The Railway Ministry's move to get migrant labourers to pay their way home and the states to collect that payment, is becoming the new flashpoint between the government and the opposition. As the countrywide lockdown to combat the coronavirus was extended for another two weeks, the centre started running special trains since Friday to ferry stranded labourers to their home states.
But contrary to the states' demand, it is charging the migrant labourers.
A copy of a railway circular in possession of NDTV reads: "The local government authorities shall handover the tickets to the passengers cleared by them and collect the ticket fare and handover the total amount to the railways."
With the state governments in charge of issuing the tickets and collecting the fees, many states, mostly those ruled by the opposition, are apprehensive of a political fallout. The states ruled by non-BJP parties have been demanding that the centre bears the cost of travel.
In a tweet today, Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav said it was "highly shameful" that the BJP government was charging the vulnerable labourers for the train ride home.
"Migrants travelling back home being asked to pay for the train rides by the BJP government is highly shameful. It has become clear today that the ruling government waives loans for capitalists and businessmen and supports the rich. It works against those who are poor. At the time of crisis, exploitation is done by money-lenders not by the government," his Hindi tweet, roughly translated, says.
Speaking to NDTV earlier, Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren had also made a similar point.
"We should not be asking migrants to pay for the tickets. They are in any case distressed. If the centre does not, then the Jharkhand government will look for ways to make this payment but we will certainly not ask the migrants to pay," he had said.
This is where the states' demand for financial assistance comes in.
A senior functionary in the Chhattisgarh government told NDTV that the centre seems to be passing on financial stress to the states at a time when the collection of the Goods and Services Tax is at an all-time low.
"What else is PM Cares for?" he questioned, pointing to the relief fund created in the name of the Prime Minister.
But so far, the centre has made no such announcement.
Earlier this week, the Central government had relented and allowed the transfer of migrants using buses and trains after 36 days of intense criticism and pushback.
Lakhs of migrant workers and others were left stranded - without jobs, money, food or shelter – far from home after PM Modi announced the lockdown on March 25.
After the movement of labourers was allowed earlier this week, the states had asked that the centre run special trains, pointing out that movement of so many people by bus –as suggested by the home ministry – was impractical.