BJP workers in Gujarat's Surat are playing an active role in collecting bookings and money from stranded migrants for tickets on "shramik (worker)" trains being run by the Railways to transport them to their home states, NDTV has found.
The "shramik" trains, which Railway Minister Piyush Goyal claims have ferried around 10 lakh migrants on around 800 trains, have been caught up in a major political controversy over who foots the bill, with the government coming under fire for making migrants pay for their tickets.
The government and the ruling BJP responded by claiming the Railways paid 85 per cent of ticket prices with the states (origin and destination) paying the remaining 15 per cent, indicating that tickets were free for the migrants left stranded (without jobs or money) by the national lockdown.
However, migrant workers in Surat, waiting to take a "shramik" service to Odisha, told NDTV they paid up to Rs 850 for their ticket. They also said the tickets were priced above normal rates, despite government assurance they wouldn't be charged for the journey home.
Now, BJP workers we met in Surat have admitted to playing an active role in registering migrants on the trains and collecting money for the tickets. Bhavin Topiwala, the secretary of the BJP's youth wing in Surat, showed us a wad of cash and a bunch of tickets.
"These are tickets for people going to Uttar Pradesh. Each ticket costs Rs 590, for the one going to Prayagraj. We got the migrant workers registered and then gave the list to the authorities. We then collected the money (from the workers)," he said.
When asked about the BJP claiming the tickets were free, he shook his head. "The price of the ticket will have to be paid," he insisted, adding that there were many BJP workers, like himself, working to register migrants and collect money for the tickets.
When asked for the party's response, Nitinbhai Thakkar, President of Surat BJP, said: "The BJP has asked people from north India, which includes our party workers, to come forward and help migrants. They are making the lists, collecting money for the tickets and handing to the authorities".
The number of "shramik" trains being organised from Surat - approximately 75 - is barely enough to transport around 15 lakh migrants who work in the city's textile and diamond-processing plants, creating an enormous demand for tickets.
Moreover, there is no publicly available information about the fares fixed for these trains. The Railways has not published a list; only general guidelines on fixing fares have been released.
These guidelines say: "Fare for subject trains shall be as follows: Fare for Sleeper Express Trains + Superfast charge (Rs 30) + additional charge of Rs 20".
This has led to confusion among migrants as to the fare they are meant to pay.
Mr Topiwala shared a consolidated rate list for trains traveling to Uttar Pradesh; he said the list had been displayed outside registration centres run by BJP workers.
"Wherever we have centres, we have put this up. We got these rates from the District Magistrate," he said.
The DM, however, was not available for comment.
The rates shared by the BJP showed that trains to Uttar Pradesh cost between Rs 565 and Rs 665 per ticket. The same price was printed on a ticket to Prayagraj that was reviewed by NDTV.
However, we also met multiple migrant workers in Surat who said they applied for tickets through "booking agents" and paid between Rs 750 and Rs 850 for tickets to Uttar Pradesh.