The Bharatiya Janata Party on Monday claimed that the Ministry of Railways has subsidised the fare of train tickets for migrant workers by 85% and state governments have been asked to pay the remaining 15% on their behalf.

The statement came after Congress President Sonia Gandhi tore into the Centre for its decision to charge migrant workers for providing special trains home amid the nationwide lockdown and said the party’s state units will pay for their train travel.

Several Opposition leaders and the general public had criticised the Centre following reports that the Indian Railways will not only collect the full ticket price on its special workers trains but also levy a surcharge of Rs 50.

“We have given the permission to run special trains on states’ request,” Health Ministry Joint Secretary Lav Agarwal told reporters. “We are dividing the cost in 85-15% [railway:states share] as per the norms. We never asked states to charge money from the stranded labours.” While the BJP has defended the Centre’s move, there is no official statement from the Ministry of Railways yet.

The Ministry of Railways laid out a set of guidelines to operate the shramik special trains, including the sale of tickets, on May 2, a day after announcing the special trains. While it said that tickets will not be sold in stations, it also added that the “state government shall handover the tickets to the passengers cleared by them and collect the ticket fare and hand over the total amount to Railways”.

Follow today’s live updates on the pandemic here.

The state from which the train originates will indicate the exact number of passengers travelling, the ministry said, adding that the Railways will then print tickets to the specified destination and hand them over to the local state government authority. “Thereafter, the local state government will hand over the tickets to the passengers and collect the ticket fare. The state government will hand over the total amount to Railways,” the ministry said in its release.

The decision comes even though migrant workers have had no incomes for more than 40 days. Many have asked why the Modi government could not pick up the tab for inter-state migrant workers while it paid to evacuate expatriate Indians from places such as China, Japan, Italy and Iran. Another question was why funds from the Union government’s special Covid relief fund PM Cares were not used for this purpose. Large amounts of money, including mandatory deduction from the salaries of government employees, have been funnelled into this fund. Ironically, even the Indian Railways had donated Rs 151 crore to the fund.

The move was also criticised by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who said: “On one hand, the Railways is extorting ticket fare from labourers stranded in different states, on the other hand the railways ministry is depositing donations of Rs 151 crore in PM Cares fund. Please solve the puzzle.”

Accusing Rahul Gandhi of “politicising” the issue, Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Sambit Patra cited the home ministry’s guidelines and claimed that the government has already clarified that no tickets will be sold at any station. “Railways [ministry] has subsidised 85% [of the train fare] and [the] state governments [are] to pay 15%,” he tweeted. He added the BJP-led government in Madhya Pradesh is paying for tickets on behalf of the labourers and asked other Congress-ruled states “to follow suit”.

Meanwhile, an unidentified BJP leader told Hindustan Times that the Congress seemed to be engaged in a “desperate attempt to revive the fortunes of the party rather than help the migrants”. “There are at least two states – Bihar and Madhya Pradesh – that have decided to fund rail travel of its workers,” he said. “Kumar said the state had funded the travel [expenses] of students who had returned from Kota in Rajasthan and will do the same for migrant workers as well.”

In a series of tweets, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Chouhan also attacked Sonia Gandhi and said she had been “ill-advised” by her MPs since his government is already paying for train fares on behalf of stranded workers. “Now please also tell that which Congress-ruled states bear this expenditure?” he tweeted. “You will be surprised to know that till now we have transported more than 60,000 workers in Madhya Pradesh to their homes.”

The lockdown was initially set to end on April 14 but was extended first to May 3 and then now to 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.

Migrant workers have likely been the worst affected group during the lockdown. Stranded in cities without wages or access to food, hundreds of thousands of them 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 died along the way.

Also read:

  1. Why is India spending money showering petals on hospitals but making workers pay for train tickets?
  2. In India’s post-Covid cities, circular migrants must be given their legitimate rights
  3. In photos: Cash-strapped migrants pay for passage back home amid extended lockdown