Migrant workers in many parts of the country are being made to pay Rs 1000 to Rs 1400 per head to return home.

BJP says 85 fare subsidy for special trains Harping on a mere technicalityPTI : Image for representation
news Coronavirus Monday, May 04, 2020 - 17:07

It’s the season for politics over train tickets, even as migrant workers across the country are confused, and struggling to reach home. The BJP on Monday claimed that the Indian Railways has subsidised 85% of ticket fare for special trains being run to transport migrant workers. It’s only the remaining 15% that the state governments have to pay, they said. This development comes after Sonia Gandhi, interim-Congress president, earlier in the day said that state units of the Congress party will take care of the train fares which migrants are being forced to pay in many parts of the country.

Now, it appears that the 85% subsidy that the BJP is talking about is a mere technicality, and the actual cost of travel per head has not been reduced by the central government. The '15%' that the BJP says state governments have to pay, is the full cost of 1200 tickets per train -- and while some state governments are paying this, others have asked migrant workers to pay it themselves. In many parts of the country, poor migrants being made to pay Rs 1000 to Rs 1400 per head to return home – hundreds of rupees more than regular train fares on the same routes. 

A controversy erupted on Sunday with opposition parties demanding that migrant workers who have been stranded across the country and want to return home, should not be charged for train tickets. The central government in its notification said that it is not charging ticket fares from individuals, but is instead asking state governments to bear the cost of 1200 tickets per train -- which the BJP has translated as '15% of the total cost'.  

The 85% subsidy claim

As the central and state governments faced criticism for the move, on Monday, the Congress offered to pay for the ticket fares. Soon after Sonia Gandhi’s statement on Monday, the BJP said the railways was already providing subsidised tickets bearing 85% of the travel costs. The announcement from the BJP came through Sambit Patra, BJP spokesperson. “Railways has subsidised 85% & State govt to pay 15%,” he said. He was responding to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi's attack on the railways for charging poor migrant labourers ticket fares, even as it donated over Rs 151 crore to the PM-CARES Fund.

"Rahul Gandhi ji, I have attached guidelines of MHA which clearly states that 'No tickets to be sold at any station'. Railways has subsidised 85% & state govt to pay 15%. The state govt can pay for the tickets (Madhya Pradesh's BJP govt is paying). Ask Cong state govts to follow suit," Patra tweeted. The document attached by the BJP leader highlighted that “No tickets are to be sold at the stations.” While this is true, what the railways is essentially doing is to give the tickets to state governments and asking them to pay the fares for the full train – 1200 tickets – in advance. 

None of the documents Patra tweeted detailed on how the 85% subsidy by the Indian Railways benefited the workers travelling in these trains.

There is no official announcement, the railways officials say they’re charging ‘normal fare’, and migrant workers are shelling out money from their pockets to return home. So where is this 85% subsidy coming from?

BJP drumming on a technicality?

According to a source in know, the BJP’s claim of 85% subsidy could be based on a technicality. “The normal fares charged by the railways is about 50 to 55% less than the actual cost of the journey. Further, because social distancing norms have to be maintained, these special trains have only 54 people per coach, instead of 70-72 in normal times. It’s like that the BJP is considering this as an 85% subsidy from the centre’s side – how the citizens of the country will see it is a different question altogether,” the source said. 

Following the publication of this article, this hunch from the source was confirmed by BJP leader BL Santhosh, in a tweet. "Railways already subsidises 57% of passenger fare . 1/3 rd passengers & empty train on return journey adds another 28%. This 85% is borne by railways . It’s asking another 15% from states of origin not #MigrantLabourers," he said.

Essentially, the cost of each person's travel back home remains the same as pre-COVID times, and the central government has transferred this cost to the state governments. 

Subramanian Swamy’s criticism

It was not only the Congress which had cornered the BJP; its own party MP, Subramanian Swamy had lambasted the central government. In a tweet, he had said, “How moronic of the Government of India to charge steep rail fares from the half starved migrant labourers! Indians stranded abroad were brought back free by Air India. If Railways refuse to budge then why not make PM CARES pay instead?”

Later in a tweet, Swamy claimed that migrant workers returning home will not have to pay money as the rail travel will be free from now onwards. He said, "Talked to Piyush Goel office. Govt will pay 85% and the State Govt 15%. Migrant labour will go free. The Ministry will clarify with an official statement."

Such a statement from the Railway Ministry has not come at the time of writing. This article will be updated when an official clarification comes from the Centre. 

‘We are charging normal fares to the state govt’: Railways

South Western Railways, which ran six such trains from Bengaluru to Bihar and Jharkhand, also confirmed what the central government said – that they are not charging any money from individual travellers but charging the state government in bulk. Trivandrum Division of Southern Railway which ran 11 trains since May 1 also confirmed that they are not taking money from individual passengers but from the state government in bulk.

AK Singh, General Manager, South Western Railways, said on Monday, “The fare is the normal one. It is being collected by the state government who in turn are paying us in bulk for the full train. The railways are charging the normal train fare plus Rs 50 including booking charges for sleeper class. The state government is supposed to give the fare for 1,200 people in bulk to the Railways.”

He added, “While normally we carry 70 people per coach, we are now carrying 54 people to maintain social distancing.”

But while the Centre and states, and political parties, haggle over who is spending more money in the instance, migrant workers who have been put through emotional distress for weeks are shelling out money from their own pockets to return home.

For instance, multiple people who left for Patna from Bengaluru told TNM that they are being made to pay Rs 1050 per head. The money is collected by the police in their area when they complete the registration process to transport workers by train. The same was confirmed by two police inspectors in Bengaluru who issued the tickets. The sleeper class fare from Bengaluru city is around Rs 900 for Express trains. In Kerala meanwhile, workers had to pay Rs 1400 to reach Bihar from Ernakulam – while IRCTC website shows the normal ticket fare of around Rs 500 to 600. 

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