Congress President Sonia Gandhi on Monday criticised the Centre’s decision to charge migrant workers for providing special trains home amid the nationwide lockdown and said the party will pay for their train travel.

“The Indian National Congress has, therefore, taken a decision that every Pradesh Congress Committee shall bear the cost for the rail travel of every needy worker and migrant labourer and shall take necessary steps in this regard,” Gandhi said in a statement. “This will be the Indian National Congress’ humble contribution in service of our compatriots and to stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with them.”

The decision of the Narendra Modi government to charge an additional fare of Rs 50 for migrant workers to return home in Shramik special trains, to be operated at the request of the state governments, has drawn flak.

The Congress president said labourers and migrant workers are the “backbone” of India’s economy, adding that the government’s decision on March 24 to declare a lockdown at four-hours notice has led to a tragedy. “Post the partition of 1947, this is the first time India witnessed a tragedy with such a massive human cost as thousands of migrant workers and labourers were forced to walk home several hundred kilometres on foot – without food, without medicines, without money, without transportation, without anything except for the desire to return to their families and loved ones,” she added.

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Gandhi said lakhs of workers and migrant labourers are “languishing in different parts of the country” and wished to return to their homes and families, but have no money or free transportation arrangements to do so. The statement also highlighted Congress’ repeated demands for safe and free rail travel of migrant labourers, adding that the Centre had ignored them.

The Congress leader said it is “particularly disturbing” that the Centre and the railway ministry decided to make migrants pay the train fare during the crisis. 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.

“Our workers and labourers are the ambassadors of our nation’s growth,” Gandhi said. “When our government can recognise its responsibility by arranging free air travel for our citizens stranded abroad, when the government can spend nearly Rs 100 crores on transport and food etc for just one public programme in Gujarat, when the Rail Ministry has the largesse to donate Rs 151 crores to the PM’s corona fund, then why can’t these essential members of our nation’s fabric be given a fraction of the same courtesy, especially free rail travel, at this hour of acute distress?”

The lockdown, imposed first on March 25 in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, was to end on May 3. However, it has been extended by another two weeks till May 17. On Friday, the Centre started operating special trains to move migrant workers, pilgrims and students stranded in various states. Lakhs of migrant workers have also registered to return to their homes.

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