GAADI BULA RAHI HAI...
Centre Govt, Indian Railways & Higher Judiciary — And how they all failed the poor migrant workers
- VIPIN PUBBY
Centre Govt, Indian Railways & Higher Judiciary — And how they all failed the poor migrant workers



THE LATEST CONTROVERSY over transporting migrant workers back to their homes through the railways has added to their plight and reinforced the fact that the government has treated with disdain this poor and vulnerable section of society.

As is the wont of the Modi government, which thinks it is beneath its standards to answer questions or give any clarifications for the steps taken by it, there is little clarity on the issue. The government initially refused to arrange trains for transportation of migrants back to their towns or villages even as it belatedly gave permission for their travel by buses.

No one explained why thousands of trains lying stranded could not be used for transporting the migrants. That would have been the cheapest and fastest mode of travel for the migrants and their families desperate to go back to their homes. The poor people already deprived of incomes due to loss of work could have been sent back homes within a couple of days of railways were pressed into service.

Then suddenly came the news that special trains called Shramik express trains would be started to transport the migrants. Again no details were given except that the state governments would ensure that migrants were allowed to board such trains only after screening them for coronavirus.

The poor migrants had to first pay for their medical tests and then for their train fare which, most cruelly, was more than the normal train fare.

It was only after the Congress sought to grab the opportunity for political upmanship by asking its state units to pay the fare of migrants that the ruling BJP and the central government also woke up. This is not to give a clean chit to Congress because the state governments run by the Congress had also not declared to compensate train fare of the migrants.
The fact remains that the migrants travelling back by such special trains had to pay the fare and as said earlier at times had to pay more fare than the usual.
The central government then came out with the spacious argument that the centre was anyways subsidising passenger fare by 85 per cent so the burden on state governments asking for special trains would be only 15 per cent. Evidently the Railways has been subsiding passenger fares to keep these low.

This was clearly diverting the attention and trying to confuse the issue.

The fact remains that the migrants travelling back by such special trains had to pay the fare and as said earlier at times had to pay more fare than the usual. Some state governments like Bihar announced that they would reimburse the fare if claimed within a month of the completion of the journey.

The point is that the railways come under the central government. States do not get direct revenues from the railways. So why did the central government not run the trains for the stranded migrants? why did it want the states ‘requesting’ for special trains be asked to foot the bill even if was 15 per cent?

The state governments are already under severe strain for funds. Two main sources of revenue for state governments - taxes on petrol and petroleum products and the excise revenue from sale of liquor - had dried up over the last month and a half. On top of it the central government had not been releasing the due share of GST for the states.

When the entire operation of railways is with the centre which has a separate budget for it, why did it not provide normal train services to the migrants? It could have made states responsible to check that those affected by coronavirus were not allowed on these trains but why ask the states to pay.

After all how many trains the railways would had to run to get all the migrants wanting to return. Surely in a few hundreds or may be even few thousands. Official statistics say that the Indian railways had been running 20,000 passenger trains daily ferrying 30 million passengers every day. 

It is also a well known fact that the profit of the railways comes from freight trains while the low passenger fares cause losses. The revenue from the passenger fares is less than half of the revenue earned by railways from freight trains.
Also read some earlier write-ups by VIPIN PUBBY:

Since freight trains were running during the lockdown period and passenger trains had been on a stand still, it was evident that railways would have increased some profit during this period. So why not arrange free transportation back for the most deprived sections of our society.

The government is, however, not willing to answer any of those questions even though it has put all its might and resources behind getting its citizens from abroad - including navy war ships and Air Force aircrafts.

In this context I would also like to comment on the role of the judiciary. The Supreme Court simply dismissed a public interest litigation seeking monetary help for the migrants deprived of jobs. It said it was a policy decision which had to be taken by the central government. The least that was expected from the last frontier of justice was to question the government or direct the government on steps for helping the migrants.
 
While it took less than 15 hours to hear appeal in Arnab Goswami case, who was wanting FIRs quashed against him, it postponed for hearing the migrants case by more than a month. The courts had been failing the citizens in the recent past including shying away from protecting fundamental rights of the citizens.

The central government, however, must bear the blame for initially forgetting all about the migrants, then neglecting to send them back by trains and now charging them when they have lost jobs as well as shelters at their workplaces.
 
 

(The author, a freelance journalist, is a former Resident Editor of Indian Express, Chandigarh, and reported on the political developments in Jammu and Kashmir, North-Eastern India, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab in his long, illustrious career.)

 
 
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