Rajat Sharma

Why play politics in the name of poor migrant workers

AKB2610Thousands of migrant workers gathered in Surat, Pune, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Bengaluru and other cities on Monday demanding that they be sent back to their home states in special trains. In the last four days, the Railways have run 50 special trains transporting more than 50,000 migrant workers to their home states.

There were clashes between migrant workers and police in Surat, Bengaluru and Pune. Police had to fire teargas shells in Surat after workers resorted to stoning and ransacking, while in Pune, police resorted to a mild lathicharge.

During the initial three days when the special trains were run, there was no panic among migrant workers. On Monday, thousands of migrant workers assembled in different cities demanding that they be sent back home in trains. Obviously, the grapevines were active on social media among workers, most of whom hailed from UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal.

Now that most of the industries in western India have started reopening and they need workers, there seems to be an element of surprise in why these workers have opted to leave for their native places. I believe, the main reason could be that some politicians are playing cheap politics.

On Monday morning, Congress president Sonia Gandhi issued a statement asking all state party units to bear the cost of travel of migrant workers travelling in special trains. In her statement, she alleged: “What is particularly disturbing is that the Central government and the Rail ministry are charging them for train tickets in this hour of crisis.” Her son Rahul Gandhi followed up with derisive remarks about the Centre on Twitter.

I want to pose a simple question to the Congress leaders: Just tell me where are those railway ticket counters or internet websites from where tickets for special train are being sold?

Let me state the facts. It is true that each worker paid the basic sleeper fare plus Rs 30 superfast charge and Rs 20 reservation charge for a ticket. But Railway is bearing 85 per cent of the transportation cost, (that includes loss due to only 60 per cent occupancy in coaches and return of empty train) while some state governments are bearing the remaining 15 per cent. The Railway is also bearing the cost of meals and drinking water provided to the workers. Workers who returned to Patna from Mumbai and from Rajasthan to Lucknow by special trains on Monday revealed that they didn’t have to pay full fare.

Clearly, Congress leaders are misguiding poor migrant workers. They are alleging that the Railway is collecting full travel fare from those who have had no work for the last 40 days and have no money for even food. The fact is that non-BJP governments like Kerala, Maharashtra and Rajasthan collected 15 % train fare from these poor workers, but the central leadership of Congress is blaming the Centre.

There is , however, a valid question: if the Railway can bear 85 per cent of the total transportation cost, then why not 100 per cent?

I spoke to railway Officials. They gave a logical reply. Had the Railways announced free travel for all migrant workers, the crowds at major railway stations would have been unmanageable.

They pointed out to how more than a lakh workers with their families turned out at Anand Vihar, merely on the basis of rumours that the UP government was organizing special buses for them. Similarly, on the basis of rumours on social media, thousands gathered outside Bandra station and the Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray had to appeal to Railways to run special trains.

It was only when Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren sent request for a special train to the Railway ministry that the matter was given serious thought and the first special train was planned and operated under complete secrecy to avoid unmanageable crowds.

The Railways did not want big crowds to gather at major railway stations. They passed on the onus of collecting fare to the state governments who were bilaterally organizing these trips. Had the Railways run free special trains, most of the state governments would have demanded more of such trains, because they were not footing the bill.

If huge crowds had packed into railway coaches, the entire objective of lockdown will be defeated. Had the Railways announced free special trains for all migrant workers and stranded persons, the gains that were accrued in the last 40 days of lockdown would have been frittered away.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi questioned why Railways did not foot the bill for migrant workers, when it donated Rs 151 crores to the PM Care Relief fund? What is Rs 151 crore compared to thousands of crores that are being spent on the poor during this national crisis? Let me give you some figures.

The Centre has spent Rs 45,000 crore in the last one month on poor people, women, farmers and other weaker sections of society. Nearly 33 crore people have been benefitted.

Till April 23, the Centre has spent Rs 31,235 crore on the poor through free rations and money transferred to their accounts, through Rs 16,146 crore transferred to the accounts of 8 crore farmers at the rate of Rs 2,000 each, through Rs 10,025 crore transferred to the accounts of 20.5 crore women in their Jan Dhan accounts at the rate of Rs 500 each. This amount will be transferred every month for the next three months.

Similarly, the Centre transferred Rs 1,405 crore in the accounts of 2.87 crore senior citizens, widows and disabled persons. They will be getting Rs 500 crore p.m. for the next three months. Rs 3,497 crore was transferred to the accounts of 2.17 lakh construction workers.

The Centre has distributed 2.66 crore free LPG cylinders to the homes of poor families in the last one month. So far 3.05 crore free LPG cylinders have been booked. Poor families will be getting wheat, rice and pulses at cheap prices for the next three months.

The question that naturally arises is : if the Centre can spend thousands of crores on the poor, why did it charge train fare from migrant workers? Because money is not the issue.

Had the Railways arranged free special trains, the very purpose of lockdown would have been defeated and we would have been staring at the horror of a community spread of the pandemic. Moreover, the huge crowds that would have gathered at railway stations for a free ride would have been unmanageable.

Moreover, with lockdown restrictions being relaxed, industries and businesses are now reopening and they need workers. Many of these workers are rethinking. Some want to stay back and go to work in their industries.

To speak in favour of the poor is a right thing, but when political leaders speak, they must understand the consequences of their statements, in the interest of the society and the nation.

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