly incorrect.
While the controversy rages on despite several fact-checks, here are 8 questions regarding the controversy that we have tried to answer to bring some clarity to the issue.
The ‘Shramik’ trains are specials trains that have been started by the Railways to ferry stranded migrant labourers from various states across India to their home states. These trains were started after requests by the states and protests by migrant labourers amidst the Coronavirus lockdown and as such, are not open for the public at large. It is the state that has to ensure that migrant labourers in their state are registered and screened and then, they can be ferried though the Shramik train to their home state.
Most importantly, passengers will not have to buy tickets as the state governments concerned will have to coordinate and pay for the tickets. As these are not regular trains, but special trains which will run on the request of state government, there is no provision to buy tickets for those trains. The respective state governments will book the trains by making the payment as charged by the Indian Railways, and the passengers do not have to pay anything.
The central government is paying 85% of the cost that is incurred per passenger to run this train and 15% of the cost in meant to be borne by the state government. Hence, ideally, the state is supposed to make good on that 15% payment through their coffers. However, if the state decides to charge the migrant workers, the only party to be blamed for that is the state government and not the central government. The central government itself it not charging the passengers or selling tickets.
According to several media reports, the states that did charge the passengers, who in this case were migrant workers were the states of Maharashtra, Kerala and Rajasthan. Maharashtra is governed by an alliance of Shiv Sena, Congress and NCP, Kerala by the Communists and Rajasthan by Congress.
A 15% cost has been imposed on the state government to ensure that the state government too has skin in the game. As such, if the travel was made completely free by Railways and the Central government, passengers other than migrant workers would have also been boarded on those trains and the result would be chaos like we saw in states like Maharashtra, during the protests near Bandra mosque or even the chaos at Anand Vihar bus station. It was because of this that the states were given the responsibility to come up with a list (after screening) of passengers and central railway is to provide tickets and trains. To impose responsibility, the Railways asked the states to cough up 15% of the travel cost while the central government would make good 85% of the travel cost.
If one sees any railway ticket, it is mentioned as a standard disclaimer that the price any passenger is paying for the ticket covers only 57% of the cost incurred for the travel. This is under normal circumstances and for every ticket sold by railways. For the Shramik trains, only 2/3rd of the seats would be filled to ensure social distancing during travel. So the right seat and the left seat would be occupied with the middle seat being empty. Or the top birth and bottom birth would be assigned with the middle birth being empty. As such, due to this, the chargeable fees would come down to 38% (to the passenger, which is supposed to be paid by the state). The trains, since they are special trains, would come back completely empty, thus, the cost to passenger is further divided by half, which would be 19%. After taking into account passenger services like food and sanitation, the state governments were asked to pay 15% of the total cost with the remaining 85% being borne by the central government.
The picture is clearer with this infographic:
This assertion was tweeted by Rahul Gandhi when he asserted that Railways paid Rs 151 crores to PM CARES fund but is now asking the migrant labourers to play. This was deliberate confusion caused by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. Funds to PM CARES was not EXTRA burden on Railways, which could have been spent elsewhere. Railway employees gave part of their salary and benefits to the fund. Instead of hailing the employees for being responsible public servants, Rahul Gandhi unnecessary dragged politics and muddied the water.
Wrong. They were, and where they were not asked to pay, governments will pay the bill to Air India or Indian Air Force, wherever applicable. Further, some of these planes were like airlift, an emergency evacuation like from Wuhan, but even there, the government has to foot the bill.
Well, till the day before yesterday, Railways operated 34 trains for migrant workers. The total cost of operating 34 trains was Rs 24 crores (of which, only Rs 3.5 crores was to be paid by the states). If we assume that the Railways would have to operate 1,000 trains for all the migrant workers to be transported back to their home states, then Sonia Gandhi would have to pay about 706 crores. And this amount would have to be paid from CWC and Sonia Gandhi’s personal coffers, not the state exchequers.
It is thus clear that the political conjectures regarding this controversy are just that – political conjectures. The Congress and other opposition parties like the Shiv Sena are using a horrifying pandemic to score political brownie points by exploiting the sentiments of the poor migrant labourers who just want to go back home to their families amidst the pandemic.