Amidst criticism over the railways charging stranded migrant workers for ferrying them home, payments for 45 special trains that have run so far have been made by originating states, barring Maharashtra, Kerala and Karnataka, sources said on Monday. Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in a press conference on Monday also ruled out paying the fare for migrant workers.
Sources said states like Rajasthan, Telangana and Gujarat -- from where Shramik Special trains have originated -- are paying on behalf of the the migrant workers, while Jharkhand, which has only received such trains, has also paid for the travel of workers.
The Gujarat government has roped in an NGO to pay part of the travel cost, sources said.
States like Maharashtra, Kerala and Karnataka -- from where some trains originated -- are charging the labourers for the trips, the sources said.
A controversy erupted on Monday after several opposition parties demanded that migrant workers not be charged for the train tickets. As the Congress offered to pay for the workers, the BJP hit back, saying the railways was already providing subsidised tickets bearing 85 percent of the travel costs.
In the Standard Operating Procedures for these Shramik Special Trains, the railways had said on Saturday the "local state government shall handover the tickets for these passengers cleared by them and collect the ticket fare and hand over the total amount to Railways."
The Central government in a press conference, however, on Monday said, "The government of India has not ever talked of charging train fare from workers. Eighty-five per cent of fare will be borne by the Indian Railways, 15% by state government," said Health Minister Joint Secretary Lav Agarwal.
The railways is yet to issue an official statement on the issue, which it, unofficially, said was a "political battle".
Officials, however, have been maintaining that it was charging only standard fare for these special trains from the state governments which is just 15 percent of the total cost incurred.
In fact, the railways' sleeper class tickets even during normal times is subsidised by around 43 per cent, the officials said, while also pointing out the additional operational costs of running an empty train back to originating station and booking of only 54 seats instead of all 72 per coach.
"The railways are running Shramik special trains keeping berths empty in each coach to maintain social distancing. The trains are returning empty from destinations under lock and key," a senior railway officials said.
"Free food and bottled water is being given to migrants by the railways. We have run 45 such trains so far and we will continue to do so. Nowhere in our SOP, we have said that the fares be collected from travelling migrants," said a senior official of the railways.
It also said that if these trains were made free of cost, then it would have been difficult to regulate the crowd.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has requested the Centre not to charge any amount from migrant labourers for travelling by train during the coronavirus-enforced lockdown.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in a video statement on Monday said the state government has been giving money to the railways for the transport of migrants.
"No migrant needs to pay for their travel," he said.
The Kerala Chief Minister said the state had no plans of paying for the tickets of migrants.
"The guest workers have booked their ticktes by themselves for their travel. We thought that the Centre would bear the expense but that is not happening," said Vijayan.
When asked if the state has any plans to bear the ticket charges, he said, "No. The state government was not planning for anything like that."
In Karnataka's capital Bengaluru, a government official confirmed the workers were paying their own way home on the Shramik Special Trains.
"No, the passengers themselves are paying," said the official when asked if the state government was paying for the migrant labourers.
Sources said that Odisha, which has till now only received migrants is unlikely to pay for its their tickets.
The migrant workers who have come back to the state from the Southern States have paid for their own tickets, sources said.
Madhya Pradesh, which till now has only received migrants, is also yet to be billed by the railways.
The railways is charging the fare of sleeper class tickets in mail/express trains, plus a super-fast charge of Rs 30 and an additional charge of Rs 20 for the Shramik Special Trains.