Hundreds of stranded migrants who boarded special trains to Bihar from Surat in BJP-ruled Gujarat last evening said they had to pay more than the ticket prices despite the central government's assurance that they won't be charged for the journey back home amid lockdown.
Lakhs of migrants work in the textile and diamond-processing units in Surat. One such migrant labourer - Nishant Rajput - who boarded a special train on Monday said: "I am travelling from Surat to Patna. We have paid Rs 725 for the ticket, which costs Rs 710. We are paying Rs 25 extra. When we used to travel earlier, it costed us Rs 650. Now, when we have less money, we are paying more."
Adding to their worries is the lack of basic facilities on these special trains - that were started last week - like food and water.
Some states have made arrangements to provide basics on these trains but most migrants undertake the journey with a hope they would be able to pick up something to eat along the way. It's better than having to walk thousands of kilometres, they say.
"There is no food or water available. Whatever the situation is, we will have to go home... even if it means covering the journey on foot. If we don't have basics, how long can we stay here? There are a lot problems. If we go home at least we won't die of hunger. Here, we may or may not die of coronavirus; we will definitely die of hunger," Nishant shared.
Pleading for help for his fellow migrants, he said: "There are a lot of people who are not getting tickets. They are walking. They don't have any facilities. They don't have money. The government should do something for them. We had some money so we bought tickets for Rs 700. Even if it was Rs 1,000, we would have bought it. Many have covered journey of hundreds of kilometres - women, children," Nishant Rajput added.
"Some don't even have food. They don't want anything. They only want food."
Rakesh Kumar, another migrant labourer, said, "I got the ticket for Rs 725 at the collector's office."
When asked about the government's assurance on free train rides, he said, "No sir. Nothing is being provided for free. I was sent to screening centre in the afternoon. I have been out since 3 pm and in the evening now we are here and we just have this small bottle of water."
"I just asked a Railway staff if we could find some food. He told me, 'I haven't eaten myself... You should have made your own arrangements and come here'. Tell me, is this done? The government says this is free but nothing is free here. I have to survive on this small bottle the entire night," he shared.
On Monday, the government dismissed accusations by the opposition about charging the workers train fare. "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.
The state government concerned can also pay for the tickets, BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra had earlier said.
The government's remarks came hours after Congress chief Sonia Gandhi announced 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.
However, even, in BJP-ruled states like Gujarat, labourers are at the receiving end amid the pandemic.