Migrant labourers in Indian cities whose incomes have plummeted as a result of anti-corona virus lockdown measures have been told that they will have to pay to board special trains taking them back to their homes in the countryside.
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.
Since the lockdown was imposed on 25 March, 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”.
The Congress party president, Sonia Gandhi, announced 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 24 February.
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.
As rightly pointed out by Omar Abdullah, it is ironical and indeed shameful on behalf of the government to allow the people stuck in abroad, who are comparatively in a better financial condition than Indian labourers and aren’t at least dying of hunger are provided with free of cost plane travel by the government, but the government is least concerned about its own labours, who are living a nightmarish life in different states. The government is torturing them more by mandating it for them to arrange for certificates when hardly any medical staffs is available and pay exorbitant prices for the train tickets, this is simply inhumane. It leads me into thinking that is the government of our nation only concerned about its international image, by spending lakhs and crores on functions like Namaste trump and organising free plane travel for migrants stuck abroad? It is least bothered about what its own poor countrymen are going through? However, the initiative taken by congress president Sonia Gandhi is commendable here.
Article Written By- Lavanya Ambalkar
Law Student– Symbiosis Law school, Pune
(HRDI Work From Home Internship)