Everything about the Indian government’s policy towards the country’s large, vulnerable population of migrant workers has been a mess.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three-week lockdown was announced with just four hours’ notice, with no thought for their needs, leading to a mass exodus of people setting off for their home villages on foot and cycle. The government’s response was to ask the police to beat them into staying at home, forcing migrants into desperate measures like traveling in a cement mixer.

States ended up forcing them into shelters that were often unsanitary, with horrific facilities and insufficient food. The Centre refused to provide cheap foodgrains to the states, which would have helped universalise India’s food ration system and allow migrants didn’t need ration cards for the states they were stranded in.

When movement of workers was finally announced, it was clear that the government saw them as labour resources, not human beings and citizens with desires, since they were only permitted to move to go to work, and not go home.

And now, five weeks after the lockdown, with the government finally permitting movement for a limited set of stranded migrants, it wants to charge them money to do so.

Special trains and buses were organised for the movement of those stranded, but the Indian Railways made it very clear in a May 2 order that the tickets would be printed and handed to state governments, which would then collect the ticket fare from the passengers and hand this to the Railways.

This naturally turned into a political controversy, since it seemed heartless for the Indian state – after all it had put migrants through, coupled with the fact that in almost all cases they had been left without wages and often with unpaid arrears – to charge them for a journey home.

Congress President Sonia Gandhi said that the party would collect funds to pay for all the migrants, a move echoed by other parties like the Rashtriya Janata Dal, prompting a day of political squabbling, with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party forced into damage control.

Later in the day the BJP and the government attempted to claim that the fault was of the states, and Congress ones in particular, because the Centre was paying for 85% of the fare, and asking the state government to contribute just 15%. It also claimed that Congress states were the only ones charging migrant workers for travel.

All of this is untrue.

First, the Centre is not paying 85% of the fare. There is no order to that effect anywhere. Though it is unclear why he spoke about this, Lav Agarwal, the joint secretary, health, told reporters on Monday that the Centre was paying for 85% of the cost – not the fare – while states were paying for 15%. BJP National General Secretary attempted to explain this.

What is the difference? Indian railway fares are always subsidised to keep ticket prices low. The Centre wants to claim that paying this subsidy amounts to covering 85% of the cost, while it asked the states to collect the remaining amount – in other words, the full fare including an extra cost for taking fewer passengers because of physical distancing – from the workers.

Remember here that inter-state travel is a Central subject. All of this, from the organisation of travel to the cost, should have been sorted out by the Centre.

Next comes the claim that it only wanted states to pay the full fare, which it calls the remaining 15%, not the migrants. Yet the May 2 order belies that. And it claimed that only Congress states were passing this cost onto to the migrants.

The actual experience of workers taking trains in BJP states makes it clear that this is false. Workers taking a train from Gujarat (a BJP state) to Uttar Pradesh (a BJP state) told the Ahmedabad Mirror that they had to borrow money to be able to pay for the tickets. An Indian Express report from Gujarat reiterates this point.

Some state governments did say that they would cover the fares, but the Express reported that Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan had decided to do this – none of them BJP states.

Clearly, the claims of the BJP and the government were entirely untrue. The Centre had wanted to charge labourers for the return journey. But the amounts would have been a pittance to the Centre, even in Covid-19 times. So why would it possibly have taken such a callous step?

One answer comes from Karnataka, where workers were also being asked to pay for state buses to go home.

“If we provide free transport, everyone will return home, creating problems both in the villages – triggering fear of spread of Covid-19 – and here in the city, hampering revival of economic activity, including construction work,” a senior Karnataka official told the Hindu. “As we are charging them, only those who genuinely need to go home will go.”

If this logic is the same that applied to the Centre’s decision on charging train fares, it appears to be yet another instance of utilitarian policymaking – thinking of migrant workers as nothing but resources to be saved in the city, even if their desire is to go home. This has been exposed by the current controversy, and now the BJP is engaging in an ugly, embarassing effort at backtracking to avoid the political fallout.

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