By SM.19 May, 2020
NEW DELHI: The set-up for a new confrontation between the centre and states was put in place today with an overhauling of the rules that were being followed so far to send migrant workers home on special "Shramik" trains. The receiving state"s consent is no longer necessary for trains to pull in with workers.
Since trains began operating on May 1, the standard operating protocol was for the state from which the workers were departing and the state where the train was terminating to sign off on a co-ordinated effort.
However, some states - like Bengal - have been accused by the centre of blocking the arrival of trains. This has meant a huge build-up of workers in the states where they worked till the world"s biggest lockdown was announced on March 24.
The opposition says the centre"s claims are absurd because originally, it showed no interest in helping lakhs of stranded workers get home. A myriad of pictures have poured out of cities everyday of workers, too broke to travel or unable to get a spot on a train or bus, walking home, carrying children in their tired arms or attempting to cycle or hitchhike hundreds of kilometres to get to their villages.
Chief Ministers like Nitish Kumar of Bihar have shared concerns over their inability to sufficiently test and quarantine those returning home. Yesterday, Bihar reported that 8 percent (nearly double the national average) of incoming workers have tested positive for coronavirus.
Goa Chief Minister Pramod Sawant has urged against trains making a stop in the coastal state over fears that after crossing into clean, no-case territory, new infections are being reported with arriving passengers.
When the trains were first announced, the policy on fares distended horror and outrage because the state where the train was originating from was asked to collect 15 percent of the ticket fare from passengers. Congress president Sonia Gandhi said her party would pick up the tab as much as possible so that workers didn"t have to pay. The centre said it was up to the home state and not workers to pay for the fares, which were subsidized by 85 percent.
But as always, it is Bengal and its leader Mamata Banerjee who have been the centrepiece of differences with the centre with both sides accusing each other of being callous to the plight of migrants who wish to return home. The Chief Minister alleges the centre has been playing politics; the centre says her administration is blocking the re-entry of workers. Home Minister Amit Shah is even reported to have spoken to Banerjee to persuade her to allow more trains to reach Bengal.
A total of two million migrant workers have so far been transported home on Shramik specials, the centre says.
In a decision quickly rescinded after provoking public outrage, Karnataka, governed by the BJP, had decided not to allow any trains to take migrant workers home to states like Bihar because of concerns that the supply of labour for construction would dwindle. The opposition Congress accused the government of treating workers like "bonded labour".
It isn"t just the paucity of trains that has been at odds with the magnitude of workers desperate to get home. To get a spot on a train is a formidable challenge with complicated forms to be filled out, often in English, as well as OTPs and other information mandatory for travel being transmitted to mobile phones.
Nearly every day, there are scenes of thousands of workers gathered at a departure point - in Ghaziabad near Delhi yesterday, in Mumbai today, who are turned away because they aren"t confirmed to travel home.