The Bengal government announced on Sunday evening that 1,200 migrants from the state, who had been stranded in Rajasthan amid the coronavirus lockdown, would be returning on Tuesday via a special "shramik (worker)" train run by the Indian Railways.
Bengal's Information and Cultural Affairs (I&CA) department confirmed this with a tweet at 7.08 pm, which said: "The government of West Bengal is bringing back more than a thousand stranded migrant labourers of Bengal from Rajasthan by a special train".
In a second, separate tweet, the government said efforts were ongoing to bring back tourists and pilgrims from Kerala who had also been stranded by the nationwide clampdown on movement, which includes suspension of all public transport.
GOWB is bringing back more than a thousand stranded migrant labourers of Bengal from Rajasthan by a special train that will leave Ajmer tomorrow morning and will run non-stop to arrive here in the morning of 5 May.— Information And Cultural Affairs Department - GOWB (@InformationAn12) May 3, 2020
Letters of two State Governments are attached. pic.twitter.com/fJCa9bitcd
Ninety minutes before the government's tweet Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankar also tweeted, saying he had discussed a special train for migrants from Rajasthan's Ajmer with Railway Minister Piyush Goel on Saturday.
Had discussion with Railway Minister Piyush Goyal yesterday for facilitating return of migrants to our State.— Governor West Bengal Jagdeep Dhankhar (@jdhankhar1) May 3, 2020
One special train likely to reach and terminate at Durgapur via Asansol on 5th May scheduled to be departed from Rajasthan (Ajmer) carrying migrant from WB.
The Bengal government, in its second tweet, said migrants stranded in Kerala would also be brought back - on a special train scheduled to leave on Monday.
GOWB has taken active steps to bring back stranded migrant labourers of Bengal from Kerala by special train which should leave Kerala tomorrow.— Information And Cultural Affairs Department - GOWB (@InformationAn12) May 3, 2020
Letters of two State Governments are attached. pic.twitter.com/pKdpBpanJB
Shortly after the I&CA tweets Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee also tweeted.
"As a part of our promise to bring back citizens of Bengal stranded in other states, 2 special trains from Ajmer and Kerala will leave tomorrow for West Bengal, carrying more than 2,500 migrant labourers, pilgrims, students and patients," she said, adding passengers would be "screened as per protocols".
As a part of our promise to bring back citizens of Bengal stranded in other states, 2 special trains from Ajmer & Kerala would leave tomorrow for West Bengal carrying more than 2500 migrant labourers,pilgrims,students & patients. Everyone coming in to be screened as per protocols— Mamata Banerjee (@MamataOfficial) May 3, 2020
In both its tweets the I&CA department attached letters exchanged between the Bengal government and its counterparts in Rajasthan and Kerala.
As per the letters Kerala Principal Secretary for Inter-State Transit wrote to Bengal Chief Secretary on May 1. "In accordance with guidelines of the Government of India... we request consent from your state government for the repatriation of migrant workers hailing from your state who are now stranded in Kerala".
Bengal's Additional Chief Secretary (Home) wrote back on Sunday, saying the state was "giving consent...to receive one train" and seeking details of passengers and their destinations, so Bengal could arrange for intra-state transportation.
In the case of Rajasthan too the Chief Secretary wrote to Bengal on May 2 and proposed sending 1,200 migrants by train from Ajmer. "You are requested to communicate your consent regarding the same," the letter said.
As with the letter from Kerala, the government replied Sunday, saying it was "conveying consent for receiving one train carrying around 1,200 passengers from Ajmer to West Bengal".
However, the Bengal government's role in bringing back stranded migrants, seen as being reactionary rather than proactive, has been criticised.
"The Bengal government has done nothing to get migrants back. After other states initiated the move, the state government only gave consent," CPM leader MD Salim, who has launched a campaign - "Bring Us Home" - said.
"Even their helplines are not working. They seem to have shared the phone number of Mr PB Salim, a senior secretary monitoring the migrant situation. People are unable to get through him and are confusing me with him," Mr Salim said, claiming they had been "calling me incessantly for the last three days".
The CPM also wants Indian Railways to waive train fare - a point also raised by opposition parties across the country, with Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav and Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren among those raising concerns on this point.
The CPM also wants Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to accept returning migrants and make arrangements to receive them, keeping in mind social distancing and other guidelines.
Meanwhile, senior opposition leaders also questioned Governor Jagdeep Dhankar's tweet referring a conversation with Railways Minister Piyush Goyal. The two tweets by the Bengal government - posted in less than 30 minutes - came 90 minutes after Mr Dhankar's tweet.
The return of migrants may become yet another point of friction between the Bengal Governor and government. However, for the stranded migrants, these two trains are the first step in a long-awaited journey back home.
The Bengal government had earlier created two apps, on which migrants are expected to register themselves - Sneher Parash and Pracheshta. So far, though, it is unclear how many have signed up and, therefore, how many migrant labourers Bengal has.
The CPM claims there are lakhs, spread across Maharashtra, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Gujarat and Rajasthan, waiting to be rescued.