Activists from the Stranded Workers Action Network and on Tuesday highlighted several gaps in the government’s standard operating procedure for travel of migrant workers to their hometowns. The SOP was issued on Monday. In a press release, the activists said that they sent a new standard operating procedure to the Ministry of Home Affairs.

From May 1, the Centre has used shramik special trains to ferry migrants from their places of work to their hometowns amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The groups said that the government has since April 29 issued four orders on migrant travel. Of these, the first three, it alleged, were “confusing and conflicting”, while the order issued on Monday was “incomplete and vague”, and the travel protocols established by various states have many gaps. The organisation added that a second exodus of migrant labourers to their hometowns has begun.

The press release noted that many workers have died on their way back home. It cited the incident in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad, where 16 labourers sleeping on the tracks were run over. “The irony of having died under the wheels of a train they hoped would take them home will haunt us,” the press release said. “In another incident, a migrant worker walking home from Telangana to Chhattisgarh had to deliver her baby by the roadside.”

The activists added that the travel registration process for migrants lacks clarity and standardisation. “Each state has developed its own web portal to register workers,” the press release said. “However, there is confusion as to whether workers have to register on portals of both states – the states where they are stranded and the states where they intend to return.” The press release added that many websites are in English or in the local language, which the migrants do not understand.

It said that some migrants are stranded as families or groups, but the websites do not allow group registration. Some websites also require scanned identity proofs with size limitations. The activists also claimed that the websites of the Delhi and Bihar governments are non-functional.

“Additionally, in some places, workers have been asked to go to police stations to register,” SWAN said. “There is, however, no transparency on how those registered in police stations are being entered on the web portals. Numerous workers have been made to leave police stations without registration and there are reports of some being beaten up at the police stations.”

The press release added that once the registration is complete, there is no follow up. There is no way for migrant labourers to find out the status of their applications. “Even when some of the states or the Centre have agreed to waive ticket fares or make buses free of cost, workers do not know how to access these free facilities,” SWAN said.

The press release said that the Centre’s SOP does not detail how online and offline registrations will be coordinated. Secondly, it does not make clear the logistics and the basis for allotment of passengers to trains. “Third, there are no protocols regarding information dissemination to workers about the travel plan and schedule in an easily accessible manner,” it said. “Fourth, it does not provide any way for workers to track their application status. Fifth, cost considerations for workers and the protocols for intrastate travels are not clear. Sixth, it doesn’t specify any robust mechanism to estimate the number of trains required. Seventh, it specifies only ‘e-passes’ and does not provide any offline registration protocol.”

The press release added that the SOP does not clarify how data registered on state websites would be migrated to a single platform, if any. The SOP also does not possess any grievance redressal mechanism. Lastly, SWAN alleged, there is no criteria for prioritising passengers who are disabled or elderly.

The press release said that the registration of migrants should not be subject to any conditions, but should be based only on the workers’ desire to return home. “The onus of issuing passes and testing should lie with the state from which the migrant is travelling and registration in the home state should only be done on arrival,” the activists said. “Further testing and quarantining procedures as per WHO standards should be set up in the home states upon arrival.”

They also alleged that a flourishing black market for tickets had developed in the absence of well-defined protocols for travel. “Migrants have reported paying between Rs 1,500-8,000 to register for travel by bus and trains,” it said.

SWAN, in its suggested SOP, said that a common data website should be established for migrants to register for travel. It said that offline and online processes should be standardised as much as possible.

Lists of migrants cleared for travel should be provided to home states on a daily basis, the suggested SOP said. “Special feeder buses and intra-state feeder trains need to be used to transport people from each ward to the station,” it added.

The suggested SOP said that train schedules, details of feeder buses connecting to train stations, boarding points, passenger lists and waiting lists must be made publicly available in multiple places. The SOP demanded that the workers be given free tickets.

“Each public registration centre should act as a worker facilitation centre,” it added. “Each such centre must be provided with time-bound grievance redressal structure.”

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