The Ministry of Home Affairs on Tuesday asked for “proactive coordination” between states and the railway ministry in order to run more trains and buses for transporting migrant labourers back to their hometowns, amid the coronavirus crisis. The ministry also suggested that states should make arrangements for rest places, food and shelter for migrants who are on their way back to their villages on foot.

Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla wrote to chief secretaries of states, suggesting a range of measures to make it easier for workers to travel home, 56 days after a nationwide lockdown began.

Bhalla said that more special trains could be run with proper coordination between the railway ministry and the states. “District authorities may guide workers moving on foot to designated rest places, nearby bus terminals, or railway stations for arranging transportation,” the letter read.

Bhalla said states can make a list of migrants with the names, addresses and phone numbers that will be helpful in contact tracing to test for suspected cases of Covid-19. He said that state authorities or non-governmental organisations should alleviate the fears of migrant workers that they would be placed under long quarantine after returning home via trains or buses.

The Union home secretary suggested allowing entry of buses carrying migrants at the interstate borders. He said states should provide more clarity to migrants about departure of trains and buses, in order to reduce unrest among them. “Special attention may be given to the specific requirements of women, children and elderly among the migrant workers,” Bhalla said.

The Centre imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 25 to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The lockdown has been extended thrice, and will conclude on May 31. The lockdown left hundreds of thousands of migrant workers stranded in the places of their work, and many attempted to travel home on foot. On May 1, the Centre started operating over 300 “Shramik Special” trains for workers, however, many still continue to travel home on foot or in private vehicles. Some have died on the way, of illness or in accidents.

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New SOP on movement of migrant workers by trains

The Ministry of Home Affairs also issued a revised Standard Operating Protocol on movement of migrant workers by trains. The ministry said that movement of “Shramik Special” trains will be permitted by the Ministry of Railways in consultation with the home ministry.

“The train schedule including stoppages and destination shall be finalised by the MoR [Ministry of Railways] based on the requirement of states/UTs and shall be communicated by the MoR to the states/UTs for making suitable arrangements for sending and receiving such stranded workers,” the home ministry said. It said that the Ministry of Railways will publicise train schedules, protocols for entry of passengers into the railway stations and their travel, ticket booking arrangements and services to be provided in the trains.

The new SOP added that the states from where the migrants leave, as well as the Ministry of Railways, will ensure that all of them are screened prior to departure. Only asymptomatic passengers should be allowed to board the trains, the list read.

“During boarding and travel, all passengers shall have to observe social distancing,” the home ministry said. “On arrival at their destination, the travelling passengers will have to adhere to such health protocols as are prescribed by the destination state/UT,” it said.