NEW DELHI: The government’s decision to charge stranded migrant workers a train fare for returning to their home states sparked outrage on Monday, with civil society activists saying it has created a “huge humanitarian crisis.”
“This crisis could have been avoided had the government given time to people before announcing the lockdown on March 24. It is insane on the part of the government to charge money from daily wage workers who have lost all their income in the lockdown,” Nikhil Dey of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (Workers and Farmers Solidarity Group), a New Delhi-based NGO, told Arab News.
With the sudden announcement of a nationwide lockdown on March 24 to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the country, millions of daily wage workers were stranded in different parts of India with no income or food to eat.
On Friday, the government decided to run special trains from different parts of the country to take the workers back to their home states on the condition that they pay for their fare.
India’s main opposition party, the Congress Party, sensed an opportunity to connect with its lost constituents and announced on Monday that it would bear the cost of the train expenses for the workers.
“What is particularly disturbing is that the central government and the Rail Ministry are charging them for train tickets in this hour of crisis,” Congress President Sonia Gandhi said in a statement.
“The Indian National Congress has therefore taken the decision that every state congress committee shall bear the cost for the rail travel of every needy worker and migrant laborer and shall take necessary steps in this regard,” she added.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, however, said that the charges were “baseless and aimed to mess up the entire system and create chaos.”
“We never talked about charging workers; 85 percent fare would be borne by the railways and 15 percent by state governments,” a government official said at a press conference on Monday.
However, Ratan Pandey, a daily wage worker who traveled from the southern state of Kerala to the eastern state of Jharkhand on Monday by a special train told Arab News that he paid Rs850 ($11.50) for the travel expenses.
“Earlier, I was told that travel would be free. However, when my ticket was confirmed, they asked for money, and I had to spend whatever little I had in paying for the travel cost,” Pandey said.
A daily wage worker earns at least $6.50 per day. Millions of workers in different parts of India have been without work for the past 40 days.
Dey said the only solution to avert the crisis would be “imaginative and ambitious state-citizen partnerships.”
“Statesmanship in dealing with a pandemic requires responding with concrete measures and empathy to everyone’s distress and needs. Certain basic rights should be guaranteed to all citizens — the right to food, the right to work at minimum wages, and equal access to health care,” he said.