Union Home Minister Amit Shah on Monday claimed that a few migrant labourers had lost patience and started walking during the coronavirus lockdown even though the Centre had provided adequate facilities for them to return home.

“Some people lost patience and started walking on the roads,” Shah told CNN-News18 in an interview. “Even then we started buses and transported them to railway stations from where they were safely taken to their villages.”

The Centre had announced a nationwide lockdown to check the spread of coronavirus on March 25. But the government began arranging special trains only on May 1, while bus services started from April 20 to take migrants home. In between, many migrants made gruelling and dangerous trips back to their hometowns as public transport was not running during the lockdown. At least 170 workers have been killed in accidents on the roads or train tracks. Many others died from the exhaustion of walking in the scorching heat. Nearly 80 migrant workers died of starvation or heat sickness between May 9 and May 27 while travelling on special trains, according to the data from the Railway Protection Force.

Admitting that “a lot of people had to face troubles”, Shah claimed that there were some unwanted incidents for “5-6 days”. He said the government had provided all facilities to the migrant workers. “This is why more than a crore migrant labourers have reached home,” he added. “However, it is true that some incidents happened that should not have. For 5-6 days it happened. After which we provided facilities and people started understanding it.” The Bharatiya Janata Party leader said the Centre has transferred Rs 11,000 crore to states to make arrangements for the returning migrants. “Forty-one lakh migrant workers were sent home by buses and 55 lakh were sent home in trains,” he added.

When asked if the government’s four-hour notice before imposing the nationwide lockdown was too short and if transporting the migrants earlier would have been a better idea, Shah said there could have then been stampedes. The home minister said the government used the lockdown period to strengthen the healthcare facilities in states. “Health facilities were not ready by then, states were also not ready, quarantine facilities were not in place by then,” said Shah. “We got all of this ready in two months.”

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Shah reiterated 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. “Let me say categorically that 85% of the train fare has been paid by Railways and the rest 15% has been paid by the states,” he added.

The train fare for labourers had stirred a controversy last month when Sonia Gandhi tore into the Centre’s decision to charge migrant workers for providing special trains during the nationwide lockdown. She said the Congress party will pay for their train travel.

The Indian Railways had said in a May 2 order that the tickets would be printed and handed to state governments, which would then collect the ticket fare from the passengers and hand this to the Railways.

But after Gandhi and parties such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal said they would pay for migrants, political squabbling ensued. The BJP and the central government then attempted to claim that the fault was of the states, and Congress ones in particular, because the Centre was paying for 85% of the fare, and asking the state government to contribute just 15%. It also claimed that Congress states were the only ones charging migrant workers for travel. There was, however, no order showing that the Centre was paying 85% of the fare.

Also read:

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  2. Even if it can’t let migrant workers go home, India must treat them justly and humanely
  3. Migrant workers are individuals with rights, not resources to be deployed as the economy is rebooted
  4. Why is India spending money showering petals on hospitals but making workers pay for train tickets?

Shah said that the Centre has provided help in kind – food, transportation and medical facilities. He claimed the government has also been transferring money directly into the accounts of migrant workers through the Direct Benefit Scheme.

There have, however, been several reports of migrant workers not being given food and water on long train journeys in the searing heat. Workers complain about the squalid conditions of travel and inordinate delays in train schedules. Many alleged that they were not given anything to eat or drink during the journey, while others claimed they were fed rotten food.

The home minister said the government has used the lockdown period effectively to ramp up medical and quarantine facilities even at the district-level. “Now, facilities are in place in all districts,” he claimed. “There are protocols in places across all districts and there has been training of home guards, policemen, panchayat members and health care workers. All this has enabled us to move towards Unlock-1.” Shah added that Indians would have to get used to living with the virus until a vaccine is developed.