Jobless migrant workers in India were outraged as authorities asked them to pay for their special train ride back to their homes in the countryside amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The decision has prompted derision in India, where most labourers live off what they earn in a day and have been surviving on state handouts.
“At first I thought it was a joke,” said Badal Raj, a carpenter from Patna who lives in a shelter in Delhi. “We have to pay? My last few rupees went on recharging my phone so I could speak to my children. Where am I going to get the money for the fare?”
The opposition was quick to jump on the issue with Congress party president, Sonia Gandhi, announcing that the party had decided it would bear the cost of the travel as a “humble contribution” towards the workers.
“Our workers and labourers form the backbone of our economy. Their hard work and sacrifice are the foundation of our nation,” said Gandhi.
She pointed out that the Narendra Modi government had spent 1bn rupees (£10.6m) on food and transport for those attending just one event, Namaste Trump, to welcome the US president, Donald Trump, in Gujarat on February 25.
Since the lockdown was imposed on March 25, an estimated 10 million labourers have been trapped in the company of strangers in cities across India, with no work or income and a long way from the comfort of home and family.
With public transport shut down, many labourers walked hundreds of miles to their homes in a massive reverse migration. Those who remained have been sequestered in government shelters.
As time has gone by and the lockdown, which was meant to end on Monday, has been extended a third time, they have run out of money to recharge their phones, snapping their last tie to their families. Meanwhile the government has arranged special flights to bring home affluent Indians who were stranded abroad.
Opposition politicians reacted with incredulity to the train fare. The National Conference leader, Omar Abdullah, tweeted: “If you are stuck abroad … the government will fly you back for free, but if you are a migrant worker stranded in another state, be prepared to cough up the money for the cost of travel.”
The Samajwadi party leader, Akhilesh Yadav, called the decision “highly shameful”.
In another difficulty for migrant workers, reports suggest they will first have to obtain a medical certificate saying they have no flu-like symptoms. Initial indications had suggested that the various state governments would organise screening of all workers before they boarded the trains.
But now labourers are desperately seeking certificates at a time when local clinics and doctors are not easily available.
It is not known how long it will take for migrant workers to get home. The social activist Harsh Mander alleged that the slow pace of returns – five weeks since the lockdown was imposed – was deliberate.
“The government is under pressure from industry who worry that there won’t be enough labour in the cities when economic activity restarts. That’s why it is all taking so long when, in fact, the railways could easily organise hundreds of trains,” he said. (Source: The Guardian)