In a huge row over special trains to take migrants to their home states, the government said today that it had never talked about charging the workers train fare. 85 per cent fare will be borne by railways and the rest by state governments, said a top Health Ministry official.
"We have given the permission to run special trains on states' request. We are dividing the cost in 85-15 per cent (railway: states) as per the norms. We never asked states to charge money from the stranded labourers," Health Ministry Joint Secretary Lav Agarwal told reporters.
He was responding to questions following Congress president Sonia Gandhi's announcement that her party would pay the fare for all migrants and needy workers travelling home by these trains.
Sonia Gandhi said it was "disturbing" that the centre was charging migrants who had been stranded without food, shelter or jobs in their hour of crisis.
"When our Government can recognise its responsibility by arranging free air travel for our citizens stranded abroad, when the government can spend nearly Rs 100 crore on transport and food etc. for just one public programme in Gujarat, when the Rail Ministry has the largesse to donate Rs 151 crore to the PM's corona fund, then why can't these essential members of our nation's fabric be given a fraction of the same courtesy, especially free rail travel, at this hour of acute distress," the Congress chief had said.
Rattled by the comments, the government today asserted that the railways were paying 85 per cent of the fare and it was up to the states to bear the rest of the cost. A government circular on the special trains that started running on Friday, however, was different.
"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," read the circular accessed by NDTV.
Last week, the central government relented and allowed the transfer of migrants using buses and trains after 36 days of intense criticism and pushback.
Thousands of migrant workers and others, stranded after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the lockdown on March 25, had been desperate to go home for weeks.