Opposition leaders on Sunday criticised the railway ministry’s decision to charge migrant workers stranded in other parts of the country during the coronavirus-induced lockdown for taking special trains home, PTI reported. The lockdown was extended till May 17.

The Centre on Friday started operating special trains to move migrant workers, pilgrims and students stranded in various states. However, the Railway Board has announced extra charges in addition to the normal sleeper class fare to be collected from the passengers. “The local state government authority shall handover tickets to passengers cleared by them and collect the ticket fare and hand over the total amount to railways,” the circular said.

An additional charge of Rs 50 per passenger will be collected, along with the sleeper class fare, in the special trains to be operated between the states. “This includes meals and drinking water for long-distance trains,” railway ministry said, according to Hindustan Times. “State governments will coordinate and can pay on passengers’ behalf.”

Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav said it was “highly shameful” that the BJP government was charging vulnerable labourers for the train journey. “Migrants travelling back home being asked to pay for the train rides by the BJP government is highly shameful,” he tweeted. “It has become clear today that the ruling government waives loans for capitalists and businessmen and supports the rich. It works against those who are poor. At the time of crisis, exploitation is done by money-lenders not by the government.”

Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren also expressed his disappointment with the decision to charge migrants. “This is really sad,” he said. “The central government should reconsider this decision. In this hour of disaster, it is an injustice to the labour colleagues returning back home.”

He also asked why migrants should pay for the tickets, NDTV reported. “They are in any case distressed,” Soren added. “If the Centre does not, then the Jharkhand government will look for ways to make this payment but we will certainly not ask the migrants to pay.”

Meanwhile, the Karnataka government announced that migrants will be transported to their respective districts without any fare for three days starting from Sunday, according to The Hindu. The services will be available from Sunday till Tuesday from the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation Bus Stand. The Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation was castigated for charging exorbitant fares to transport workers. Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa intervened and directed KSRTC to charge only single fares. He directed the labour department to bear the other side’s payment.

In Kerala, the cost for the train tickets has to be borne by the migrants, but, the state government is providing food for the entire travel period either through packed kits or through the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation. State Finance Minister TM Thomas Isaac also asked why states should pay for the travel. “Good that wisdom has dawned – migrant workers are going to be transported in trains rather than buses,” he tweeted. “But why put burden of railway charges on states? Centre must shoulder its constitutional obligations and not only bear costs but also pay every migrant Rs 7,500 at destination.”

A senior functionary in the Chhattisgarh government told NDTV that the Narendra Modi government has passed on the financial stress to the states at a time when the collection of the Goods and Services Tax is at an all-time low.

Benoy Peter, executive director, Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development, said it is “quite unfortunate” that migrants are being charged for the journey back home, The Times of India reported. “They could have easily utilised the state disaster relief fund for the purpose since Niti Aayog had permitted use of SDRF for repatriating stranded workers, he added.

“Did the evacuation flights operated by Air India and others charge the passengers?” asked Liby Johnson, executive director, Gram Vikas. “Why should poor migrants be made to pay?”

With businesses upended and establishments shut down, vast numbers of daily wage labourers, many of whom lived where they worked, were suddenly left without any means of sustenance and shelter in large cities after the lockdown was first announced on March 25. Thousands of them, including whole families, marched along interstate highways to their homes.

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