When Narendra Modi announced India’s harsh lockdown starting from March 25 to combat the spread the coronavirus, migrant workers were the worst affected group. Stranded in cities without wages or access to food, hundreds of thousands of people started walking, cycling and smuggling themselves in container trucks and cement mixers to try to get home – a journey that was sometimes thousands of kilometres long. Many have died along the way.
With the lockdown now extended until May 17, the Modi government has finally decided to let migrant workers to back home, allowing their home states to run buses as well as the Indian Railways to ply special trains. But not only are the desperate workers being charged for their these trips, they are paying higher fares than usual.
A filter to get back home
The Indian Railways, for example, will not only collect the full ticket price on its special workers trains but also levy a surcharge of Rs 50. On buses being run by the Karnataka government, the price is nearly four times as much as hiring an air conditioned taxi, the Indian Express reported.
Given that migrant workers have had no incomes for more than a month, to make them pay to get home is egregious. Adding a surcharge makes it even more unacceptable. This will ensure that many migrants will simply be unable to afford to go home.
The Centre is shirking its responsibilities in this matter. It has made state governments responsible for running buses to transport inter-state migrants even though inter-state migration is a Union list subject in the Indian Constitution. Besides, state governments are extremely short on money. Though their revenue streams have dried up, it is their their agencies that are responsible for battling the pandemic.
The Union government has applied starkly different standards to Indian migrants stuck abroad. When evacuating Indians from places such as China, Japan, Italy and Iran, the Modi government picked up the tab. Why was this practice not followed for inter-state migrant workers much poorer than expatriate Indians?
Why weren’t funds from the Union government special Covid relief fund PM Cares used for the purpose? Large amounts of money, including mandator deduction from the salaries of government employees, have been funneled into this fund. Ironically, even the Indian Railways had donated as Rs 151 crore to the fund.
If the Union government itself suffers from a debilitating shortage of funds, it is inexplicable why money is being spent on hollow gestures such as Armed Forces helicopters showering petals on hospitals and Air Force Jets conducting fly pasts to salute healthcare workers. Gestures are welcome and perhaps necessary to keep up public morale in a time of emergency. But they should not replace real action.